Honda Civic ES-T - iDrive

Who knew they made spaceships in Swindon?

Price: £20,480
Engine capacity: 1.8-litre i-VTEC
Power output (PS @ rpm): 142 @ 6,500
Top speed (mph): 134
0-60 mph (seconds): 9.6
Fuel economy (mpg): 46.3
CO2 emissions (g/km): 145

Five hundred new employees clocked in for their first shift at Honda's plant in Swindon this week, and this little hatchback is the reason why. Honda has shifted 20,000-plus Civics a year for most of the last decade and the latest model - its most futuristic design yet - is proving popular enough for another shift to start work. The Civic may have started out as a cheap little hatchback, but now it looks more like a family car that's been fused with a jet fighter and is ready to enforce a London Olympics no-fly zone at a moment's notice.

Honda pulled out of Formula One racing several years ago, and if its shape is anything to go by, some of its engineers used some of their new-found free time tinkering with the new Civic's space-age design. It is an inch lower and just over an inch longer than the model it replaces and retains the continuous curve from the sleek front bumper to the squat rear end.

Inside, the dashboard display is cluttered with dials and coloured hues that would look at home on the Virgin Galactic spaceship. This does make them rather hard to decipher though, and they are aligned in such a way that it is tricky for the front-seat passenger to use them without leaning across towards the driver, which is borderline unsafe. The rest of the cabin is well-constructed though, the rear seats roomy and the boot huge - mine was fitted with a clever sub trunk giving it more depth.

A stop/start system is standard across the range, which starts at £16,495, along with an Eco button to moderate throttle mapping and reduce aircon wastage, but it comes with a rather annoying red flashing light which dominates the display every time you come to a halt. And the eco-gearshift indicator is among the worst I've tested. Following it religiously for several long drives, I found it often had me struggling in sixth gear at 20mph in town, and not once suggested I shift down. Chugging away in too high a gear is no more economical than slamming to the red-line, so the Civic's dash display should remind you to drop a cog when needed.

On the road, the 1.8-litre petrol paired with a new six-speed manual gearbox is sparky enough, though perhaps not as powerful as its 142bhp should suggest. The steering is agile and fluid and on winding country road it is almost fun to drive. But most of the time it's just a little dull - if dependable.

The company has had setbacks. Its sales are still below 2006 levels and it was hit badly by last year's Fukushima disaster and floods in Thailand. The new Civic was the hope for recovery, and judging by the output from its Swindon factory, it's done just enough to get Honda back on the road.