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Quieter and smoother than the diesel version and drives better. It’s thirsty when pushed, though.

YOU MAY NOT think 1.8-litre petrol four-cylinder engines are very important any more, what with the rise and rise of diesel power as the default choice.However, Honda reckons they are – it says this new 1799cc engine is going to be the big seller in the Civic, while new company car tax rules could take the tax advantage away from the black stuff. And this 1.8 is our first taste of the new Civic in the UK, the country where it’s built.Under a wintry British sky it looks extraordinary, in the same way the original Focus did when it first appeared, with its glittering nose and unexpected geometric detailing. People double take when they see it.Honda makes some brave claims for this 1.8-litre engine, ‘the economy of a 1.6 with the performance of a 2.0-litre’ being one of them.There isn’t a 1.6 Civic, so this is the direct rival for the big-selling 1.6 Golf and Ford Focus models. It’s considerably more lively than either of those two, if not as quiet at idle as the VW’s engine.At low revs, it’s pretty much what you would expect from a small-capacity petrol engine – adequate, but nothing special. But where it works is when you fully open the throttle. It pulls and pulls and pulls – sixth at 45mph, third at 85mph, whatever.And this makes it very good on motorways, with masses of flexibility and overtaking ability – as much as a 2.0-litre, in fact. It’s quieter than Honda’s rather noisy diesel, too. But at high motorway speeds, economy plummets into the mid-20s.It also dispenses with the diesel’s overstrong self-centring steering, for a smoother, more progressive helm. But it suffers from the same fragile, jiggly and noisy ride at anything below 40mph. This trait marked the diesel down in our group test last week, and was made even more noticeable by poor quality British roads.As an overall package, though, the 1.8-litre petrol car is very good – more refined and a smoother drive than the diesel, with significantly more shove than its 1.6-litre-engined rivals. It looks as though petrol could be the way forward after all.Dan Stevens

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