Honda Civic: An intelligent riposte to diesel doom-mongery
The latest Honda Civic makes a convincing case for the diesel engine, says William Scholes
SOICHIRO Honda once said that the car company which carried his name would never make a diesel engine, writes William Scholes.
They were too noisy and too smelly, he argued, as well as given to making the sorts of nasty vibrations that the great engineer devoted his life to eradicating from Honda's smooth-as-silk petrol engines.
Stubborn resistance to diesel might have been easier to sustain in the 1970s and early 1980s, but by the time the 1990s were coming into view the landscape had changed. It's changing again, but diesel is still the right engine for many drivers.
By the time of Mr Honda's death in 1991, rival engine-makers, particularly those from France, Italy and Germany, had come up with clever - Honda-esque, dare I say - ways of making diesel engines smoother, less smelly and quieter, while still harnessing their superior economy and torque.
The message to the engineers and product planners was clear; even for Honda, diesel resistance was futile.
Honda dipped its toe into dieseldom with a rebadged Rover 200, sold only in some European markets from the early 1990s with the Concerto nameplate, followed by a diesel version of the fifth generation Accord, which saw service between 1993 and 1998.
The 200 and its Concerto sister used an engine supplied by Peugeot, while the Accord and its Rover 600 sidekick used an engine designed and built by the British company.
Later, from 2002, you could buy a Honda Civic with an Isuzu-based diesel unit under the bonnet.
While perfectly adequate for most car-makers, these efforts were all a little half-hearted for a car-maker with Honda's proud history of engine manufacturing and innovation.
It needed to design and build its own engine. That unit duly arrived in 2003, plumbed under the bonnet of that era's Accord - a design that, 15 years on, still looks fresh.
It was a 2.2-litre engine, with 138bhp and 251lb.ft, and won praise for its refinement, drivability and frugality.
From a standing start, Honda had, if not leaped then at least stepped ahead of the European opposition who had by then spent decades honing their diesels.
The 2.2-litre was later joined and then replaced in the UK by a 1.6-litre unit.
This has become highly sought after, particularly when paired with the last-generation Civic; thus equipped, Honda's family car can achieve an easy 60mpg.
All of which brings us neatly to the car on these pages today, the new diesel version of the latest, tenth generation, Civic.
The steering is sharp and direct, and the Civic corners with gusto, with a pleasing lack of roll; even so, it rides with acceptable comfort
When it arrived last year, the latest Civic was petrol-only. As well as the fire-breathing Type R with its 316bhp 2.0-litre, is a hugely impressive 1.0-litre three-cylinder with 127bhp and a 1.5-litre four-cylinder with a healthy 180bhp.
Despite the manifest qualities of the petrols, there was still a gaping diesel-shaped hole in the Civic line-up.
That has now been plugged with the arrival of the 1.6-litre diesel, which Honda labels i-DTEC.
Essentially a heavily overhauled version of the engine so beloved from the last Civic, it sports the same 118bhp and 221lb.ft outputs, but this time with superior fuel consumption - a combined figure of 80.7mpg - and CO2 emissions, which are now rated at 93g/km.
For on-paper comparison, this means it bests a Volkswagen Golf 1.6 TDI, matches a Mazda 3 1.5 diesel and is trumped by a Peugeot 308 1.6 BlueHDi. The Civic 1.0-litre scores 55.4mpg and 117g/km.
Cars, of course, aren't only about cold figures. The Honda's case is bolstered by the fact that few cars, much less family wagons, convey a sense of solid engineering with the same fluency.
There is a classy consistency to the pedals and steering, for example, and a simply outstanding gear change.
This current Civic carries its practicality much more lightly than its predecessors, which could do a convincing impersonation of a small van thanks to tricks like its so-called magic back seats which could tumble and fold in a variety of space-maximising ways.
Locating the fuel tank under the front seats made the magic seats possible. For the new car, the tank is back in the traditional spot under the back pew, making magic seats a thing of the past.
However, the Civic still has an ample boot and while perhaps not feeling as spacious in the back as the previous car, it is still roomy enough for most family duties. The car's lower roofline does mean that taller folk may not be as comfortable in the rear.
Arguably the biggest gain made from shifting the fuel tank is up front, where the driver can ratchet their seat low - really low - to the floor.
This helps give the Civic a tremendous driving position which, in combination with the aforementioned quality steering, pedals and gearshift, makes the Honda feel a cut above most of its opposition.
The steering is sharp and direct, and the Civic corners with gusto, with a pleasing lack of roll; even so, it rides with acceptable comfort.
On start up and on the move, the diesel is a little noisier than the near-silent petrol. This is still a mightily impressive diesel installation, however, and the wedge of extra torque over the 1.0-litre petrol turbo - a healthy 73lb.ft - more than compensates.
The diesel comes with a choice of SE, SR and EX trim, priced from £20,220, £22,065 and £24,925 respectively. This makes it around £1,300 more expensive than the 1.0-litre petrol models.
Standard equipment is strong, with all cars getting a DAB radio, USB connectivity, automatic climate control, alloy wheels and a raft of safety kit.
Cars, of course, aren't only about cold figures. The Honda's case is bolstered by the fact that few cars, much less family wagons, convey a sense of solid engineering with the same fluency
SR cars gain a larger, seven-inch touchscreen with smartphone integration, satnav, dual zone climate control and a rear parking camera. EX models add an opening glass sunroof and leather trim.
The 1.0-litre petrol is a fine car, and still the Civic to go for if high annual mileages are not part of your motoring mix.
Throw long distances into the mix, and the diesel's fuel economy and driveability make it worth the £1,300 price premium.
It is the sort of modern diesel that helps emphasise how wrong-headed much of the ill-informed opposition to the fuel has become.
The only potential fly in the ointment is the current Civic's styling which is, to say the least, divisive - even by the standards of its wedgily distinctive predecessors.
It certainly isn't bland... I admire its boldness and the company's willingness to do something different in a sector dominated by same-again hatches, but I can understand that it may not be for everyone.
That sort of singular thinking is, of course, typically Honda.
Mr Honda would surely approve; and, I think, he would also appreciate what his company has done with diesel engines.
AT A GLANCE
The Civic is the sort of modern diesel that helps emphasise how wrong-headed much of the ill-informed opposition to the fuel has become
Honda Civic SR 1.6 i-DTEC
Price: £22,090. As tested £22,615, with metallic paint at £525
Engine and transmission: 1.6-litre four-cylinder diesel turbo, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 118bhp, 221lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 125mph, 0-62mph in 10.1 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 80.7mpg (EU combined), 93g/km
Car tax: £145 in first year, then £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 23 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (92/75/75/88), 2017