The Honda Civic is a funny old car. It's a real challenge to pinpoint who, exactly, it's aimed at, yet equally difficult to fault – despite historically boasting a number of irksome quirks. 

It's billed as a family car. A competitor to the evergreen VW Golf – at least here in Europe. Honda has experimented with all manner of banzai exterior and interior styling – particularly with the previous two generations of Civic. Yet the image of Civic owners is of a reserved type, well into their twilight years.

So does this new, 10th-generation of Honda's small car, finally make a breakthrough in the European market, and hold its head high against Golf, Ford Focus, Mercedes A-Class and all the rest?

Design – from forgettable to spaceship and everything in-between

While many a Civic has been forgettable, back in 2006 Honda debuted generation eight, a car which looked – for want of a better word – like a spaceship. It was replaced by an equally wild-looking ninth-gen evolution in 2011.

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The newer 10th-gen model steps away from the car it replaces by a significant margin, while managing to be no less distinctive. The new model is part of a new global strategy. Honda used to design completely different models for different parts of the world. But the new one is designed, styled and engineered the same no matter where you live – and it is better for it in almost every way.

The means some major changes to the exterior styling. It's bigger and lower then before (elongated by 148mm, widened by 29mm and lowered by 20mm). The silhouette is arguably more convention than before, but the new "shrunken saloon" style is certainly distinctive compared to your typical hatchback.

The Civic isn't a car without difficult angles. But this longer, lower side profile looks appealing on the road. In the EX trim of our review car, it looks reasonably sporty, too – with well-judged 17-inch alloy wheels, black gloss trim finishers, a wider, slimmer front grille and lamp design and a series of aero details such as the antennae aerial, roof spoiler and airflow outlets around the wheels.

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However, those lines aren't just to impress the neighbours, as the management of airflow around the car sees the aerodynamic drag co-efficiency improved by some three per cent over the outgoing Civic. This also helps keep wind noise down to a minimum, which when coupled with the improved NVH (Noise Vibration Harshness) engineering, leads to a very quiet and refined ride.

Interior and functionality – a Honda strong point takes a leap forwards

Inside, the driving position is great. The seat will go really low – in fact the lowest in this class of car – which means if you like to drop low and feel like you're really nestled in the car, you're in for a treat.

Head and legroom throughout the cabin is good, while the boot space – always a Civic strong point – remains class-leading in terms of volume. At 478-litres, it's far larger than many crossovers, in fact. A neat false floor reveals a really deep space below, meaning the only negative mark goes against the slight step-up to the back seats.

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Practicality has always been a Honda strong point, which continues in the new Civic. There's a huge central zone between the driver and passenger seats, which contains cup holders, a massive storage bin, and a very clever split-level area which the gear lever pokes through, leaving a shelf area below that's perfect for storing items like smartphones and charging ables. This solution does visually block the ports for the HDMI, USB and 12V connections though – so it's very tricky to plug things in on the fly.

One area that the new car might disappoint long-time Honda customers is the deletion of the so called Magic Seat option. This feature allowed you to flip up the squab of the rear seat and lock it to the backrest, meaning you could place tall or long loads – a pot plant, or even a bike – in the rear seat area. The new Civic's layout and placement of the fuel tank mean this quirk is no more, but the overall trade-off, judged across the car as a whole, feels worth it.

And it's difficult not to be impressed by some of the "think different" practical touches that Honda has thrown at this car. The side-sliding tonneau cover for the boot, which can be pulled out from a side-mounted cassette, rather than having to stretch for a rear-mounted cover, is much more compact and lightweight, yet does the same job of covering the load area from prying eyes as a bulky parcel shelf. It can be easily swapped from one side of the boot to the other, or removed entirely.

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Up front, the dash is now distinctly less space age. For future lovers, it's a step backwards, but for mere mortals it's a distinct improvement as buttons and switches aren't now thrown around the cabin – apparently at random – and there's a conventional (largely digital) instrument cluster and a very reachable 7-inch touchscreen.

Materials and quality feel better too. There are some nice textures and soft-touch plastics on the dashboard and the seats are comfortable and trimmed in a higher grade leather. There isn't the coherence and sophistication of a German car, though, and you don't need to go too far before you find hard, unyielding plastics. Overall, it's still relatively busy, but much more user-friendly and of higher perceived quality than previously.

Technology and entertainment – better, but not the best

Previous Civic infotainment systems and on-board technology set-ups haven't been the best. Luckily, this has been improved somewhat in the latest generation and new Civic offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, HDMI and USB ports and Bluetooth connectivity in its revised 7-inch Honda Connect 2 colour touchscreen display.

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Top-spec models like our EX specification test car receive a handy reversing camera, while the old-school instrument binnacle has been replaced by a part TFT-LCD displays that give various vehicle read-outs.

It looks futuristic, albeit lacking the sophistication of Audi's virtual cockpit. The central rev-counter speedo display is colourful and clear, and in the floating digital space it encircles you can fiddle with and display pretty much any car function you want via the steering wheel's controls. This takes some getting used to, though, and a couple of the shortcut buttons on the rather cluttered steering wheel can easily fool you, meaning you jump a radio station when you're trying to shuttle through to display the turn-by-turn instructions.

We also found the oversized fuel and coolant temperature gauges a tad old-school. These part analogue displays take almost a third of the binnacle space each, yet aren't that accurate, nor do we think it's necessary for them to be this big in a world where having other info in the cluster often takes priority.   

Navigation is still taken care of by a clunky Garmin system. It not only looks decidedly old-school, it's also slow to re-route, not particularly clear in its instructions and, thanks to an awkwardly positioned screen and not that easy to read.

