NICE TRY, BUT CAN'T YOU JAZZ IT UP A BIT?

THE INDEPENDENT ROAD TEST: HONDA CIVIC 1.6LS

The restrained, play-safe looks of the new five-door Civic belie the significance of Honda's latest model. This is the unassuming British- made car that will spearhead Honda's burgeoning attack on European markets.

Honda is dismissive of the five-door's main rivals, cited as the Ford Escort, Citron ZX, Peugeot 306, Vauxhall Astra and VW Golf. The new Civic will have "a perceived engineering value and image above these cars", says the blurb, which refers to "a premium quality without a premium price".

Quality there undoubtedly is. Plenty of equipment, too - twin airbags, a powered sunroof and electric windows are standard across the range. But despite claims about "upmarket and prestigious looks" there is nothing adventurous about the styling or engineering of the most important Honda yet sold in Europe. Visually, it lacks the bold, cute, look-at-me lines of the smaller three-door "hunchback", never mind the beguiling prettiness of the Civic Coup - both smaller, fifth-generation cars that will be replaced later by variants of the new five-door. Confusion about the newcomer's role and identity might have been avoided had Honda not called it a Civic at all, but Concerto after the model it supplants.

On test the 1.6LS has a typically frenzied, vroomy engine that sounds out of place when extended in a staid family hatch. Exploit the engine's smooth, top-end brio by making full use of the gears, and performance is lively. Cruising in long-legged top, noise levels are low and economy exceptional. All the new Civics are good motorway cars.

Despite the racy mien of its motor, the 1.6LS is no hot-hatch, barely a warm one. Handling is safe, reassuring and predictable but it will not quicken the pulse of keen drivers. You can rely on the suspension to do everything expected of a modern mainstream family five-seater, but no more. The composed LS does not display the exceptional cornering fluency of, say, a Peugeot 306, though it does ride smoothly over dips and bumps.

The finish of this new Civic is excellent, like that of all Hondas, no matter what their source. Comfort gets high marks, too - unless you are lanky and sitting in the back. The front seats embrace supportively, and the driving position is first class. As safety was a design priority, anti-lock brakes are standard.

Prices start at £11,495 for the 1.4i. The most economical is the 1.5i VTEC, for which Honda claims a diesel-like 45.7mpg composite consumption - a 25 per cent improvement on the class average.

SPECIFICATIONS

Honda Civic 1.6LS five-door, £13,145 Engine: 1590cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 113bhp at 6200rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: 110mph, 0-60mph in 9.5 seconds, consumption 38.8mpg (ELA average) unleaded.COMPARISONS

Citron ZX 1.8i Aura, £12,175 Goes well, handles keenly - though can be twitchy when cornering hard. Practical all-rounder displaying French flair but few idiosyncrasies. Strong, keenly priced contender.

Ford Escort 1.6 Ghia, £12,865 UK's best-selling car has smart new interior, quieter engines, smoother ride and sharper handling. Cheaper versions available with less equipment.

Ford Mondeo 1.8 LX, £12,700 Half a size up on the Civic. Punchy engine better suited to family-hack work than Honda's screamer. Performance stronger, economy not so good.

Peugeot 306 1.6i XR five-door, £l1,980 Notable for good looks, fluent handling and smooth ride. Not so lively all out as Honda. Beaten for economy, too. Also available as three-door hatch and four-door saloon.

Vauxhall Astra 1.6GLS five-door, £12,795 Latest fresh-faced, vee-grilled model, much improved. Engine more flexible than Civic's. Economy excellent, too. Safe, well-made, civilised car, but not one to enthral keen drivers. The Honda Civic 1.6LS is a quality car, good for motorway driving, but lacks look-at-me appeal Photograph: Dillon Bryden

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