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There was barely a sliver of rice paper between the Honda Civic and Volkswagen Golf when they matched up on technology and price in 1976. Both companies - Europe's accelerating small-car maker and its nemesis from Japan - followed similar marketing routes using similar engineering grids.
But while Volkswagen created a family to sweep global markets, Honda remained a spinster. Without a family to call on for help, price cutting overtook engineering cleverness and Honda trod water. The accountants held back funds destined for development, the shareholders put their hands out, the product became bland and sales slipped.
Now, with the latest Civic, huge factories in England and a refreshed view of the world, Honda is coming back. It will never again match the giant 11-division company that is now Volkswagen but it can do what it once did best - family cars that are built well, fun to drive, cost-efficient to own and affordable. But a diesel?
It's all true. The Civic is a great little car and one that small-car shoppers should not overlook. It is one of the neatest, most driveable hatchbacks on the market that isn't corroded by customer grumbles, major recalls and a global wave of repetitive mechanical problems.
It also spawned a diesel version and commendable though it is, Australians probably need a diesel Civic with a manual gearbox as much as we need a Jazz Hybrid. But no denying it's a competent hatch and though it has fierce opposition, enters the market from England with a decent set of equipment, pretty shape, high safety specs and a sense of fun too often missing in diesel cars.
A recent Roy Morgan report that found Honda owners were the happiest with dealer service even though there's no capped-price service program. Resale value is very strong.
Unmistakably a Honda, from its short shovel nose to its tall, abrupt tail. It looks good and more expensive than the ticket price which is always a bonus when snubbing the neighbours. The attractive exterior extends inside. Double-storey instrument display looks odd but works well. Some switchgear could be better placed but the quality - including soft-touch plastic dash top - is apparent. Left-hand indicator will trick some Honda players, as will the space-saver spare set in a well suitable for a full-size wheel.
Like the car, the 88kW/300Nm 1.6-litre engine comes from England and is shared with the CR-V. It's a derivative of the European-spec 2.2-litre diesel but with lightweight technology. To save fuel it gets stop-start with a dash read-out reporting on your driving style. Honda claims 4.0 L/100km and I got 4.6 L/100km. There's only a manual gearbox in Australia and the UK, though the English 2.2 is an automatic.
Noise-cancelling technology banishes all the nasty sounds - predominantly from the engine - from the cabin using a system shared with the Legend. It's very clever because it works even when the audio is switched off. If it's too hard to figure out, just pretend it's magic. Speaking of magic, the Civic gets the same "magic seat" flexibility of the Jazz so opens up room for lots of cargo, from a generous 400 litres (seats up) to 1130 litres.
As expected from Honda, it's a five-star car with all the electronic chassis and brake aids. There's also six airbags, emergency brake display, rear camera, hill holder, LED tail lights and daytime running lights, auto wipers and headlights, a tyre pressure sensor, fog-lights and heated mirrors. The spare is a space saver.
Put on your diesel-driving hat and slip into the leisurely style adopted by Peugeot, Citroen and Volvo owners and the Civic diesel makes sense. The engine is quiet (thanks to noise cancelling) and frugal. It is relatively brisk off the mark though its strength is in the 2000-3000rpm band.
The gearbox is a short-shifter with positive changes and its lightness - and that of the clutch - endear it even to the rigours of city traffic. But I was expecting more mid-range oomph. Handling is very good and Honda shows mastery of good electric-assist steering feel where some Koreans fail. Ride comfort is also very good despite low-profile 17-inch rubber.
The best thing about this hatch is its simplicity and ease of driving. Yes, would sell in bucketloads if it was an automatic but I fear performance would be rather sluggish. So it's for a select few who enjoy a diesel, don't mind the feel of a good manual and cover a lot of kilometres each year.
For high-kilometre motorists seeking a long time between fuel stops, who thrill at the feel of a delightful gear shift controlling a six-cog box and smile at the mid-range push of a turbo-diesel, this may be the answer.
|DTi-S||1.6L, Diesel, 6 SP MAN||$8,800 – 13,200||2013 Honda Civic 2013 DTi-S Pricing and Specs|
|VTi-L||1.8L, PULP, 5 SP AUTO||$7,900 – 12,210||2013 Honda Civic 2013 VTi-L Pricing and Specs|
|VTi-LN||1.8L, PULP, 5 SP AUTO||$9,000 – 13,530||2013 Honda Civic 2013 VTi-LN Pricing and Specs|
|VTi-S||1.8L, PULP, 6 SP MAN||$7,300 – 11,330||2013 Honda Civic 2013 VTi-S Pricing and Specs|