Honda has a well-deserved reputation for building beautifully engineered cars that are the epitome of reliability.
However, it isn’t known for building interesting cars, often substituting infallibility for character and competence for quirkiness.
That’s not necessarily damning with faint praise, either. I own a 1991 Honda NSX, a car that was roundly derided for being uninvolving and dull at the time, with buyers spurning it for the more glamorous and less reliable Ferrari 348.
That my NSX still functions faultlessly after 25 years of only routine servicing speaks volumes for the integrity of the original design and the diligence with which it was assembled. The same cannot be said of its Italian rival…
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More space shuttle than road vehicle
But to return to the modest Honda Civic 1.6-litre diesel that I tested late last year.
Finished in a pearlescent white, it looked more like a space shuttle than a road vehicle; in a world full of identikit cars honed in a wind tunnel, the Civic looked, to my eyes at least, bold and interesting but I accept that it is a polarising design that will either repel or attract you.
The interior is just as quirky and just as well assembled. Like it or loathe it you just know that it’ll be working just as well and looking just the same when you come to trade it in, which isn’t something that should be dismissed lightly.
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Spacious and practical
The seating position is nigh on perfect and there is plenty of legroom in the back for two teenage children too making a genuine five seat car, even if headroom is a little tight for six footers.
The boot is huge, and the rear seats fold flat, making the Civic a good choice for those who need to carry large loads on a regular basis.
The ergonomics aren’t great though, which isn’t something I should have to write in 2016.
Fashion seems to have overridden common sense in too many areas: the view through the rearview mirror is poor with the rear screen being bisected by the boot-mounted wing and some parts of the split-level dashboard are hidden behind the steering wheel, making everyday usability the Civic’s weakest area.
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Jiggly ride with vague steering
Nor does the Civic ride as well as some in its class, feeling a bit jiggly when the road surface is rough but the handling is sharp enough and the pay-off is that it never wallows.
The steering is a bit vague too and very light but unless you are a very enthusiastic driver you’ll find that the chassis just gets on with doing its job in an unobtrusive way.
There is some road noise, but it remains at an acceptable level even at motorway speeds.
The diesel engine is a good example of its type and scores the Honda some much-needed Brownie points.
It isn’t coarse or harsh and only becomes noisy at the very top of its rev range and I’m willing to bet that your passengers wouldn’t be able to tell it from a petrol engine once it’s warmed up.
It also has plenty of mid-range torque giving brisk acceleration with enough in reserve to make overtaking straightforward.
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Economic and reliable
Fuel economy is good too, with 60mpg being possible with only a little restraint.
The petrol engines are smooth and powerful for their size but I think that the diesel engine is the pick of the range, giving a nice balance of performance and economy.
Avoiding most of the inherent NVH that comes with the fuel, the diesel range starts at £18,700 but you can expect to knock at least a thousand pounds off that, maybe more.
I’m also going to break the habit of a lifetime and suggest that you splash out on the SE Plus, which is one notch above the poverty line. If you can get past the awful ergonomics and rear vision the Civic’s combination of reliability, frugality and performance means you’ll be hanging on to it for a while, so you might as well treat yourself.
If you can’t get past the ergonomics, then there are plenty of great alternatives out there. No class is as fiercely contested as this, and if you stick to a well-known brand you are unlikely to be disappointed.
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Best-in-class – VW Golf: Yes, it’s an obvious choice, but if you can afford it the Golf is still the answer to pretty much every hatchback question.
The best of the rest – Ford Focus: The ubiquitous Ford is the best-selling car in its class for a reason. A slightly low-rent interior is more than compensated for by a brilliant chassis.
Left-field alternative – The SEAT Leon is essentially a cheaper Golf. The same brilliant chassis, an interior that is 99% of the VW’s, and a lower purchase price. What’s not to like?
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