When reviewing a car, we can ask a manufacturer for a specific model and engine, but rarely have any say in what spec we get. This means they usually send us one that’s in top line trim and then had the entire options list thrown at it for good measure.
We account for this and try to see past those options most people won’t choose. But a car loaded with optional features can feel very different from the same model of car that does without them. So when Honda rang and said they could loan us a new Civic with the smallest engine, in the most basic trim level and with just one option – metallic white paint – we were intrigued. Just exactly how good is the basic, basement spec 16 grand family hatchback in 2012?
Darth Vadar’s Helmet?
Honda is an engineering company. More than anything else, it makes motors. And they aren’t all in cars. They’re in bikes, quads, boats, mowers and generators. But when it comes to the design of its cars - the look and feel - there’s often been a sense the company built the most simple of boxes into which to install some very fine powertrain engineering.
And that had been true of the Civic model, right up until generation eight came along in 2006. At that point, someone in the design department clearly staged a coup. All the engineering guys and bean counters were locked in a cupboard somewhere while the crayon guys went nuts for a few months, coming up with the most striking - and arguably futuristic - car in its class. This wasn’t your grandma’s Civic, it was the Darth Vader helmet of Civics.
Darth Vadar sucking a gobstopper
But as with so many daring designs, Honda’s had a bit of a wobble while tying to update the 2006 car. 2012 Civic retains the almost mono-volumes form, but elsewhere things have gone rather bulbous and clumsy. That front mask that joins the grille up with the lights? It makes Darth Vader look like he’s got a gobstopper stuck in his mouth.
And one of the negatives of our base spec car is its 16-inch wheels, which don't help the overall look - making the car appear as if it’s running on castors. At least the redesigned rear end means it’s now slightly easier to see out of the back of - particularly when it’s raining, as there’s now a rear wash wipe.
Like stepping into a space ship
But step inside and things improve. There is a lot to take in and if you hate clutter and are into your German simplicity you might not like it. But it works on two counts. First, it looks and feels more futuristic than any other car in the segment. And second, it actually works ergonomically. After living with the Civic for a few days, stepping back into another car feels very ordinary and drab.
You get a central rev counter as on the CR-Z, but the speedometer’s a digital display at the base of the windscreen. You’re therefore constantly aware of your speed without taking your eyes off the road. It’s flanked by a pair of little trend bars, they glow green when you’re driving economically and get progressively more blue if you’re reckless with the accelerator.
Joining the speedo at the base of the windscreen is a display screen showing clock, economy and the stereo display. Take the satnav option and the map pops up here. Unfortunately it picks up bad reflections in strong sunlight, and given that when an iPod’s plugged in it pulls through the Gracenote imagery in glorious technicolour it’s a shame Honda’s own graphics are a clunky dull blue.
A spacious ship
Novelty of the dashboard out of the way and the main thing you’ll notice inside is space. Put simply, while the Civic doesn’t feel bigger to park than anything else in this class, inside - and particularly in the boot - you seem to have a lot more space than in a Golf or Focus.
There’s some clever thinking too. Our favourite feature is the "magic" rear seat. This splits and folds down like an ordinary car, but the seat bases also fold up into the backrest, leaving a vast space in the rear of the car, which is perfect for a dog to jump into or to put a bike in. And that large boot has a clever double floor which gives the choice of a separate compartment below the floor, or means you can make the whole space much deeper. We reckon it’s a key Civic selling point. If you value versatile, flexible space, put it high on your list.
That engineering background shines through too. Honda’s engines are some of the most compact in the business, which means the bonnet can be lower and the "scuttle" (where windscreen meets bonnet) can in turn be lower. Result? Your view out is clearer and more panoramic than other cars in the class.
Everything you’ll ever need - except performance
The equipment tally doesn’t make you feel like you’re driving a base car either. You get a USB port, aux connector, full climate control and two 12v ports in the centre console.
There’s a beautifully seamless stop-start system and an eco button to help you milk the best fuel economy from the car. If you decide a Civic’s for you we’d recommend you stick with the base SE spec but add the "T" (for tech) pack for £995. It adds Bluetooth and satellite navigation. We can’t see why you’d really need anything else on the options list.
One thing we wouldn’t suggest you do is buy this base 1.4 engine if you can afford either the bigger 1.8 petrol, or better still, the diesel. The 1.4 is smooth but has to be worked hard just to keep up with traffic and that means fuel economy suffers. Spend £1500 more for the 1.8 petrol and the whole experience will be more relaxed and we doubt you’ll suffer much worse fuel economy. Better still, if you’ve got an extra £3500 (or are buying it as a company car), get the 2.2 diesel. It’s fast, will do 60-odd mpg if you baby it, is super-refined and emits just 110g/km of CO2.
Outside of engine performance the Civic drives well. It now rides smoothly – our wife refused to let us buy the previous generation car in Type R spec because the ride was so hard and uncomfortable she said she’d “need to wear a sports bra” every time she was driven in it. It has well judged brakes and a nice gearbox that’s like working a precision bolt.
And so back to our original question: just what kind of family car does 16 grand buy you in 2012? Well, in the case of the new Honda Civic, a rather well-engineered but slightly odd-looking car. One that feels as if it will last forever and has most of the kit and space you will ever need.
We can’t help feeling that exterior design is a step backwards from the car it replaces though. But then you don’t look at a car’s exterior while you’re driving it, and, for our money, the Civic’s interior is fresher, more futuristic and a better place to be than just about any other car in this class.
In that regard, it’s in many ways a very Pocket-lint car. The design and tech inside actually makes it feel like a more advanced car and - potentially - it helps you to be a better driver. With the diesel engine, we suspect it could be a winner. But as tested here, with this 1.4 engine, it’s a good example of how spending that little bit more on an upgrade can still be well worth it.