Honda Civic: Does X mark the spot?
AS we noted very recently on these very pages, anyone in the market for a solid family hatchback has never had it so good, writes William Scholes.
That Einstein-worthy observation was made in the course of running the rule over Vauxhall's rather fine Astra but, as we noted at the time, there is a whole heap of other cars which follow the same template of modest size, low running costs and space for a family and their luggage.
One of the newest to join the race for your cash is Honda's latest Swindon-built Civic.
The Japanese marque counts this new Civic as the 10th generation of a line which stretches back to 1972, and the new car is the outworking of what Honda says is its most expensive and, at seven years, longest development programme ever.
For a company with Honda's distinguished engineering and R&D heritage, that is quite a claim.
The fact that the focus of this Herculean effort is a family hatchback does, however, sit a little uncomfortably with current market trends.
Customers are deserting in their droves so-called conventional bodyshapes like hatchbacks, saloons and estates for newfangled SUVs and crossovers.
From a standing start just a few years ago, these already account for around 30 per cent of new car registrations in Europe - Honda's own CR-V is among the most popular, and it also has the smaller HR-V - and that share is only going to grow.
There was no lengthy engineers' presentation to sit through before I collected the Civic X. I didn't need it, because this is one of those all-too-rare cars that you can tell is going to be good before you've even got into second gear
This leaves cars like the Civic, Astra and Volkswagen Golf locked in battle for an ever-diminishing slice of the market.
In some respects, this sort of approach is classic Honda contrariness and just what you would expect from a company that has tended to do things its own way.
Or perhaps that long seven-year development cycle means that Honda was committed to its clean-sheet design before the crossover market trend became firmly established.
Whatever the explanation for throwing the kitchen sink, and then the rest of the kitchen, at the new car, it looks set to keep the Civic flame burning bright by the time the line's 50th anniversary rolls round in 2022.
That is because this shiny new 10th generation car - let's call it Civic X - is really rather good.
This is a relief, because cars from Japanese brands with much-vaunted development programmes often flatter to deceive.
I have been to product presentations from - other - Japanese car manufacturers at which the very clever engineers responsible for their new model explain at length how it is demonstrably better than its key - and usually German - rivals.
They usually tell you that the dashboard widget, gearbox synchromesh, seat cloth, door seals or whatever was designed by other very clever engineers sitting behind even cleverer computers.
Next, they explain how the detailed blueprints resulting from their labours were given to some other very clever people working in a hermetically-sealed factory. Their job is to manufacturer the widget and fit it to the new car.
This is then wired up to lots of computers and sensors, and transported to a secret test track where it is driven round the clock for a many weeks by a crack team of test drive ninjas.
The crack ninja team feeds data back to the folk with the very large computers, and so the whole process starts again.
Eventually, some considerable time later, the new car is deemed ready to be sold to the public, at which point it is presented to motoring journalists.
By the time they receive the presentation from the very clever engineers, the motoring journalists will have mostly concluded that while the new Japanese car is very impressive and has great widgets and door seals, it really isn't as complete as whatever German car it was benchmarked against...
There was no lengthy engineers' presentation to sit through before I collected the Civic X.
I didn't need it, because this is one of those all-too-rare cars that you can tell is going to be good before you've even got into second gear.
The driving position is low-slung and sporty and, for this driver at least, it feels just right.
Pedal weights are consistent and the steering light, in the modern vein, though accurate with it, but it is the gear change that is the star of the show: short of throw and deliciously mechanical-feeling, it helps to properly connect you with the car.
A snappy gearshift has long been a Honda trademark, but it is the low - very low, by the standards of contemporary family hatches - seating position that sets Civic X apart from previous generations.
The car has also grown in width (by 3cm) and length (15cm) - particularly in the wheelbase - and though it is lower (by 2cm), it feels roomier than Civic VIII and IX, neither of which could have been called cramped.
Rear legroom rivals the larger cars in the class, such as the Skoda Octavia, though the sloping roof line shaves headroom for taller passengers.
Alas, the so-called magic seats of the outgoing car can no longer be conjured to appear in Civic X, meaning that instead of being able to flip up, cinema chair-style, the new car's back pew folds in the conventional manner.
