Honda Civic i-CDTi

Big on style and big on space, the new Honda Civic is futuristic both inside and out. John Simister declares it to be a mid-size model without equal - and great value, too

Price: from £15,035 (range starts at £12,685)
Engine: 2,204cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel, 140bhp at 4,000rpm, 251lb ft at 2,000rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive Performance: 127mph, 0-60 in 8.4sec, 53.3mpg official average
CO2: 140g/km

Look at this new Honda Civic, built in Britain for Europe. If this doesn't change the average person's perception of what a Honda is, then the cause is surely lost. It's one thing for a radical concept car to make it almost unchanged to production if it's a high-glamour coupé - see Alfa Brera or Audi TT for proof - but if it happens with a hatchback it's much more significant. And it has happened here.

The outgoing Civic was the Mr Sensible of cars, tall in profile, flat of floor, roomy and worthy. But the new one makes it cool to be intelligent. Honda claims this seventh-generation Civic is as roomy as its immediate ancestor (not entirely true), and given the new car's almost-coupé looks, it's a remarkable achievement.

The nose is extraordinary, glassed-in (or, more accurately, polycarbonated-in) right across its width with gill-like, angled layers of chrome either side of the "H" badge. This, I suspect, will be the part that dates the most quickly and is most likely to change when the Civic gets its first facelift.

Then there's the profile, with a "fast" windscreen pulled far forward over the sloping bonnet, a waistline rising wedgily rearwards, ornate front door handles in rhomboid recesses, rear door handles hidden, Alfa-like, next to the rear pillars.

In the front valance, triangular foglights flank an expanse of mock-mesh; at the back the motif is repeated but the foglights become triangular exhaust pipes. The rear window has a racy spoiler two-thirds of the way down, and a combination of aerodynamics and a water-repellent surface is claimed to keep the window clear of dirt and water droplets despite the lack of a wiper. That's one Honda idea which hasn't worked, I'm afraid.

Futuristic outside, futuristic inside. The dashboard is like a terrace, its upper, more distant layer containing an easy-to-focus-upon digital speedometer plus sequential lights to advise on economy and the impending rev limit, while the lower layer is dominated by a rev-counter dead ahead. An LCD information display hovers eerily over the rev-counter's centre, fuel and engine-temperature gauges peep out from behind, the whole lot bathed in a ghostly blue light and seemingly floating.

This instrument panel is set in a glossy black surround, a finish also applied to the centre panel with its iDrive-like control knob and surrounding switches. There's a further menu-driven information screen above, which houses the sat-nav map, if installed. A red start button energises the engine; a new take on the classic Italian-look, two-vane, round air vent cools your face. The gear lever has a hemispherical, metal-look base which moves with the lever, instead of the usual fake-leather gaiter, and the pedals - including a rest for an idle left foot - are aluminium with rubber studs.

Honda's little Jazz introduced the idea of a fuel tank under the front seats, and the Civic is the same. This greatly adds to the rear seats' versatility because the rear floor can be low and almost flat, even under the rear seats' cushions. Fold a backrest down, and the cushion cantilevers forward and further down to make a low load floor. Or you can flip the cushions upwards next to the backrests, and create a wide, deep space big enough for a bicycle.

The only snag is that the underfloor fuel tank eats into rear passengers' foot-room. That, and the way the side windows slope inwards, detracts from the subjective feeling of space, but it's still a roomy car and the top models' glass roof (with electrically disappearing roller blinds) banishes claustrophobia. The boot is big, too, and its centre floor section drops down to make a recess which stops bags sliding about.

This, then, is a mid-size hatchback like no other. It looks highly inviting; see the Civic, and you ache to drive it. It promises to be a watershed car in its class. Three engines are offered: a 1.4-litre with direct injection and 83bhp, which few people are likely to buy, a 140bhp 1.8, and the 2.2-litre turbodiesel already seen in other Hondas. It's this 140bhp unit, whose mighty 251lb ft of torque distances it from the 128lb ft 1.8 petrol engine, that I try first.

Unsurprisingly, it goes like the wind, with great reservoirs of energy for easy, stressless overtaking. Its six-speed gearbox shifts with the light precision you'd expect from a Honda, and response to the accelerator is instant and easy to meter. The engine is quieter in an Accord, but it's quiet enough here. And all this pace comes with little eco-price, given the claimed average of over 50mpg.

And the way it takes corners... it's fantastic. Honda has abandoned its usual complex rear suspension for a simple torsion-beam system, which sounds like a betrayal of what Honda holds dear.

But it works superbly, helping the Civic to turn into corners with adroit precision and to hold its line cleanly, even when the front wheels are battling with all that torque. The electric power-steering system is one of the best of its type.

Not in ride comfort terms, though. The suspension is set sportingly firm, probably too firm for Britain's disintegrating roads, and certain transverse ridges bring on quite a jolt. It's acceptable in the diesel, but a drive in the 1.8 petrol Civic is an agitation too far. This version feels disappointingly sluggish, too, and suffers from too much noise when worked hard and a too-abrupt accelerator response.

Strangely, given Honda's rather senior customer base to date, there's no proper automatic option. Instead, those who crave automation must buy a 1.8 i-Shift, a "robotised manual" like an Alfa Selespeed or a Vauxhall Easytronic. Its sequential manual mode works quite well, with shift-paddles on the steering wheel, but the auto mode is full of pauses and surges. Customers won't like it.

Customers may also not like the over-complex model range which includes both SE and ES trim levels, but they can't fail to be captivated by the Civic's futuristic boldness. I'm lukewarm about the petrol versions, but right now the Civic i-CDTi diesel is my favourite mid-size hatchback of all. It's also surprising value. Seldom does such a fresh wind blow.

The rivals

CITROEN C4 2.0 HDI VTR PLUS, £17,195

Radical outside and in, like the Civic, with a stationary switch panel within the steering wheel. Comfortable, well-equipped, but slower and dearer than Honda.

VOLKSWAGEN GOLF 2.0 TDI GT, £17,820

Looks great in a Golfish way, is well made and lively but surprisingly noisy. Roomy and good fun to drive, optional DSG sequential gearbox has brilliant auto mode.

FORD FOCUS 2.0 TDCI ZETEC, £16,745

Same engine as the C4, slightly lower price, handles with the Civic's precision but rides better. Styling is unremarkable, interior is deeply unimaginative.

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