road test : Honda Civic

This year sees the sixth version of Honda's 10-million seller, the Civic. The first of the new models, the Swindon-made mainstay five- door, is already on sale. It will soon be joined by a staid four-door saloon, a much prettier three-door hatchback (both Japanese) and a style- first two-door coupe made in America from front bumper to screen, the three newcomers are basically identical - and easily distinguished from the existing five-door by odd bug-eyed headlights, said to be much brighter than the old ones.

The test three-door is longer and roomier than the superseded hunchback. The restyling is all the better for being less squashed. Responding to European demand, Honda has dropped the silly split rear access and given the new hatch a proper tailgate. The boot is still small, but legroom in the back is less cramped as the wheelbase has been extended to match the saloon's.

More room and crash safety means more weight - significantly more in the case of the enlarged hatchback. Not that you can tell from the lively performance of the screaming 1.6VTi VTEC, powered by a manic motor good for 130mph. Most people will find the peppy 1.5iLS VTEC adequate for their needs, especially as it's been blessed with diesel-like economy.

Quick though it is, the hatchback's racy looks flatter only to deceive. Although pleasant and easy to drive - the brakes are strong, the (improved) gear change crisp - the midrange 1.5 does not steer or handle with endearing elan. Suspension changes, said to have enhanced the car's balance and stability, seem to have deflated its spirit. I also found the red-on-black instruments difficult to read.

Despite rather drab interior decor, the new Civic hatch is beautifully made and finished, and decently equipped: two airbags, anti-lock brakes and an engine immobiliser are standard when the car goes on sale here in January.

Roger Bell

One previous owner

Andrea Waters, 28, bought the last version of the 3-door Honda Civic in August 1994

I'd previously owned a Ford Fiesta and a Peugeot 205 but this Honda's looks really appealed, which is why I bought it. I find it's lovely to handle, and the mileage is good - around 44mpg. The backup service has been excellent, too. I'm only five foot but I'm comfortable driving the car: seeing out and parking present no problems. Complaints? I honestly don't have any - I'm a big fan of my car. It goes like stink when I put my foot down, but perhaps I'd better not say how fast...

Specifications

Honda Civic 1.5iLS, around pounds 12,000 Engine, 1493cc, 16 valves, 115bhp at 63OOrpm. Transmission: front-wheel drive, five-speed manual gearbox. Top speed 117mph, 0-60 in 10 seconds, average fuel consumption 47.5 mpg.

Rivals

BMW Compact 1.6i, E13,650 Cheapest BMW has much the same performance as 1.5 Civic, but poorer economy. High kudos, good quality, modest ability. Holds value very well.

Citroen ZX 1.8i Furio three-door, pounds 12,315 Roomy, smooth-riding hatch. Performance no better than Civic's, but handling sharper, spirit greater. Simple, no-nonsense car, works well.

Peugeot 306 1.9DT three-door, pounds 12,730 Chic, practical and able. Lively acceleration, diesel economy. Much roomier than Civic, pleasant to drive.

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