However, the boot has a more than decent volume of 478 litres with the seats up. This is marginally smaller than that found in Civic IX, though still around 100 litres more than you will find in a Golf, Astra or Ford Focus. There won't be an estate version of Civic X.
A large compartment lives under the boot floor, though this isn't as large in the Sport models, thanks to their impressively engineered twin centre exhaust pipes.
The parcel cover is a handy device, retracting into the side of the boot at the window line like a roller blind. It can be unclipped and stored elsewhere, if needs be - a smart solution to the problem of where to put your parcel shelf when it is not being used.
Other noteworthy practical touches include an enormous storage box between the front seats - helped in part by the switch to an electronic parking brake - and very large door bins.
As you would expect of a brand new model, the Civic's on-board technology is high-tech, with digital dashboard instruments and an easy-to-operate touchscreen to control the satnav, radio, Bluetooth phone and so on. The dashboard is more conventionally laid out than in recent Civic models.
Handling is assured but the suspension's damping and control really shone on the idiosyncrasies of Northern Ireland roads
A battery of safety equipment - lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control and so forth - can be specified and gadgets such as wireless charging and smartphone mirroring can be ordered.
Continuing the all-new vibe are two cracking new engines, both turbocharged petrol units.
A 1.0-litre three-cylinder with 127bhp and 148lb.ft has a characterful soundtrack and pulls with tremendous vigour and flexibility. It is a gem of an engine, and I can imagine it being more than adequate for most people's purposes.
Fuel consumption for the 1.0-litre on the EU combined cycle ranges between 55.4mpg and 60.1mpg.
Longer exposure would be needed to assess how realistic those figures are in real world conditions; experience with other small turbo engines suggests that they could be quite aspirational...
The other brand-spanking new engine is a 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo. It's brilliant, feeling way more potent than even the quoted 180bhp and 177lb.ft.
Thus equipped, the Civic fairly flies - not quite hot hatch quick, leaving lots of space for the upcoming Type R to slot into - and strikes a fine balance between pace and a realistic mid- to high-40s mpg fuel economy.
As mentioned earlier, the sweet six-speed manual gearbox is superb, but for those who prefer not to have to shift gears on their, a CVT automatic can be ordered with both engines.
Handling is assured but the suspension's damping and control - and not only on cars equipped with the 'Sport Plus' model's adaptive dampers - really shone on the idiosyncrasies of Northern Ireland roads.
A more sophisticated - and therefore expensive and heavier - suspension design than that used in the last Civic can take much of the credit, but it is clear that the time the chassis engineers spent testing on British roads has also paid off.
Amidst all of this positivity, there is one discordant note: the styling.
Other noteworthy practical touches include an enormous storage box between the front seats - helped in part by the switch to an electronic parking brake - and very large door bins
Distinctive styling is nothing new for the Civic - the eighth generation model, with its Buck Rogers aesthetic, remains a striking looking car - but from some angles Civic X is rather unhappy looking, with fussy detailing and awkward shapes. It may be a grower... but then again, it may not...
Honda has been brave with the new Civic X. By doing something so different to the previous cars, the company must have known it was running the risk of alienating the current customer base, who have an average age of 58 years old.
Civic prices seem relatively high compared to the key rivals, though the monthly payments for finance appear to be a little more competitive.
The new car is a remarkably rounded product - well built, comfortable, spacious, loaded with safety equipment and practical, it ticks all the standard family car boxes.
The fact it is sweet to drive and available with brilliant petrol engines will be the clincher for some; the styling, and the lack - for now - of a diesel engine will rule it out for others.
Civic X doesn't move the game on in any dramatic way, but it does give punters another highly credible place to put their money; family car buyers really have never had it so good.
AT A GLANCE
Continuing the all-new vibe are two cracking new engines, both turbocharged petrol units
Honda Civic 1.5 Sport Plus
Price: £25,405. As tested: £25,930, with pearlescent paint £525
Engine and transmission: 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 180bhp, 177lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 137mph, 0-62mph in 8.3 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 48.7mpg (EU combined), 42.2mpg (real world), 133g/km
Car tax: £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 21 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Not yet tested