IT’S ON first acquaintance and in the first few metres of driving that Honda’s new Civic, which goes on sale in January, is at its most impressive.It’s not that Honda’s new Focus rival doesn’t have the substance to back up its appearance, it’s just that it feels so very special when you first get in and drive off that it particularly takes you aback.Neat touches abound, quality exudes from the controls and the plentiful details appear even more thoughtful because the Civic sits in the C-segment, a class chock-full of cars that, though extremely competitive, can so often be sterile. Of the new Civic’s rivals, only Citroën’s C4 is similarly boldly engineered, and not even that possesses such a ‘wow’ factor. And we rather like this Honda for that.Reaction from interested bystanders, however, is a little more mixed. Some find the Civic’s coupé-esque lines and pilot-focused interior extremely appealing. Others seem a bit deterred by the proportions, overly-reflective front end, and the slightly 1980s-techno feel to it all.True, there’s certainly a Japanese flavour to the Civic, perhaps surprisingly so, given that it has been engineered extensively in Europe, exclusively for sale in Europe, and that it’s built in Swindon.Details that might seem kitsch and dated tomorrow are thoughtful and neat today: the front doors’ free pivoting handles, the gently curved lower section of dashboard with its reflective, hi-fi-esque black coating. But there’s genuine objective merit and engineering purity to the cockpit, as well as surprise-and-delight.The driving controls face the driver, as in the S2000’s cabin, while minor controls are available for all. The upper section of dash displays a glance-able speedometer, further from your eyes than other dials so there’s less road-to-speedo refocusing.The drilled alloy pedals feel good, particularly the floor-hinged throttle, and the sculpted gearlever – part metallic-ish plastic, part rubber – feels great. And despite the initial oddness of some of the buttons – those for heating and ventilation are arranged in a circle, for example – they’re actually very easy to use.In addition to the collection of buttons on the driver’s panel, there are stereo and ancillary controls in the centre of the dash. And, on posher models, which get a large LCD display in the upper dash, there’s a rotary dial with menus and options that are fairly easy to navigate. On some variants, front-seat passengers even get a thermostat on their door panel.On second inspection, our opinion of the Civic is only marginally less favourable. The driver’s seat – leather on the top-spec EX test car we tried - feels supportive, but that headlining is rather close. The latest Civic bucks trends and is smaller in both length and height than its predecessor. It’s a smidgen wider, but obviously that doesn’t prevent the swooping roofline glancing close to the top of the driver’s head. At 5ft10in, I barely had an inch of headroom when in a comfy driving position (although our test car was fitted with optional twin glass roof panels).The driver’s seat, although height adjustable, doesn’t go low enough either, so this situation cannot easily be remedied. Reclining the seat further back does help, and the steering wheel is placed to allow this. The reach adjustment does not have a huge range of travel, but both starts and finishes much closer to your torso than usual, so even when reclined you can bring the wheel within easy twirling distance.In either seating position, the Civic’s steering wheel and the quality of the general driving controls are excellent. The wheel is small, delicate to hold and look at and seemingly constructed from many different parts, including some meshed plastic in the bottom spoke. Sporty? Classy? A hint of both.The steering itself, electrically power-assisted, is light, so there’s negligible feel of the road, but it’s responsive and very direct at 2.29 turns lock-to-lock. At high speeds this equates to a little nervousness, but at lower speeds it’s excellent. Throttle, clutch and brakes have nicely weighted actions, too, and the six-speed manual gearbox – accurate, oily, direct – is fabulous.At launch, that six-speed gearbox is standard with all engine options. Those are a 1.4 (actually 1339cc) 82bhp petrol unit, a 1.8 petrol with 138bhp, and a 2.2-litre i-CTDi turbodiesel, also with 138bhp, which is the only derivative we’ve yet driven.In the Accord, the i-CDTi turbodiesel is a real cracker, and here it displays some similar characteristics – smooth power delivery, good throttle response and strong performance. However, to make it fit into the Civic’s tight engine bay, Honda has had to modify it significantly, and the NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) levels have suffered.It’s noisy at idle and nearly always audible on part-throttle – not just diesel clatter, but a peculiar whine, overlaid with the turbo’s whistle. It’s not hugely intrusive, but given how quiet this engine can be it’s disappointing that it is only truly hushed at motorway cruising speeds.Otherwise, the latest Civic is refined and comfortable. The ride is sound and there was minimal road and wind noise on the (admittedly smooth) roads where we tried the car. The ride’s relative compliance around town doesn’t hinder it greatly on the open road, either. The Civic steers with precision and corners very neatly, with minimal roll, reasonable agility and adequate body control. It’s not as much fun as a Ford Focus but it leaves a glut of cars – 307, C4, Corolla, Mégane – comfortably behind.Practically speaking, the shrinking of height and length has not hindered the Civic as much as you might fear. Rear-seat passengers get plenty of legroom, and the rear seats split-fold cleverly: as the backs fold forwards, the base automatically dips towards the floor, giving a flat load bay. Furthermore, the rear seat bases can be folded upwards – as in the Jazz - to create blocks of volume in the rear passenger space. Odd, but likely to be quite useful for securing loads.Honda also expects the Civic to be safe, predicting it’ll achieve five NCAP stars, with a strong three for pedestrian impact. All Civics get twin front, front-side and full-length curtain airbags. Other standard kit is reasonably class competitive, although base ‘S’ models could benefit from air-con and CD player to make them really on the money.Further up the range the full complement of goodies comes in: leather, satellite navigation, climate control, parking sensors and the like. But somewhere in the middle, between £14,400 (1.8 SE) and 2.2 i-CDTi Sport (£16,600) is where the real big-sellers will be.Here the Civic will do well, and despite some foibles, it thoroughly deserves to.
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