Honda's new five-door Civic is the evolution of a car we never got in New Zealand. When it was launched in 2006, it really hit the funny bone in Europe, the market it was designed and built for, with wedgy styling, sexy triangular exhaust pipes, concentrically arranged dash areas, magic rear seats a la the Jazz super mini and a hero Type-R model that used a naturally aspirated motor to outdrive most of its turbocharged competitors.
Meantime, poor old New Zealand had let its access to Civic five-doors lapse as production moved from Japan to Britain, and our little market had to make do with what it could get from Asia. It being a mainly four-door market, Honda could supply only sedans.
Australian hatch fans managed to pressure their Honda people to fetch limited numbers of the hatch from Swindon, Britain, but we had no luck on this side of the ditch.
Some private customers did bring their own posh pommy Honda hatches in, however, enjoying a positive exchange rate and the knowledge that JD Power research reckoned that the British Hondas were unlikely to go wrong.
Waiting until the spectacular wedgy Civic underwent its redesign late last year, Honda New Zealand did its sums and came up with an import deal that not only allowed them a profit, but enabled them to furnish a well-equipped Civic hatch to the New Zealand market for a surprisingly slick $32,990.
That's for the entry-point 1.8 S six-speed manual, which, with a smooth 1.8-litre engine putting out 104 kilowatts and an equipment level that leaves little out and includes very smart 16-inch alloys, is no stripped-back starter model.
It still fronts with six airbags, a full alphabet soup of electronic driver aids, a five-star Euro NCAP crash safety rating and a fully revamped evolution of the previous car's market-stopping wedge styling. A five-speed automatic version of the 1.8 S adds $2000, while if you want heated seats, slightly simpler connectivity and leather trim, along with lower-profile 17-inch rims and matching tyres, you will need $38,900 for the 1.8L, an automatic-only offering.
The redesign, which makes the hatch concurrent with the ninth-generation sedan, effectively rounds off its sharply edged predecessor to improve aerodynamics and, as a result, noise, vibration and harshness levels and fuel consumption.
On the outside, the sharply edged side glasses are still there, but curvy wheel arches and slightly longer front and rear overhangs mean you will never mistake the new car for the old, not that most New Zealanders would know what the old car looked like anyway.
At the rear, LED lighting does double duty as a wind-harnessing spoiler, splitting the tailgate glass where the lower plane tries to make up for the high rear waist line, which can give you a worry or two for rearward visibility.
The most effective part of the aerodynamic improvement is invisible to casual observers, although if you can stick your head under the car, you'll notice an almost perfectly flat underpanel which has been designed to allow airflow under the car with less interruption, thus reducing wind resistance and lift. The panel covers most of the exhaust system and some of the car's suspension.
Where the Civic hatch is really going to score is in its use of similar packaging technology, as seen in the amazingly well-sorted Jazz, which is still without peer for load and passenger space in its segment after 10 years.
Like the Jazz, the Civic five-door uses a forward-mounted fuel tank, thus enabling the use of a magic rear seat which, when the squabs are folded up and locked, allows tall, awkward loads to go into the centre of the car, without impinging on the boot. The car's neat torsion beam rear suspension setup keeps the floor flat to facilitate the stowage room and there's great space for full-sized adults in the rear.
The boot is huge, with 487 litres of load capacity.
The rising rearward waist line means that the car's visibility at the rear quarters is compromised a little, but looking straight back, the spilt window does give you a reasonable view as to what you are reversing into.
At the front, too, the pillars are a little thick, but you get used to them, and no-one, not even with a large frame like mine, can complain about the front driver's or passenger's positions.
Good driver's seat and wheel adjustment means most shapes and sizes are well catered to, and for the sake of a few moments' study, the double-level dash and various digital readouts are easy to master, while the quality stereo is identical to that furnished in the sedan, albeit with a much more pleasant surface finish.
The same goes for the basic dash and console furniture – the textures, softness to the touch and general finish are vastly better than the sedan's.
