Honda hasn't exactly been at the forefront of diesel engine development but the company's 1.6-litre i-DTEC unit is impressive. Jonathan Crouch checks it out in the much improved ninth generation Civic.
Ten Second Review
The improved Honda Civic 1.6 i-DTEC might just be the Honda diesel you've been waiting years and years for. With 120PS under its belt, it's got a bit about it, but will return 78.5mpg and 94g/km - pretty good for a family hatch.
Wouldn't it be great if Honda built a diesel engine? I mean, really built a diesel engine? Until now, it feels as if the Japanese company has just been paying lip service to diesel. Prior to 2002, Honda didn't have a diesel engine on its books. It had believed that the VTEC variable valve timing technology it used on its petrol engines was a better solution and that the public would eventually come round to that view given a bit of time. In 2002, it introduced a1.7-litre Isuzu-GM engine that was so bad it seemed as if they'd chosen it merely to make their petrol engines look good. This situation wasn't to last and in 2004 we saw the Honda N-engine introduced. This is the 2.2-litre diesel you're probably familiar with. It had an aluminium block to keep weight down, common-rail direct injection and a variable geometry turbocharger. In 2004 it was a very good engine. In 2011 it was state of the ark. Time for a rethink. What we have instead is a new generation of Honda diesels and this time it feels as if the Japanese brand has given the designs its full attention. Here we take a look at the 1.6 i-DTEC unit in the ninth-generation Civic.
Just as the 2.2-litre engine has been thoroughly revised, this 1.6-litre diesel requires some fresh perspectives. It's been designed to offer high performance and low emissions and goes about its job in a very Honda way. For a start, it's extremely small and light for a diesel lump, weighing in at fully 47kg less than the old 2.2-litre engine that's no longer offered. The 1.6 makes 120PS at 4000rpm, which is impressive enough, but perhaps more interesting is the 300Nm of torque it can develop at just 2,000rpm. That's only 50Nm down on its (much) bigger brother. The engine's built in Swindon and designed for the European market, where one will roll of a specially-developed line every 138 seconds. This ninth-gen Civic features a mix of new and carry-over tech from the last car. The rear end is suspended by a simple yet space-efficient torsion beam, Honda reasoning that if it could make the feisty Type-R work, and work well, with a torsion beam rear, then there was clearly nothing wrong with the fundamental layout. It uses clever fluid-filled compliance bushes to improve overall ride and handling. A lot of resource has been poured into improving ride and refinement on this car, with particular emphasis placed on reducing wind noise and improving the cabin noise insulation, something that is key with a small but high-power diesel engine. A six-speed manual gearbox is the default transmission pick.
Design and Build
There have been a few exterior design tweaks to both the Civic hatch and the Civic Tourer estate. Gone is the weirdly modern yet somewhat bland face and in comes revised headlight units with integrated daytime running lights and a more rakish front bumper assembly. The Civic hatchback also features a slicker design for the rear bumper, side skirts, a rear spoiler finished in black, plus LED rear lamps. The sum total of these changes is that the car now looks a lot more like an older eighth generation Civic. Retrograde? Not really. That car was a little peach. The cabin of the ninth-gen car was never its strong point and again, there's quite a strange disconnect between a high-tech driver's pod and a rather cheap and bland-looking left-hand side of the fascia. It's almost as if the Honda designers ran out of budget 60 per cent of the way across and called the job a good 'un. Still, at least they managed to get to the Android-powered 7-inch touch screen with Honda Connect before the ATM said no. There are also better quality seat fabrics and stitching on the headrests, classier door trims with chrome door handles and a control panel finished in a metallic black. The Civic's 477-litre and Civic Tourer's 624-litre boot capacity remain the best in their respective segments.
Market and Model
Honda has realised that there's little point in trying to price this Civic against premium family hatchbacks like BMW's 1 Series and the Audi A3. So, with this facelift, prices have been reduced - in some case by as much as £1,620 - to pitch this car closer to the Focus and Astra mainstream. The premium required to own the desirable Tourer estate model over the standard hatch has been reduced too - to just over £1,000. It all means that i-DTEC pricing now starts from just under £19,000. Standard equipment includes Honda's Intelligent Multi-Information Display (i-MID) 5-inch dashboard screen which displays relevant driving details such as mpg, climate and audio settings. Other inclusions run to a rear wiper, daytime running lights and a headlight-off timer that maintains illumination for 15 seconds after the car is locked. SE trim also includes 16-inch alloy wheels, automatic air-conditioning and USB connectivity for compatible MP3 audio devices. Further up the range, there are features like cruise control with a speed limiter, a rear view parking camera, keyfob-operated windows and door mirror folding, plus auto up/down electric rear windows. Additional kit on top EX Plus models includes Navigation, dual-zone air-conditioning, Bluetooth Hands Free Telephone (HFT), front fog lamps, auto headlights and wipers, leather steering wheel and gear knob, ambient interior lighting and 6 speaker audio system.
Cost of Ownership
We've come a long way in a short space of time. Honda's 138PS 2.2-litre diesel in the last shape Civic managed 53.3mpg and emitted 140g/km. This 1.6-litre unit isn't quite as powerful, at 120PS, but its economy and emissions figures are of a different realm. Honda claims an average of 78.5mpg and emissions of just 94g/km. That means free road tax and London congestion charge exemption, should you feel the need to experience the joy that is driving in the middle of the capital during working hours. The engine's the first to have been developed by Honda's fantastically-titled 'Earth Dreams Technology unit', tasked with improving efficiency while keeping the engines fun to drive. It uses a latest generation injection from Bosch and variable nozzle turbo technology from Garrett. It's bound to be a popular choice with fleet customers looking for a vehicle with that winning combination of low day to day running costs, excellent reliability and modest depreciation.
The belief that variable valve-timed petrol engines and then petrol/electric hybrids would satisfy customer needs better than diesel engines was one of Honda's rare engineering mistakes. It's taken the company a long time to buy into the philosophy of compression-ignition engines but it now seems to have grasped that if it's to do well in Europe, it needs a diesel engine and a good one at that. In typical Honda fashion, it's built two, but this 120PS 1.6-litre i-DTEC is the one that's going to shift the big numbers. I can see that some old-school dyed in the wool Hondaphiles may see this as a dilution of the way the company once was. But there's no point in living in the past. Anyway, the eighth-generation Civic as a whole is already a distinctly pragmatic vehicle, utilising technology that works. All right, so some feel that Honda was at its best when the engineers didn't listen to the marketing people and just produced extreme vehicles nobody else was capable of. I'm not of that school. While it's true that this Japanese brand built some amazing cars as a result, these days that's a recipe for financial ruin. So Honda's become a bit more mainstream, a little more expedient? As this Civic 1.6 i-DTEC shows, sometimes there's genius in exactly that.