Car reviews - Honda - Civic - DTi-S
Good fuel economy, sporty-feeling short-throw gearbox, decent performance once a few revs are on board, feels more like a driver’s car than petrol version
Room for improvement
Lacks pulling power low in the rev range, rearward visibility is poor even with reversing camera and parking sensors cost extra, no satellite navigation available
17 Apr 2013
By BARRY PARK
HONDA freely admits the Civic “DTi-S” diesel that splits the two petrol versions on price was rushed to the Australian market to plug an important gap in its small-car line-up.
“We are late to the diesel party, and this was the car that we could get to the market quickest in terms of the technology,” Honda Australia’s director, Stephen Collins, said at the car’s launch.
What that means is that Australia gets what is effectively a Civic hatchback built for the European market, where in contrast to Australia, the love is all for manual and not automatic gearboxes.
The engine features what Honda calls “Earth Dreams” technology, which when you wade through hyperbole means an advanced, lightweight diesel drivetrain featuring - among other things - an alloy engine block and stainless steel exhaust manifold.
However, Honda says Earth Dreams means environmental friendliness and spirited performance - more on that a bit later.
The diesel four-pot, which produces 88kW of power and a more robust 300Nm of torque, also introduces a running change to the hatchback introduced to Australia in petrol-only form in June last year.
The most noticeable change is down the rear, where a strange-looking vertical fin has appeared on the rear haunch. There’s also a new pair of fins underneath the car, but you’re going to have to get down on hands and knees to spot them.
This is an aerodynamic advancement that makes the Civic hatch more slippery through the air, although no one from Honda seemed to know how much fuel the visually strange bits saved the car over the old version.
Inside, there’s a lot that’s familiar. All the less-necessary information the driver needs is presented inside a binnacle that nestles in behind the steering wheel, while a digital speedo high on the dash keeps the numbers well within the driver’s eyesight.
A Bluetooth phone connection and cruise control were handy additions at the start of this year, but a noticeable absence from the options list is satellite navigation, which at this stage doesn’t even have a scheduled arrival date.
A big, coloured screen high on the centre of the dash doubles as a reversing camera, which includes static guidelines to show where the Civic’s big bottom is likely to end up. There are no parking sensors, and the hatchback’s design includes that big split rear tailgate, so the low-resolution camera is at best a guide only.
How, then, does the oil-burning Civic hatch drive? Much better than the petrol one is the answer.
You need to start the diesel hatchback with the key, although there is a blanked-out area for a start button on the opposite end to the “ECON” button that, when pushed, makes the throttle extremely doughy.
Once started, there’s a mild rattle from the injectors until the alloy block warms up.
First impressions are good. The diesel is free-revving, smooth and quiet, although you’re not going to mistake it for a petrol unit.
Slipping it into gear is a delight. The new-generation six-speed manual gearbox that sits behind the engine has a nice, smooth and precise short-throw action, and a decent weight to the clutch pedal.
Interestingly, too, selecting reverse gear is also a lot better than how some of Honda’s rivals do things. You don’t need to push the gear shifter down, lift it up or pull on a lever to unlock access to the rearward gear - instead you pull it towards you past the end of the forward gates, and slip it backwards. Simple things are often the best.
Getting the Civic diesel started on a hill is easy, with the brakes automatically grabbing the rear wheels to stop it rolling back while you find the bite point on the clutch.
Honda says the diesel engine was optimised to minimise noise and vibration. At low revs there is still vibration through the pedals and steering wheel, and a distinct ping from the injectors, but as speeds rise it smooths out and reduces noise to a purr.
Overall, noise is well muted in the cabin, particularly from the low rolling resistance Michelin Primacy rubber fitted to the 17-inch alloys on our test car (the petrol versions get 16-inch Bridgestone hoops).
Part of the reason for this is clever noise cancellation technology that uses the stereo system’s woofer to rub out some of the harsher sounds that make their way into the Civic’s cabin.
It seems to work. Noise is fairly well muted, with only a bit of wind noise from the mirrors at highway speeds and a dull roar from the rear over coarse-chip surfaces.
Slipping the gearbox into neutral as you pull up at a set of traffic lights activates Honda’s stop-start system that kills the engine to save fuel. It works well, restarting the diesel with a small shake as soon as you lift a foot off the brake pedal. There’s a switch mounted low on the centre console that switches it off when needed.
Taking off from a standing start is not as quick as the 104kW, 1.8-litre petrol-engined Civic hatch, but rolling acceleration is much better, giving a more engaging and entertaining experience behind the steering wheel.
That’s helped by a slightly quicker steering ratio than before, and revisions to the front suspension designed to take out a bit more body roll than the petrol version.
The catch, though, is that you need to keep the revs on board. Below about 1700rpm, about a third of the way around the big tacho dial, the Civic diesel struggles to lump its own weight, requiring a downshift to keep the 1.6-litre unit in its torquey sweet spot.
You’re alerted to this by a set of lights around each side of the instrument cluster, which change from their happy green hue to glow an angry blue as the fuel economy suffers.
The Civic diesel also includes a gearshift indicator on the instrument cluster that helps you optimise fuel use. However, it seemed to appear randomly on our test car, which didn’t help things.
The big bonus for the Civic diesel is fuel economy. Officially it is rated at 4.0 litres per 100 kilometres, and on our drive through Sydney up to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, we pegged between 5.1 to 5.6L/100km on the trip computer.
Heading back down into Sydney, we pushed it as low as 3.3L/100km despite nosing through afternoon peak-hour traffic at the end of our run. While that compares with an official 6.1L/100km combined average for the petrol engine, we’ll make the call on just how well it performs when we get it on familiar ground.
Interestingly, the British version of the Civic diesel produces much lower carbon dioxide emissions than the 105 grams per kilometre rating for the Australian version.
According to Takeshi Karotobi, the assistant chief engineer of Honda’s small diesel engine program, this is because the 1.6-litre unit was tuned to meet much stricter emissions laws in the European market.
The Civic diesel hatchback, then, is a welcome addition to the small car’s showroom line-up.
However, like the petrol mill, it needs a few revs on board to keep it happy. But where the petrol engine will penalise you in terms of a much higher fuel use, the diesel engine just frowns a bit and gets on with the job.
It also offers something that only a few other competitors including Ford’s Focus and the Volkswagen Golf offer - a bit of much-needed driver engagement. However, with no automatic on the horizon, Honda is prepared to admit it will likely only be a bit player in boosting the Civic’s showroom appeal.
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