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THERE'S something about small Hondas that exudes enthusiasm. Despite the rafts of Japanese cars now confirming that the building of calmly efficient four-cylinder engines is the norm rather than the exception these days (fours were traditionally famous for vibrations, whirrs, hums and generally unlovely operation compared to the silkier sixes), small Honda engines combine grace under pressure with an eagerness that gives them real fizz. The cars are also nice-looking, well finished, fun to drive and strongly built, though some safety features are more optional than they might be. Although Honda is as mainstream as any big-time transnational has to be, its earlier biking dominance and then Formula One motor-racing success means the chequered fla g stilldangles somewhere in the peripheral vision of the engineers. You can rev some of these engines until you expect bits to fly out of the bonnet and the note just goes on imperturbably rising.

The Honda Civic is the best-known and most widely used version of the marque. Civics have impressed themselves on the public so convincingly over the years that the current generation represents the fifth upgrade in the series. But the latest version doesn't just represent a face-lift or a performance tweak but a leg-up for the Civic from one sales bracket to another. Longer, wider and higher than before, the Civic saloons and hatchbacks have shifted from the small-car sector to the foothills of the medium-car - an area occupied by such powerful competitors as Golfs, Astras and Escorts. And since those three machines, at least in their more modest incarnations, aren't especially notable for eager performance whatever their other considerable virtues, Honda's track record suggests serious rivalry. Driving the Civic backs that up.

The Civic 4-door ESi uses the celebrated Honda VTEC engine, a crafty piece of electrical and mechanical juggling that varies the valve-timing, according to what the motor is being required to do. The result is a composed power unit that's economical and difficult to tire, whatever the load, incline or acceleration demands. This fine engine is complemented by an excellent ride, very stable and forgiving handling, a clean, precise gear-change and very responsive brakes. The dials are big and clear, the cabin attractive and airy, and only the low-slung sporty sill-line occasionally catches you out when the doors snag on even modestly raised kerbs.

That gives away Honda's marketing plan with the new Civic - young punters without backache, and probably without children. The front seat space is generous, the rear less so. A fine car, but Honda should have put anti-lock brakes and airbags into more models on the range than they have - particularly if they're serious about that enthusiastic young-driver image.

GOING PLACES: Brilliant 1.6 VTEC engine, giving 0-60mph in approximately 9 seconds, 50-70mph overtaking burst in 13 seconds. Very smooth acceleration and freedom from vibration or strain at high revs. Excellent sporty gearshift permitting quick, precise operation. Very relaxing to drive.

STAYING ALIVE: Very good visibility, stable handling and precise, well-weighted steering on demanding roads. Excellent brakes, rugged body design including advanced door stiffening components using variable-diameter tubes instead of beams. Anti-lock brakes standard on VTi model, driver's side airbag standard on VEi.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Quite spacious, considering the low-slung, coupe-like design - particularly roomy for the front occupants, not so generous in the back. Well designed, curvaceous facia trim, practical panel and instrument design. Very good visibility, large glass areas imparting airy cabin feel. Noise levels low. Efficient push-button ventilation, tilt-adjustable steering, power steering standard.

BANGS PER BUCK: Quite good spec for the price, including electric windows, sunroof, central locking and stereo. Interior boot release and fuel flap. Fuel economy excellent for the performance levels, around 35 mpg for overall average use - made possible by efficient engine design. Price: £13,500.

STAR QUALITY: Terrific performance for price and market sector. Relaxing driving. Nice cabin environment.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Short of space at the back, low-slung seating designed for entry and exit by the young-in-limbs. State-of-the-art engineering not mat-ched by state-of-the-art safety options (airbags and anti-lock brakes).

AND ON MY RIGHT: VW Golf 1.8 GL (£12,699): more spacious, more conservative, more ponderous - but well finished and very reassuring on the road; Ford Escort 1.6 16V (£11,785): much improved on former incarnations, brisk but noisy, not in the same class for finesse; Rover 216 16V (£13,370): the Honda influence here, too, but with good British engine. Nippy, refined, but not so eager.