It’s a far more civil affair at Honda

GOOD for Honda, letting me drive an old-style Civic on the same indifferent Spanish roads it had chosen to launch the new one, being delivered to eager owners from early 2012.

Honda had more confidence, after listening to owners of the old, big selling (and Swindon-built) Civic, who were mostly happy about their cars but could suggest several avenues for improvement.

There were the obvious ones, applicable to every new model anywhere; make it sip less fuel and emit fewer nasty emissions from its exhaust.

Then there were the changes aimed directly at the Civic; smooth out the ride, quieten the engines and make the interior feel more upmarket.

Buyers already enjoyed their Civic’s distinctive style, inside and out and admired the way clever design had unleashed more space for people and luggage than you’d ever imagine from the car’s modest dimensions.

So the new one is clearly a thorough reworking of the old to look at, this time a bit more squared off, a little lower and wider and a touch longer too. The rear window is now gently reworked with a repositioned bar splitting the two pieces of glass, greatly improving rearward vision, and a wiper now means you can see behind in the rain. The lower section is now heated too.

Inside, softer surfaces and a bit less glitz around the instruments make the new Civic feel like a car from the class above, and now up there with the fearsome opposition provided by the likes of the Golf and Focus.

Under the bonnet sit usefully improved versions of the old engines; 1.4 and 1.8 litre petrol and a 2.2 litre diesel. A smaller 1.6 diesel is due late in 2012 and will allow Honda, belatedly, to attack the company car market, mostly ruled out at present because the current diesel is too big.

And so to the drive: will the newcomer drive like a new generation Civic, despite using some (unseen) parts of the old one, if reworked in detail for their new application?

The short answer is yes. Driven back to back, the old car felt loud and hard riding by comparison. The difference was surprising, to say the least, considering how the two cars’ on-paper descriptions are so similar.

Driven first was the 1.8 litre petrol, which needed revving up anything approaching a Spanish motorway incline to maintain momentum, although a gear-change made slicker this time made progress less of a bind.

But the Civic to choose, if you can justify its extra cost, has to be the diesel version.

With twice the pulling power of the petrol model it shrugged off the hills in fifth and loped along the uncrowded motorways in sixth gear with a gentle hum from up front.

Driven with similar verve, the petrol car gave me 39mpg, the diesel managed a more impressive 50mpg. Case proved, I’d say. If the extra £2,100 the diesel costs over the equivalent petrol model can be made to make sense for your motoring budget, that is.

Prices start at £16,495 for the slow selling 1.4 litre petrol Civic and top out at an airy £26,595 for the bells and whistles diesel EX GT.