The local split with Mercedes-Benz of SA,

covered in some detail in previous issues of CAR, came after almost two decades

in which the marque had built a reputation for flair, performance and handling,

along with the level of reliability normally associated with Japanese cars.

It's a reputation that HMC, now the direct marketers of its own products

in this country, is keen to nurture and develop. Hence the choice of a new "volume"

model, the Japanese-built Civic 170i V-TEC saloon (in five-speed manual and

four-speed auto versions), to spearhead the South African effort. Unlike the

V-TEC "screamers" that topped the outgoing Ballade/Civic line-up,

the new Civic uses the company's variable valve technology to achieve

drivability and flexibility in a car designed, as one Japanese engineer quaintly

put it to us, for "the daily life".

Conservatively styled, it's nevertheless a handsome car, with looks

that are more interesting at second glance. We reckon the shape should appeal

to the junior execs and well-heeled female buyers who have traditionally been

the mainstay Honda customers. Leaf-shaped multi-reflector headlights provide

a touch of "overtaking presence", and elegant touches of brightwork

add texture to the smooth wedge shape. The package is set off by neat multi-spoke

alloy wheels. Bumpers, door-handles and side-protection mouldings are colour-coded.

Inside, there's more conservatism - and a noticeable step up in

quality compared with the previous South African-built cars. Fit is vastly improved,

and materials are of high quality. However, the accent is on functionality,

and one tester felt the cabin needed some variation in texture, and perhaps

a lightening of the black facia, to provide more appeal.

The seats are beautifully upholstered in quality velour cloth, and provide

good comfort and support for average-sized people. But our tallest (1,9 m) tester

found the driver's chair too high (even with the tilt-adjustable squab

in its lowest position) and its rearward travel limited, all of which combined

to force him into a "sit-up-and-beg" driving position.

Equipment is comprehensive. Among the standard features are air-conditioning,

electric windows, remote central locking, transponder-key immobiliser, interior

dome light delay, Pioneer radio with front-loading CD player, a height-adjustable

wheel, a heated rear window, high-mounted rear brake light, a remote boot and

fuel-flap opener, and cupholders. The 60:40-split seatback folds forward to

extend the boot-space from 380 dm3 to 972 dm3 (measured by the ISO block method).

It is also lockable to prevent unauthorised access to the boot from the interior.

Climb into the rear compartment, and you'll be struck by the extra legroom

and spaciousness around the foot area. The effect is achieved by eliminating

the centre tunnel. As the tunnel is designed into front-drive cars mainly to

stiffen the structure, we wondered whether this might detract from the body-shell's

rigidity. But Honda says stiffness has been maintained by reinforcing the body

in specific areas.

Safety was a high priority in designing this car for "the daily life".

The impact-absorbing "G-control" shell has been designed with

the NCAP test standards in mind. The doors are of a special anti-intrusion design,

and feature side impact beams, the two front seatbelts are equipped with pretensioners,

and driver's and passenger's airbags are standard equipment.

Honda, of course, tends to focus above all on the dynamics of its cars. They

must go well, corner well and stop well. The rest is all a matter of taste and

owner preference. So it's interesting that the Civic has at last moved

away from HMC's traditional formula of double wishbones at every corner

to a combination of MacPherson struts in front, with double wishbones at the

rear. Honda says the change allows better space-utilisation, and has not affected

handling or roadholding.

Our test car confirmed this: as with its predecessors, the Civic proved to

be one of the wieldiest, grippiest front-drivers around. Handling is neutral

up to extremely high cornering speeds, when the front will tend to wash out.

This is easily controlled, with a quick throttle-lift all that's necessary

to achieve a gentle tightening of line. Steering is light, with just the right

level of feel, making for a highly manoeuvrable driving machine.

Springing is on the sporty side, but ride is acceptable on smooth or undulating

tarmac. Show the 170i really choppy road surfaces, however, and the composure

becomes slightly compromised, the body bouncing over the bumps. There's

also plenty of road noise on coarse surfaces, and the engine drones a bit at

cruising speeds.

Undeniably the jewel in this watch-like car is the four-cylinder s-o-h-c 1

688 cm3 V-TEC powerplant. Thanks to Honda's unique valve control system

- which keeps one of the pair of intake valves on each cylinder closed at

lower revs to boost torque and limit fuel consumption, with an hydraulic piston

linking two rocker arms to bring the second inlet valve into play at higher

revs to improve breathing - it offers impressive flexibility. This, along

with fairly low gearing, means the car is extremely happy in the higher gears

at city speeds. But, if you choose to put your foot down, the engine revs rapidly

and raucously to the 7 000 r/min limiter with no sign of strain at all.

With a slick-shifting manual gearbox that allowed superbly satisfying snap

changes, the test car accelerated to 100 km/h in 10,17 seconds, surging on to

an impressive top speed of 201 km/h. In-gear acceleration in top gear was strong,

too, the test car gaining momentum from a juddering 40 km/h to reach 120 km/h

in just over 27 seconds.

Still on the straight and narrow, the Civic pulled up as well as it went, clocking

an average of 3,05 seconds in our 10-stop 100-to-zero braking test. Braking

is by ventilated discs in front and drums at the rear, and an anti-lock system

ensures optimal control in emergency stopping.

With the engine's seamless torque delivery and the lowish gearing, we

were curious to measure the 170i's fuel economy. Sadly, incompatibility

with our Pierburg flowmeter meant we were unable to conduct constant-speed tests,

but we did record overall figures that suggest owners will be quite pleased

with the fuel thirst. The worst figure we recorded (which included the performance

testing) was 9,82 litres/100 km. A stint of more normal driving resulted in

a figure of 8,34 litres per 100 km. Overall consumption for the test period

was 9,12 litres per 100 km, a figure we believe enthusiastic drivers should

achieve fairly comfortably. With a tank capacity of only 50 litres, range is

limited to around 548 km.

Original article from Car