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Honda Civic 5-Door 2.2 i-DTEC Exclusive: Raising the bar

By Deon Schoeman 31 May 2012

Honda’s reputation for quality, technology and innovation means the arrival of a new model is always accompanied by high expectations. The all-new Civic five-door hatchback has to face up to some stiff C-segment competition. DEON SCHOEMAN puts the question: Is the new Civic up to the challenge?

The C-segment hatchback class is a tough nut to crack for any brand, mainly because it’s already occupied by some serious players: think Volkswagen Golf, Toyota Auris, Renault’s Mégane and Hyundai’s latest i30, among others. With that level of rivalry, it follows that the new Honda Civic five-door hatchback needs to be something special to succeed.

Honda’s approach has been to create cars that exude a sense of individuality and innovation, linked to a well-nurtured reputation for quality and longevity. It’s also true that Honda’s stand out from the automotive crowd. In a segment where the quest for efficient economies of scale often leads to generic design, Honda’s individuality is a welcome respite from the ordinary.

I have to admit that the first images of the new Civic hatch, which made its debut at the Geneva motor show earlier this year, didn’t inspire much confidence. To me it looked too much like the old car. But in the metal, it’s edgier and more attractive than I expected – although some of the details are a little fussy.

The latest Civic hatch has carried over enough of the previous model’s design essence to be instantly recognisable. However, it’s a completely new car, with a lower, sleeker and sportier stance than its predecessor.

Rather than just creating a visually distinctive shape, the design embraces aerodynamic efficiency as a central theme, which in turn promises a positive impact on performance and fuel consumption. It certainly looks the wind-cheating part.

From the front, the key traits include the steeply raked windscreen, the narrow headlight apertures and the deep front spoiler. Dark finishes for the grille, the grille surround and the lower air intake add an element of aggression that turns heads.

In profile, the flowing roofline is further proof of the Civic’s aerodynamic intentions, while the blacked-out B-pillar creates the illusion of a single expanse of side glass. The rear door’s latch is concealed in the window frame, which adds to the Civic’s coupé-like presence.

While 17-inch alloys are standard, the Civic looks much more attractive when fitted with the optional 18-inch wheels. The latter fill the accentuated wheel arches to the brim adding further sporty appeal.

The rear view presents a somewhat more controversial picture. A massive tail light cluster stretches across the entire width of the car, and protrudes significantly on either side. It’s certainly a distinctive feature, but one that draws mixed comments.

Honda says the protrusions cut off lateral airflow and reduce turbulence, which should benefit stability and reduce noise. Indeed, the entire tail light assembly acts as a rear wing to manage airflow and enhance overall aerodynamics.

A case of form following function, then, but some will find the result too garish and too fussy, considering the clean and incisive shape of the car. That’s especially true of the funny little stick-on spoilers on the rear fenders, which look like an afterthought.

The cabin of the new Civic represents a big step forward. Not that the previous interior was poor, but the latest version ups the standards even further. Tactile quality is high and the execution is both upmarket and innovative.

In the front, sculpted bucket seats trimmed in leather provide inviting and supportive seating, with ample adjustment scope to ensure comfort for most shapes and sizes. The two-tiered instrument layout combines an upper digital display with a lower row of conventional, deep-set analogue gauges. It’s an arrangement you’ll either love or hate, but that does provide a clear and uncluttered overview of key operating parameters.

I found I had to set the thick-rimmed steering wheel lower than usual to ensure a clear view of both displays, and that the seating position was higher than I would have preferred, but even so, overall ergonomics are efficient enough.

In top-end Exclusive execution, as tested here, the standard equipment levels are comprehensive, with electric seat adjustment perhaps the only unexpected omission. But you do get remote central locking, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity for phone and music, a multifunction steering wheel, an excellent iPod-compatible sound system, park distance control with a rear camera, auto Xenon headlights – and more.

The safety kit includes six airbags, ABS brakes, VSA stability control, active headrests and IsoFix child seat tethers. Rear accommodation is ample for a car in this class, but taller folk may still find that the sloping roofline leaves headroom at a premium. The boot capacity is an impressive 477-litres, but that’s due in part to the fact that the spare wheel is only a space-saver.

The flagship of the new Civic hatch range gets Honda’s 2,2-litre i-DTEC turbodiesel engine – and with good reason. It’s one of the smoothest and most-refined diesel power plants in the business. Maximum power comes to 110kW, linked to a torque peak of 350Nm. It’s so smooth it’s easy to forget it’s a diesel unit.

The four-potter can sound a little clunky on start-up, but operation soon becomes completely unobtrusive, without any of the gruffness often associated with diesel engines. There’s no sign of lag and the power delivery is linear and progressive all the way to the red line.

A six-speed manual gearbox is the only transmission offered, and features a well-chosen set of ratios that match the engine’s characteristics to a tee. The gear shift action is almost too light, but still user-friendly and adds to the Civic’s dynamic personality.

Not that the diesel Civic is meant to be a performance hatch, but it’s no slouch, either. Throttle response is crisp and the chassis finds just the right combination of taut control and comfort. This is a car that always feels balanced, even when pressing on.

The factory performance figures claim a zero-to-100km/h sprint time of 8.7sec, and a top speed of 216km/h. That’s certainly rapid enough for most. But rather than outright performance appeal, the real magic of this Civic’s dynamics is the sense of composure it exudes.

This is a car that is always satisfying to drive. Whether you’re trundling along at a snail’s pace in urban traffic, enjoying a freeway commute at the legal limit, or exploring the curves and corners of a country road, the Civic remains eager and responsive.

There’s ample urge and comfort levels are high, while refinement is impressive for a C-segment hatchback. Driven with intent, the steering wheel feels too light and lacks some feedback, but it’s still an entertaining car to thread through the twisties.

Honda claims impressive fuel consumption figures for the diesel Civic, but we found them difficult to replicate in real-world driving conditions. Thus, our test figure of 7.6-litres/100km in mixed conditions, admittedly including some enthusiastic piloting, is a lot higher than Honda’s combined-cycle figure of 4.7-litres/100km.

Competence, confidence and quality are the keywords at the core of Honda’s new Civic hatchback – and of the 2.2 i-DTEC version in particular. It’s a car that ticks all the important boxes and pleases at every turn.

The two-tiered instrument layout, and some of the exterior details, may be an acquired taste, but in overall terms, the Honda achieves a high score on the feel-good scale. DM

VITAL STATISTICS: Honda Civic 2.2 i-DTEC 5-Door Exclusive

  • Engine: In-line four-cylinder, 2,199cc, turbodiesel
  • Gearbox: Six-speed manual
  • Power: 110kW @ 4,000rpm
  • Torque: 350Nm @ 2,000rpm
  • 0-100 km/h: 8.7sec
  • Top speed: 216km/h
  • Fuel consumption: 7.3 l/100 km (tested)
  • CO2 emissions: 124g/km
  • Retail price: R343,800

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