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The central touchscreen itself is a mixed bag – we dislike the digital volume adjustment buttons, and some tiny button icons on screen. The on-screen graphics in general are way off the mark for 2017, and jar against the wider design of this new, slicker and more modern Civic. We like the fact that a physical button is fitted to flick between day and night mode though, the big buttons in the menu home screen, too, and the standard Apple CarPlay/Android Auto app functionality. Mercifully, Honda hasn't completely thrown the climate controls into the screen either, so it's easy to adjust how hot or cold you want to be with the twist of a knob.

Engine and driving – a winning approach to downsizing

The trend for downsizing and turbocharging hasn't escaped Honda, as the only engines currently available are a 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol and, wait for it, a 1.0-litre three-cylinder unit. That's a big change for a company that, until a few years ago, was famed for hi-revving Vtec engines whose behaviour was the antithesis of a turbo-engine's typical characteristic for low-end torque.

A 1.6-litre diesel will follow later, soon to sate the British addiction to the black pump, but given that the market is rapidly switching off diesel, you might want to give that second thoughts.

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Plus, the tiny three-cylinder engine is the real star of the show here. Despite appearing relatively measly compared to the larger capacity engines it replaces, this three-cylinder unit manages to develop 127hp and 200Nm of torque (at 2,250rpm). Rarely did it feel underpowered on our test drive, especially when mated to the snappy 6-speed manual gearbox. Even when a few friends, kids and luggage were thrown into the mix, it only struggled on a hilly motorway, so the slightly beefier 1.5-litre petrol engine will likely suit better if that's your more regular drive, as it develops an extra 40Nm slug of torque and offers 180bhp.

The engine's also perfectly comfortable when mated to the CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission), which is something that can't be said for rivals, although it can get a bit muddled and noisy when you get heavy with the right foot.

The car's new, strengthened chassis and weight-saving measures are instantly apparent on the road, too. Honda has brought back a more sophisticated, multi-link rear suspension system that only the VW Golf and Ford Focus also use in this class, and it makes the ride supple, but keeps body roll to a minimum.

The nicest aspect of the engine and suspension setup is that the car feels really up for it when you're in the mood to have fun on a country road. It's not fast – not like the Type-R, anyway – but it enjoys being thrashed, while through the corners it feels sprightly, verging on fun when the roads get entertaining. 

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There are a few minor niggles, the first being a new steering rack, which uses gearing to achieve greater movement of the front wheels with less steering wheel juggling. It takes a bit of getting used to and feels slightly disconnected when pushing on a bit. But it does come into its own during low-speed, tighter manoeuvres, with the Civic being a really easy car to park and manoeuvre.

Specification and pricing

Our 1-litre, EX trim Civic comes in at just over £23,200. Or according to Honda's own official figures, £229 per month over three years, with Honda contributing £750 to your deposit. That's pretty competitive, given the standard equipment on offer.

EX trim nets you everything described in the text above – leather seats, the 7-inch touch screen with nav, CarPlay/Android Auto, heated seats, keyless entry, a sunroof, safety goodies like cross traffic alert and blind spot monitor plus adaptive dampers. You can add a tech pack for £600 to get wireless phone charging, LED headlights and rear heated seats.

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But you might well be happy with the next level down, the SR grade, at £20,340 (or £209 per month). On this model you still get the screen, nav and connectivity systems, 17-inch alloys, dual zone climate control and rear parking camera.

Compared to an equivalent specification Golf, a Civic is going to cost you significantly less, and this really is one of its trump cards.

Verdict

The competitively priced, competitively practical and impressively economical (up to 68.9mpg on manual models) 1.0-litre Civic is a great improvement upon its predecessor.

It looks different and distinctive on the road (if its style is your thing), is highly enjoyable to drive and has a more logical interior and refined dashboard.

The combination of practicality, equipment and driving dynamics at this price point feel hard to beat, and make you wonder why you don't see more Civics on the road. It's not an obvious choice for Europeans who, let's be honest, do have a tendency to buy brands from the home continent. Realistically, as you walk up the range the Civic does get more expensive and, for many, the badge lacks snob appeal.

While its Audi A3, Merc A-Class and VW Golf competitors are all great cars, the Civic has something different and highly appealing. While objectively it can't quite match the all-conquering, class-swat Golf – and is for now held back by lack of engine options and different body styles – if you're after a small family car with a class-leading engine, fantastic refinement and the most practical interior out there, look no further.

Alternatives to consider

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Volkswagen Golf

Long a class leader, the Volkswagen is the default choice in this car class. It not only succeeds by doing little wrong, but it's fun to drive, refined, looks classy and features premium-quality materials in the cabin. The interface is relatively intuitive to use and no one will question your choice. The Golf also features a vast range of engines which span everything from full-electric to snarling, 300-hp R version, with diesels, petrols and hybrids in between. And you can have it as a 3-door, 5-door or estate. However, the class-leader doesn't come cheap and if you want some of the kit that's standard on the top-spec Civic EX you'll need to throw thousands of pounds at the option list.

Read the full article: VW Golf GTi first drive

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Mini Clubman

Like the Civic, the Mini is an outlier in a class full of default copy-cat cars all trying to beat the Golf at its own game. The Mini's got its own thing going on, and no car that's got the silhouette of an estate and a total of 6-doors (the back pair opening outwards like barn doors) could be accused of being a copy-cat. You'll have to buy into brand Mini to even consider the quirky Clubman, but if you think the brand's all hot air, you should look again, as the Clubman has that Mini go-kart handling, inherits class-leading technology from owner-brand BMW, and offers an appealing range of engines, the sweet-spot being the 1.5-litre petrol Cooper. It's less spacious than the Honda, but the interior feels significantly more premium, and you can personalise it to your heart's content – wallet permitting.

Read the full article: Mini Clubman review