A Honda Civic Hatch fuelled by diesel is one Honda that can't be accused of lacking torque.
The Honda Civic Hatch DTi-S Diesel is the first diesel-engined car from the Japanese manufacturer to land in Australia, but it makes its late arrival felt with a 1.6-litre turbo four-cylinder that produces a stealth 300Nm of torque at just 2000rpm. There’s also 88kW of power at a high 4000rpm and an impressive 4.0L/100km claimed combined consumption.
While it obviously won’t rev to 7000rpm like a Honda i-VTEC petrol engine, the i-DTEC version has for a diesel a high 5000rpm cut out. A six-speed manual is the sole transmission option, and Honda claims 0-100km/h in 10.5 seconds.
The $26,990 Honda Civic Hatch DTi-S Diesel isn’t as cheap as the Hyundai i30 Active ($23,590 manual, $25,590 auto) or Holden Cruze Equipe ($25,690 auto) diesels. It does, however, undercut the Mazda 3 MZR-CD ($27,360 manual), Renault Megane Dynamique ($27,490 auto), Opel Astra ($27,990 manual) and Ford Focus Trend ($28,090 auto) diesels.
Based on the petrol Civic Hatch VTi-S which costs $5000 less, the DTi-S Diesel adds larger 17-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearknob, alloy pedals, automatic headlights and wipers, and stop-start technology. It also gets cruise control with speed limiter and a reversing camera, both of which were made standard across the range earlier this year.
The interior of the Honda Civic Hatch is the best in its class. It combines consistently matched soft-touch plastics with a neat, ergonomic design, but where it starts to really lead its competitors is with space utilisation.
Up front, storage spots abound, including a huge central storage bin with in-built sunglasses holder, large door pockets and glovebox, and four cupholders. Move rearward and the back-seat folding mechanism remains unrivalled in the small car class. As with the Honda Jazz, the seat base can be flipped up against the backrest to allow a large stowage area between the front and rear seats.
When the seat base isn’t flipped up, rear passengers can stick their legs under the seat base. The rear seat itself is set low, however, and rear riders get only class-average legroom and headroom.
Both the seat base and backrest can also be folded flat – split 60:40 – at the pull of a handle, with an expansive 1130 litres available all up. Even with the seat in use boot space is 400 litres, eclipsing the Hyundai i30 (378L) and almost matching the Holden Cruze Hatch (413L).
It takes few kilometres to enjoy the extra grunt of Honda’s new turbo diesel engine.
The diesel does feel soft off the line thanks to an accelerator pedal which, especially when in Econ mode, is too doughy. But it will hold speed from 1000rpm, and start to pick up pace from 1200rpm. It steams past 2000rpm (peak torque) with genuine enthusiasm, yet the distinctive diesel growl is pushed into the background. The engine also smoothens out as it reaches 4000rpm (peak power).
There isn’t, however, much point pushing past the 4500rpm redline to the 5000rpm cut out, as the tacho needle starts to slow proceedings and the engine starts to feel breathless. Revving the engine is a reminder that this car has only 88kW of power, which tapers off above its peak. It certainly doesn’t feel quick.
Its characteristics are exactly the opposite of a Honda petrol engine. A Honda virtue that clearly remains regardless of fuel type is superb manual shift quality. The six-speed is uniquely-designed for this diesel application, and its taller upper ratios allow the engine to spin at a relaxed 1950rpm at 110km/h in top gear. But the slick, short, well-oiled shift between gears, and nice, stubby leather-topped lever is typical Honda – all class.
Unfortunately, an automatic transmission is unavailable even as an option, and Honda says one currently isn’t in development. Blame Europe’s love of manual gearboxes, and Japan and America's lack of love for diesels, as creating a perfect storm for Australia – here, diesel automatics are the overwhelmingly popular option.
Only 50 sales per month are forecast for the Honda Civic Hatch DTi-S Diesel out of around 900 units forecast for the entire hatch range per month overall.
As with Mazda’s new Skyactiv-D diesel, the Honda i-DTEC diesel features a lighter aluminium block, in addition to “minimised reciprocating parts” to achieve what Honda claims to be internal engine friction equal to that of a petrol engine and half that of a conventional diesel engine. It also gets automatic stop-start technology as standard.
Still, with a 1373kg kerb weight, the Honda Civic Hatch DTi-S Diesel weighs 105kg more than its petrol-engined counterpart. Despite the petrol-matching friction and lighter alloy block of the diesel engine, almost all of that extra weight sits over the front axle.
Therefore the Civic Hatch DTi-S gets a 24 per cent increase in its front spring rate compared with the petrol VTi-S and VTi-L to help maintain front-end body control. The steering rack ratio has been sharpened to provide a more direct response, according to Honda.
The steering of the Honda Civic Hatch DTi-S Diesel certainly feels improved, with less vacancy on the centre position and a newfound crispness when winding on lock. The front end also proved noticeably less prone to wallow on rough roads than we remember with the petrol models.
Unfortunately, however, compared with the last petrol-engined Civic Hatch we drove, which in VTi-S spec wears chubbier 55-aspect 16-inch tyres, the DTi-S rides on more aggressive 45-aspec 17-inch wheels. Ride comfort, while nice on smooth surfaces and pleasantly absorbent at low speeds in urban backstreets, turns a bit restless and lumpy on rural roads at speed.
Whether the difference is due to the increased front spring rate or lower profile tyres is unclear. The Civic Hatch is also ultra quiet on smooth surfaces, but on coarse chip roads there is more road rumble than in a Volkswagen Golf, though the Honda is no worse than average for the class.
Nicely neutrally balanced handling on smooth roads is a treat, and the Civic Hatch rewards a lift of the throttle mid corner by tightening its line. Rougher roads again expose the limitations of a torsion bar rear suspension arrangement, as the Civic Hatch loses some composure. Still, it remains above average for the class.
With its fine value equation, excellent interior quality, brilliantly flexible seating arrangement, sweet manual gearbox and refined, punchy diesel engine, there’s lots to love about the first-ever Honda diesel to reach Australia. On our drive in mixed conditions, the trip computer showed 5.3L/100km, but fell to an outstanding 3.6L/100km on the freeway.
It isn’t a driver’s car like the Ford Focus, or as consistently excellent as the Volkswagen Golf, but for all-round urban smarts the Honda Civic Hatch DTi-S Diesel is the small car standout.