Motoring: Turning Japanese ...

Road test Honda Civic Aero deck, by James May
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Indy Lifestyle Online
At a time when Honda is appearing a little over-conservative, here's a new version of the Civic that doesn't seem wholly Honda. For a start, it smells like a Volvo, which may be a plot, as the Civic Aero deck is intended as a small-scale expression of a niche defined by Volvo with the 850 wagon and by BMW with the 3- and 5-series Tourings - the oxymoronic sports estate.

Honda is quick to assert that the Aero deck's 415-litre load bay (835 litres with the rear seats folded) is "not big" for an estate, but then this is not intended as a load lugger.

It is, rather, a normal luggage capacity reshaped to accommodate skis, snow boards, wind surfers and other paraphernalia of that young and active lifestyle into which the Aero deck is intended to slot. This Civic makes concessions to fashion, not function, so if you want to hump furniture, buy an Astra estate. You wouldn't want to do this in the Civic, if only because the boot trim is far too nice. Bit radical, huh?

There were three injected engines available at the bad joke-generating 1 April launch; a 1.5, a 1.6 and a 1.8 with VTEC variable valve timing. Prices range from pounds 14,775 to pounds 17,295 for the range-topping 1.8VTi version available at the launch.

As with all Honda four-pots, this engine is something of a jewel, rushing to 8,000rpm with thinly disguised delirium and propelling the Honda to 60mph in well under nine seconds.

In truth, you rarely need those last 2,000rpm, and, if you ignore the instruments and rely on visceral feedback, you will probably find yourself changing up at around 6,000rpm. The last bit is pure indulgence, but it's a real hoot whipping the engine into a frenzy on a winding back road. A legacy of Honda's motorcycle heritage, perhaps?

My only beef with the motor is the appearance of a little roughness in the lower reaches. That's not very Honda either. They'll be removing the ceremonial sword from its display case at this rate.

One spin-off from the broad rev range is shortish gear ratios, which gives the Aero deck a slightly frenetic character. It is also, to be frank, not the world's quietest car either. All this conspires to endow the Honda with something of a hairy-arsed nature. Going back to what I said about Honda at the beginning, this is not a criticism.

Anyone weaned on the previous generation Civics will be amazed at the meatiness of the new car's controls, and they are at their most appreciable in this fine handler. The steering is heavy in the car-park, but once at speed it connives with precise Italianate gearshift and pedals that actually feel connected to something for what the marketing department might term the ultimate in tactile motoring pleasures.

Grip is adequate rather than exceptional, and under power the driven front wheels can get flighty over damp patches, but on a switchback B- road you will never suffer the traditional estate shortcoming of appearing to be at the controls of an ever more pendulous, er, pendulum.

Inevitably, Honda is claiming a whole new market for this car, but then who isn't these days? Nevertheless, there may be something in it. It's quite stylish, fun to drive and reasonably practical to a point just short of the one that tars the owner with an association with self-assembly furniture. Maybe not state of the art, but quite an artful estate, certainly.

HONDA CIVIC AERO DECK 1.8VTI

Price: pounds 17,295

Engine: 1,797cc; transverse in-line four; four valves per cylinder; 169bhp.

Transmission: 5-speed manual.

Performance: Top speed 133mph, 0-62mph 8.8secs, mpg 32.1.

Rivals

Alfa Romeo 145 2.0 Cloverleaf, pounds 16,245. Corking engine and fabulous handling, but not as solidly built as the Honda.

Fiat Bravo 2.0HGT, pounds 15,610. Not very roomy, but deceptively quick and something of a performance bargain.

VW Golf 2.0 GL Estate, pounds 16.065. Surprisingly practical but beginning to feel and look very dated. Not an exciting drive.

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