The 2012 Honda Civic has come under fire for looking too similar to its predecessor, but that aside it's a much-improved car. The chassis is a gem, it's as spacious as ever and the engines, while not the most inspiring or muted, are ultra-efficient.
In the Metal:
While the new Civic was criticised at its unveiling in Frankfurt this year for being too similar to its predecessor, it's not an unattractive shape. To get the full benefit of the restyle you need to opt for a light metallic colour. Do so and the low-set Y-shaped light and grille area at the front really stands out. Honda also lowered the split in the rear window and increased overall glass area to enhance visibility, though we'd still rather not have that obstruction in our rear-view mirror.
For the most part the cabin is well-trimmed, though there are a few harder plastics if you go looking for them. The steering wheel and controls are particularly tactile though and the gear lever is closer to hand than before to give it a sportier feel. On the practicality side the Civic is one of the most spacious cars in the class and also benefits from the clever design of the rear seats, which flip up easily to reveal massive storage.
Honda reckons the new Civic is two generations ahead of its predecessor in terms of dynamics and engineering. The hype is not completely unfounded. On the road the new car is more accomplished than before, despite retaining the same basic chassis layout. It manages to be comfortable on the motorway and soaks up poor surfaces maturely while retaining real agility on tighter roads. It's quite good fun too. The only potential negative is that the steering feels a little too alert on the motorway.
The 1.8-litre petrol engine is fine for ambling around, but you really need to extend it to extract the full 142hp and then it sounds loud and uncouth. It's smooth enough most of the time, but a little too audible at the motorway limit for our liking. Anyway, it's likely to be the lowest seller in Ireland. The 2.2-litre diesel is the other way around, making itself heard at low speeds, but not so much at a cruise, though it's commendably smooth at all times. It's the more satisfying engine too with loads of lovely torque. The six-speed manual gearbox is, as you'd hope from Honda, slick and rewarding to use.
What you get for your Money:
Depending on the engine you go for the trim levels are SE, ES and EX. All versions get climate control, start-stop (with manual gearbox), alloy wheels, USB connectivity, electric windows all-round, an alarm and LED daytime running lights.
The step up to ES brings with it Bluetooth, cruise control with speed limiter, dual-zone climate control (not on the 1.4 for some reason), rear parking camera, front fog lights, auto lights and wipers, leather steering wheel and gear knob, along with electrically retractable door mirrors.
EX models feature leather upholstery, heated front seats, satnav and an upgraded stereo.
The 1.4-litre petrol version is in Band B, starts at €20,995 and rises to €23,745. Opt for the 1.8-litre petrol engine (also in Band B) and you pay between €23,845 and €28,595. This is the only model available with an automatic gearbox. The 2.2-litre diesel now sits in Band A and costs from €23,995 to €28,295.
There's no doubt that there'll be a new Honda Civic Type-R, although there's no official word on it as yet. Though it's in keeping with the Type-R heritage, we'd be a little surprised if it retained the high-revving naturally aspirated strategy when most rivals have moved to turbocharging. Don't rule out hybrid power. Look what Mugen did with the CR-Z. Honda really needs an enthusiasts' car in its line-up.
At Tokyo Motor Show next month will be a new 1.6-litre diesel engine due to power the Civic later in 2012. The 2.2-litre is pretty efficient already, but no doubt the smaller engine will be more economical again - plus cheaper.
It'd be easy to say that the 2012 Honda Civic is merely an update of its predecessor. After all, it is built on the same platform and its design is evolutionary. However, that'd be an injustice to the improvements made, especially in terms of the driving experience and engine efficiency. It's a closer rival to the class benchmarks than ever before, while being the most practical car in the segment.