Let's get one thing out of the way: You can't buy this car, at least not if you live in North America. This is the European-market Honda Civic, and it's quite a bit different than the Civic sold here. So why am I testing it? Because it's powered by Honda's i-CTDi turbodiesel engine. Honeywell, which developed the i-CTDi's variable-geometry turbocharger, imported this particular Civic to Detroit, and I jumped at the chance to see if Honda's diesel is as good its gas engines. Is it? Read on.
First Glance: Different strokes for different folks
Europeans and Americans have different tastes in cars, which is why Honda builds different versions of the Civic. The most obvious difference is that this Civic is a hatchback, Europe's body style of choice. But the design is more radical -- the North American Civic is futuristic, sure, but the Euro Civic goes even further. It looks like a 3-door hatchback, but it's actually a 5-door; the back door handles are concealed in the black window trim. The headlights wrap into the grille, echoing the one-piece taillight out back, while triangular openings in the front bumper -- fog lights on nicer Civics, plastic blanks on cheap ones -- mirror the twin triangular exhaust ports in the back bumper. I like the strong crease that goes over the front fender and straight to the back of the car (note to the Mazda3 sedan designers: This is how it's done), but I wasn't crazy about the spoiler that bisects the back window.
Inside, the Euro Civic gets the familiar split-level dash -- speedometer up above the steering wheel rim, tachometer beneath -- though the exact layout differs from the American car. Like Honda's S2000 sports car, the Civic has a separate "Engine Start" button, a novelty that quickly gets old, since you still have to insert and turn the key before the pressing the button. The rest of the switchgear is Honda-familiar, though the design reminds me more of the Fit than the US Civic. The back seat doesn't feel quite as roomy, but it does get a flip-up bottom cushion like the Fit. And the trunk is huge, with a big (though heavy) hatch lid that opens down to bumper height.
Under the Hood: The 2.2 i-CTDi Engine
Europeans love diesels. Not only do diesel cars go further on a gallon of fuel than their gasoline counterparts, but diesel fuel is cheaper than gas in many European countries. Honda was a relative latecomer to the diesel game -- in Europe, just like in the States, they concentrated on super-fuel-efficient gasoline engines -- but they eventually got on board, first buying third-party diesels and then developing their own.The Civic I drove is powered by Honda's 2.2 liter i-CTDi diesel, predecessor of the 2.2i i-DTEC (the "clean" diesel that Honda had considered bringing to the United States). The i-CTDi first appeared in the European-market Accord (similar to our Acura TSX), and was added to the Civic range in 2006. 2.2 liters makes it a rather large engine for a car the size of the Civic; most of the Civic's rivals use 1.9 or 2.0 liter diesels. Output is 138 horsepower, and as with most diesels, the torque is significantly higher -- 250 lb-ft. (For comparison, the 1.8 liter gasoline engine used in the US-spec Civic puts out 140 hp but only 128 lb-ft.) According to Honda, the diesel-powered Civic goes from 0-100 km/h (62 MPH) in 8.6 seconds -- 0.3 seconds faster than a Euro Civic with the 140 hp gasoline engine. Official fuel economy figures for the i-CTDi with the 6-speed manual transmission are 35 MPG in the urban cycle (similar to the EPA's city cycle), 53 MPG in the extra-urban cycle, and 45 MPG combined. Carbon dioxide emissions -- Europeans pay attention to that kind of thing -- are also lower: 135 grams per kilometer vs. 152 for the 140 hp gas motor.
On the Road: Good, but not as good as I expected
I'm a big fan of Honda's gasoline engines, and I had high hopes for their diesel. But after driving the Civic, I'm thinking I may have set my hopes a little too high. Let's talk about what the i-CTDi does well: It's very powerful, and the power comes on strong from about 1,500 RPM thanks to the variable-nozzle turbocharger. (Disclaimer: The Civic was loaned to me by Honeywell, which developed the i-CTDi's turbocharger. But that's not why I'm talking about it -- the turbo really is the best part of the engine.) For comparison, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI -- which has a variable-nozzle turbo made by Borg-Warner -- doesn't start to build up power until 2,500 RPM. A thousand RPM may not seem like much, but since most diesels -- including the Honda and the VW --only rev to 4,500 RPM or so, the early boost makes a big difference. Also impressive: Cold starting. Overnight temps were in the low teens Fahrenheit during my week with the Civic. Every morning I'd turn the key, wait for the glow plugs to cycle (4 or 5 seconds), then hit the start button, and it would fire right up. Once -- well, okay, twice -- I forgot to wait for the glow plugs and the engine still started right up, running roughly for a few seconds then settling down to a clattery idle.
Downsides: The i-CTDi is noisier than the European diesels I've driven; it sounded like I was being tailed by a Super Duty pickup. And the exhaust smell frequently wafted into the car, something that didn't happen with the Jetta TDI or the Mercedes Bluetec. (To be fair, those cars are US-emissions compliant; the Civic i-CTDi isn't.)
Journey's End: Cool and frugal; too bad we won't see it here
So what about fuel economy? According to the Civic's trip computer, I averaged 5.3 liters per 100 kilometers, which translates to 44.4 miles per US gallon -- pretty darn impressive compared to the 30-or-so I'd expect to average in a gasoline-powered Civic. At the time I tested the Civic, diesel fuel was running about 25% higher than regular gasoline, so despite the higher price I still saved money on fuel. Does that mean you could make your money back on a diesel? Impossible to say, not only because fuel prices keep changing, but because we have no idea what Honda would charge for a diesel-powered Civic here in the States, and chances are we won't find out any time soon.
Overall, I really liked the European Civic. I can understand why Honda is reluctant to sell the hatchback body style in America, but I wish they'd give it a go -- it may be too radical for mainstream Civic buyers, but it'd make a great hot-rod Civic Si. As for the diesel, well, it wasn't the revolutionary engine that I was hoping for, but it was still pretty good -- and from what I've read about the old Honda CVCC gas engines from the mid-70s, it took them a while to get those right, too. Not that it matters -- Acura and Honda had plans to bring diesel cars to the US, but those have since been shelved. So aside from this particular Civic i-CTDi, we probably won't be seeing diesel Hondas in the US any time soon. -- Aaron Gold
The car for this test drive was provided by Honeywell.