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Time to vote conservative. Image by James Jenkins.

Time to vote conservative
Step forward the new Honda Civic, the model charged with adding mass market appeal and cool to the dynamic promises made by the Type R's legacy.

   



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The Honda Civic has always been seen as a sensible car, a low risk conservative choice for the more mature buyer. That was until the Type R name was printed on the rear hatch and at a stroke the Civic's image became altogether more fun and appealing to the youth market. To continue this run of form Honda had to do something special with the new-generation Civic. Basing success on a one-off range-topping Type R is not going to maximise the potential commercial success in the lucrative European market.

Step forward the new Honda Civic, the model charged with adding mass market appeal and cool to the dynamic promises made by the Type R's legacy. The new Civic's exterior styling raised eyebrows and smirks at the concept car stage; the cynics were confident that conservative Honda would never make the doyen of the blue rinse brigade so radical and different to rival's offerings. But Honda did and the world's roads are a much better place for it.

The Mazda RX-8 took a similar approach to its styling with a repetition of its rotor shape dotted all over the car. In the new Honda Civic's case the shape of choice is the triangle. Everywhere you look from lights, through door handles to the uniquely shaped exhaust outlets, it's all triangles and none the worse for it.

The front of the new Civic is dominated by what Honda calls the "face" with the swathe of clear glass and plastic giving it a truly individual look. In profile the integration of the rear door handles into the C-pillar gives a coupe-like appearance accentuated by the sweeping lines. A three-door Civic was launched at the London Motor Show, but this model does a good impression. The rear of both cars features a sculpted glass house that, thanks to its shape, does away with a rear wiper, the screen being cleared by air motion alone.

A central spoiler does intrude upon the rear view though, and the glass distorts it as well so there is a price to pay for such forward-looking styling. Whilst at the rear, it's worth mentioning those exhaust outlets again; they're both functional and look very different to almost everything on the road. All in all it's a major departure for Honda to be so bold with what is its volume model, but we think that the risk pays handsomely. Existing owners who are alienated will be far outnumbered by newcomers to the marque.

Other benefits of the new design are seen inside. Honda's penchant for symmetry is evident in the dash design with dials, knobs and switchgear mirrored either side of the centreline of the somewhat over-styled steering wheel. The dash itself is a multi-contoured affair of several layers that can be a little daunting on first acquaintance. However, initial confusion is replaced by an appreciation of functionality in a short space of time.

A digital speedo is high at the rear of the dash just below the driver's normal eye-line, which makes it not far off a heads-up display in reality. The rev counter takes pride of place in the centre of the console, backlit in a nice deep blue, and itself features a small information screen in its middle that appears to hover on a halo of blue light. This screen displays the usual array of trip computer information but adds a very worthwhile addition that is a graphic showing which of the rear seat belts are in use allowing the driver to check that people are safely secured in the rear without having to turn around to look.

The cabin features dual zone air conditioning controlled via the dash and uniquely, the passenger's armrest. Also present are the usual CD/MP3 player, electric everything and in the version we tested, a twin-pane electric sunroof with electric blinds. The latter allows light to flood the cabin, lifting what could be otherwise a dark place due to the sober dash and upholstery colours. The Civic accommodates four adults with ease, with plenty of head, leg and shoulder room. A selection of storage spaces are dotted around the cabin, most usefully in the centre console where the pocket features a retractable cup holder and removable ash tray, allowing the one space to fulfil a number of functions.

This theme carries on elsewhere, something owed to the clever little Honda Jazz. The rear seats are designed not only to stow flat to the horizontal at the pull of a lever but also vertically with the support bracket below folding flat, allowing the carrying of a bike upright in the rear of the car. Impressive. This system also allows a generous amount of storage beneath the rear seats themselves thanks in part to the more forward location of the fuel tank. The boot is large and deep, and if that isn't enough there is a concealed section below the normal floor level for securing valuables or separating cargo as needs be.

The depth of the boot comes at the price of the compromise in rear suspension set-up. As the competition moves towards complex multi-link systems the new Honda Civic has reverted to a torsion beam set-up. This arguably retrograde step makes itself felt in terms of ride and handling; most serious rivals now out ride and out hustle the new Civic. That's not to say that it doesn't ride and handle competently, as it does. It is a reflection of the capability of cars in this class though that a trade off like this is comprehensively punished by the Ford Focus and VW Golf.

As you'd expect, the Civic drives well, with the usual light and tactile control surfaces making it comfortable and straightforward to drive. The gearshift for the six-speed manual box is what we've come to expect in a Honda. Unfortunately those looking for the V-TEC fizz and sparkle will be somewhat underwhelmed. The new-generation i-VTEC does offer a much smoother and broader range of torque from the 1.8-litre engine, and also yields 138bhp, but the frenzied rev-hungry nature of the old V-TECs has all but gone. Perhaps Honda will offer that thrill with the forthcoming Type R version. The new engine drives well enough but it is too loud, emitting something of a drone. Where the old unit used to wail at high revs, the new one is characterless.

Performance is respectable though; the Civic is actually deceptively quick, chalking up the 60mph benchmark in around 8.5 seconds and reaching a maximum of 127mph. It just never feels involving or exciting and, almost uniquely in my experience of Honda engines, lacks finesse and smoothness when worked. Where the continuously variable valve timing pays dividends is in optimising to conditions at all times.

That allows the car to complement the impressive on-paper performance with very good fuel economy. We averaged nearly 40mpg over 500 miles that involved a good deal of fast motorways, back roads and commuting giving a real world range of about 350 miles. That's an impressive result that reflects the change in focus away from rev-hungry power to more of an all-rounder.

I must admit that I found the Civic awkward to drive smoothly at times with a large flywheel effect holding revs up between changes and some jerkiness in the power delivery, perhaps as the i-VTEC system swings the timing to what it considers to be the optimum for the given condition. In a nutshell then, it will be no surprise to read that we feel the 2.2-litre common-rail diesel is the preferred option, offering better economy and a considerable amount of extra real world performance.

Overall, the new Honda Civic is a very welcome addition to the class, offering intelligent packaging and a bold new style as the main weapons with which to carry the fight to the class leading European competition. It loses out on ride comfort and, in this guise, engine refinement (a first for a Honda), but these short comings are not enough to mar what is an impressive all-round package.

Dave Jenkins - 21 Jul 2006



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2006 Honda Civic specifications: (5-door manual 1.8 i-VTEC ES)
Price: 15.650 on-the-road.
0-62mph: 8.9 seconds
Top speed: 127mph
Combined economy: 44.1mpg
Emissions: 152g/km
Kerb weight: 1288kg

2006 Honda Civic. Image by Phil Ahern.2006 Honda Civic. Image by Phil Ahern.2006 Honda Civic. Image by Phil Ahern.2006 Honda Civic. Image by Phil Ahern.2006 Honda Civic. Image by Phil Ahern.

2006 Honda Civic. Image by Phil Ahern.2006 Honda Civic. Image by Phil Ahern.2006 Honda Civic. Image by Phil Ahern.2006 Honda Civic. Image by Phil Ahern.2006 Honda Civic. Image by Phil Ahern.



2006 Honda Civic. Image by James Jenkins.
 

2006 Honda Civic. Image by James Jenkins.
 

2006 Honda Civic. Image by James Jenkins.
 

2006 Honda Civic. Image by James Jenkins.
 

2006 Honda Civic. Image by James Jenkins.
 

2006 Honda Civic. Image by James Jenkins.
 

2006 Honda Civic. Image by James Jenkins.
 






 

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