Honda didn’t have a diesel engine of their
own until they launched the 2.2 in 2003. However, it’s relatively large capacity can
prove something of a handicap in the search for lower emissions and greater fuel economy.
So this year, Honda built another diesel engine, the 1.6 i-DTEC, and we’re testing it for the
first time in this, the Honda Civic. Despite the new engine, the rest of the Civic
package remains largely unchanged. The ninth generation Civic launched in late
2011 with, in Honda’s words, “stand out looks.” We’ll leave subjective judgements on the styling
to you and your personal preference, but the biggest changes came at the front with a large
inset section to the bumper and powerful LED daytime running lights. While at the rear,
the light clusters and spoiler are more prominent, and Honda relented and gave us a rear wiper
that was sorely needed on the old car. The wheel-arches have a noticeable bulge to
them, and the plastic arch extensions remain. A pair of tiny spoilers have been added to
the Civic’s flanks to help smooth out airflow, while the ‘hidden’ handle for the rear door
continues to fool the eye into thinking the Civic is a three-door hatchback, not a five.
The larger rear lights are now a functional aerodynamic device, and the spoiler that stretches
across the rear window also houses a high-level stop light.
Inside, the dual-level dash layout remains, although it’s been tweaked somewhat and uses
higher quality materials. There’s an appealing chunky steering wheel to hold, and the seats
offer an excellent range of adjustment and plenty of headroom in the front.
The cabin is designed to wrap around the driver, and the controls, which are all intelligently
placed, operate with a satisfying well-oiled quality.
The instruments can look a little ‘Star Trek’ on first acquaintance, but they remain clear
and well positioned. There’s a useful array of cubby holes dotted
about the cabin, including a large compartment under the central armrest that also provides
USB connectivity and charging points for your phone or iPod.
The rear seats are particularly clever. In fact, Honda call them Magic Seats. Fold the
rear seat backs forward, and the seat base dives down to create a completely flat load
floor. Alternatively, the seat bases can be folded up to allow tall loads to be carried
in the cabin. In the boot, there’s 401 litres of space with
the seats in place, rising to 1,378 litres with the seats folded and loaded to the roof.
There’s also a further 76 litres available in a handy under-floor storage compartment.
There are practical touches everywhere: clips to hold the rear belts out of the way when
folding the seats, a hook on the bottom of the parcel shelf to hold the under-floor compartment
open, and a special cubby hole in the boot wall to hold the now ubiquitous air compressor
and can of tyre gunk. Now, let’s talk about that engine. The new
1.6-litre diesel is 47kg lighter than the 2.2, and produces a respectable 120PS with
peak torque of 300Nm – that’s only 50Nm less than the 2.2.
It’s official figures show 94 g/km and 78.5mpg, while our tests showed a 60mpg average perfectly
achievable. Although Honda say the Civic is equipped with
an Active Noise Cancellation system to help reduce drive-train noises, we found a touch
too much diesel clatter enters the cabin, particularly at idle.
On the move, however, things settle down, leaving just a slightly gruff thrum to remind
you which fuel you’re burning. Other noises are well filtered, with tyre
noise kept in check and a notable absence of wind noise. And, on the subject of noises,
our test car had clocked up nearly 15,000 miles but didn’t emit a single rattle.
There’s a modest amount of turbo lag at the deepest recesses of the rev range, but that’s
soon replaced by a healthy wodge of torque that drives you forward with surprising rapidity.
There’s only a gradual drop-off in power as you venture closer to the redline – certainly
nothing like the torque cliff that some diesel engines suffer from – and in practice it serves
as a natural reminder to change gear. And, with a new six-speed manual gearbox to
play with, that’s something that’s particularly enjoyable. It’s 7kg lighter than the ‘box
used for the 2.2-litre car, and Honda have endowed it with a short throw and beautifully
fluid shift action that makes stirring your way through the ratios an enjoyable experience.
Overtaking slower-moving traffic is easy, and the new engine’s torque reserves mean
a simple flex of your right ankle is usually enough to dispense with most obstacles.
The suspension has been re-tuned to compensate for the new engine’s lighter weight, and soaks
up bumps and even small pot-holes without transmitting too much of a disturbance into
the cabin. Although equipped with a feeling of stability
at speed, the body can suffer from the occasional bout of lateral pitching over undulations,
and encountering prolific over-banding use by local authorities mid-corner can cause
the Civic to alter its line briefly. However, the Civic resists initial body roll
well and, on a country road, corners with surprisingly alacrity.
Add in the well balanced electric power steering, and the new diesel Civic becomes a willing
companion on any journey. With the Civic range starting at £16,995,
some may suggest that the 1.6 i-DTEC’s £19,575 is a premium too far. We’d counter that by
pointing out that even the base SE grade is well equipped, with alloy wheels, remote locking,
all-round electric windows, and climate control as standard.
Honda is famous for its VTEC-equipped petrol engines, and there are two – a 1.4 and a 1.8
– still available in the Civic range. What’s remarkable is that we’d discount both of those,
and would instead steer potential Civic buyers to either of the i-DTEC diesel units.
Given that the 1.6 loses little to its big brother but gains plenty, it’s our pick of
the range. And that’s no mean feat for a company that,
until recently, didn’t ‘do’ diesel.