Honda Civic 1.6 i-DTEC SE review

"Economical, isn't it?", proclaimed the man from Honda who came to pick up our Civic diesel. Given that he was talking to the lead-boots of the Pocket-Lint office, this was a risky statement. It’s not unknown for us to at least halve the official fuel economy figures of a new car after a week with it.

But on this occasion, boy, was he right. For the record, 61mpg is the average we got out of the Civic diesel over 700 miles. Or in other words, to achieve that mileage, we had to trickle just an extra tenner’s worth of diesel in from a full tank starting point.

Fuel economy is a big deal to most people right now, especially given the cost of fuel. So has Honda hit the jackpot with this, the new smaller diesel-engined Civic? And if you’re looking for economy motoring should it be top of your shopping list?

A car for the head, but perhaps not the heart

We’ve said it before but it bears repeating that Honda is a company that lives, eats, breathes engines. It powers the world - in trucks, cars, generators, bikes, boats and more. So perhaps more than anything you’d expect it to get the engine, the heart of the matter here, right. And it has. We can’t remember the last time we drove a four-cylinder diesel that was as smooth, linear or easy to drive.

In fact, it reminded us of one of our other favourite diesels - the BMW 320d - except it’s even a bit quieter and less rattly than that. But it’s in its ability to chug along and make progress while never exceeding 2000 rpm that the Honda scores, and reminds us of the Beemer. This fact, combined with its very precise 6-speed gearbox, probably accounts for that strong average fuel economy figure. And you could probably do better still than us - one of our journo friends took this same car from London to Amsterdam for the weekend and averaged over 70mpg.

Helping you out as in most Hondas these days, is a green economy button that detunes the throttle response and stops the air con zapping so much power. Stop-start also works seamlessly and surprisingly seems to kick in even when the engine is flat cold. And the digital speedo flanked by a pair of trend bars glows bright green when you’re driving economically.

It’s also perfectly quick enough and not one of those cars in which you’ll be struggling to keep up with traffic. It cruises happily on the motorway. So what’s not to like? Well, just don’t mention the word excitement.

A great engine, an average car?

But you don’t buy a car just for its engine you buy the entire package. And just as with the Civic 1.4 petrol we tested last year, spending a week with the Civic, after some of its newer rivals, highlights a few flaws in its wider package.

Primary among our gripes are aspects of the design and the interior trim quality. The exterior, as we’ve made no secret of before, feels like a backward step compared to the previous generation Civic. On the 16-inch wheels of our test car, the body sides sag rather over the wheels. The volumes around the back make it feel bloated and awkwardly proportioned. And despite the rear wiper you didn’t previously get, the thick rear bar splitting the rear window can still block out the police car running behind you.

The interior we like a lot more. Compared to the average family car the sweeping dash feels futuristic, the digital speedo split away from the three main dials working well. But the plastics are mostly hard and look and feel cheap.

The info screen tucked under the dash feels old-fashioned, is small and is crude in its graphics. The trip computer requires a dip into the menu to simply toggle between average fuel economy and range figures. Which is a little bizarre and complex in a car that’s not exactly dripping with tech kit.

And while it looks space-age, it simply doesn’t work as well as the interior of a Golf, for instance. Those tucked-below the windscreen displays reflect badly in the windscreen at night and tend to pick up bad reflections in bright sunlight.

It’s not that the Civic is unlikeable. There’s a slickness to the engineering of everything you interact with. The drivetrain (pedals, engine, gearshift) is engineering perfection. And it feels like it will last forever. And those rather heavy body volumes mean loads of space - especially in the boot.

We also got the Civic to swallow a mountain bike whole, simply by flipping up the rear seat bases – which is an absolute boon if you move stuff like a bike regularly, have a small dog or need to transport tall pot-plants.

Where’s the tech?

Your pot-plant filled journeys may be quieter than you’d imagine however, as this bottom of the range SE spec Civic is a bit of a tech vacuum. Sure, you’ve a sextet of airbags, remote locking, electric windows and air con. You also get a 120v socket in the central bin and a USB connector in there. But there’s no Bluetooth as standard – unless you upgrade to the SE-T spec. Our advice would be, do, and bag the navigation system at the same time, for just a few hundred quid in the bundle. Otherwise your Civic might feel a little bare.

Verdict

We might sound as if we've got a downer on the Civic. It’s not a bad car. On it's small wheels, it rides nicely and steers sweetly. In fact we'd swear Honda's been tweaking the suspension settings since the early car we drove, this feels much improved and a lot more refined.

And, if your priority is super-economy, this could be for you. Don't forget it produces only 99g/km CO2, so qualifies for zero road tax and very low company car tax. So if it’s purely about saving money, the Civic will suit you well.

But given a new car is such a significant purchase, most people will be looking for something more than a little cost saving, we reckon. And given this basic spec Civic is £19,500 without options, it's not exactly cheaply priced in the first place.

Ultimately, you'll have a lot more fun driving a Focus. And with apologies if we sound like stuck records, we think the VW Golf has just re-set the standard in this class. Both are ultimately better cars.

So the Civic remains a likeable choice, with this new diesel engine adding to its appeal. But it also remains a left-field option which has some chinks in its armour, in a class of highly competitive, sometimes brilliant cars.



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