Betraying its European sourcing, the Civic hatch has left-side indicators, which is about the only thing you will need to get used to, because the car is simplicity itself to drive.
The manual car has a typically crisp shift action and well-sorted throttle and clutch actions, and it becomes second nature to accurately match engine speed with incoming lower ratios when down-shifting. Moving one's foot from throttle to brake pedal is easy, and there is room to indulge in some toe-heel braking if you have a mind to.
Geared for European motorways, the manual Civic is a long-legged prospect, and it's just as well the six-speed gearbox is slick, for the car suffers from some low revolution lethargy and needs to be stirred to be kept on the boil. But cog-swapping is good fun anyway, and a nice benefit of that moon-shot gearing is that at 100kmh, the engine is barely drawing breath.
Give it a good thrashing and the car will run to 100kmh in a little less than nine seconds.
The five-speed automatic is about a half second slower, but I prefer it.
The slurringly smooth automatic better suits the car's remarkable refinement levels, and seems to keep the engine in its sweet sport without any evidence of "hunting" or the like.
Civics have never been hard on gas and the 1.8 hatch offers EU ratings of 6.5 litres per 100 kilometres and 146 grams per km, which is above average in the segment and a nice surprise considering its crisp performance.
On the road, the Civic offers a nice blend of ride quality and tidy handling and you will get a good balance between fun and comfort.
Thanks to new mixed-compound, semi-fluid rear suspension bushes, it doesn't cause flinches over bumps, and although some might criticise electric power-steering systems, Honda has been using them for a decade and a half, and the Civic's setup is one of the best. It's accurate, offers good resistance when cornering hard, and although it's not the most talkative setup, I can think of several hydraulic steering systems that don't provide as much tactility.
I like the car's confident way on turn-in, when it feels well planted and taut. The car stays flat and solid mid-bend, offers good grip with either tyre size on offer, and understeers predictably, but quite late in the process of cornering.
On the open road, the Civic yawns quietly along at 100kmh, and there's little wind noise.
While you can detect the difference between surface types, the Honda's road noise is well suppressed too, thanks to those new bushings, I'd guess.
I was so pleased when Honda decided to take advantage of exchange rates and give the Swindon factory a ring.
While the Civic sedan has always been a decent car, it has never exactly set the world on fire. The Euro Civic hatch adds a sense of occasion to the segment that starts with its looks, and continues throughout.
I have a few quibbles. The base car does not offer cruise control and looks a little undershod on 16-inch alloy rims, but for less than $33,000, this is churlish and barrel-scraping.
Designed to compete in Europe against such luminaries in the C-segment hatch business as the Golf and Focus, the Civic five-door is the only Japanese offering to meet them head on, with the possible exception of the Mazda3.
Factor in the car's price, performance and equipment, and it's a no-brainer, without even considering its space and looks.
HONDA CIVIC HATCH
Drivetrain: Transverse, FWD fuel-injected 1.8-litre 16v DOHC i-VTEC fours, with six-speed manual or five-speed automatic.
Performance: Max 104kW at 6500rpm and 174Nm at 4300rpm. Max 205kmh, 0-100kmh 8.8sec, 6.1-6.5L/100km, 146-155g/km CO2.
Chassis: Front MacPherson struts, rear twist beam, speed-sensitive electronic rack and pinion steering. 16 or 17-inch alloy rims.
Safety: Front, side and full-length curtain airbags; ABS, EBA, electronic stability control, vehicle stability assist; Ero NCAP five-star rating.
Dimensions: L 4300mm, W 1770mm, H 1475mm, W/base 2665mm, weight 1268-1336kg, fuel 50 litres.
Pricing: Euro Civic 1.8S manual $32,900, automatic $34,900, 1.8L automatic only $38,900.
Hot: Compelling value for money; sweet engine; biddable chassis; different but attractive; superbly refined.
Not: Single-engine option; no satellite navigation; no cruise control in base car.
Verdict: The Civic five-door has a welcome return to New Zealand, and Honda will do very well by this supremely quiet, intelligent car.