Honda launched the superb Civic four-door hatchback in South Africa this week but, if you were expecting merely the sedan version (launched in January 2012) with a reworked backside, you’d be very wrong.On a number of counts...For a start, the hatch rides on a platform very different to that of the sedan, says Yoshiaki Nakamura, the genial MD of Honda SA. The fascia assembly is different and more advanced than that of the sedan and the parking brake now lives on the passenger side of what used to be called the transmission tunnel; the gear-shifter is closer to the driver.DIESEL TOP MODELThe 1.6 V-TEC engine of the sedan range is absent (at least for now) but the much-revised 1.8 i-VTEC (expected to be the volume seller) is waiting for your right foot and attached to either a six-speed manual or five-speed auto in either Elegance or Executive (see below) trim. The sedan range also offers lesser-specced Comfort models.Top of the hatch range is a diesel-fuelled but very quiet, very powerful, 2.2 i-DTEC Exclusive turbodiesel that comes only with the six-speed manual box but a cabin specification level to rival that of far more expensive cars. Honda Civic image gallery.The 1.8 delivers 104kW at 6500rpm and 174Nm at 4300rpm and, Honda says, is more responsive at low to medium engine speeds than its predecessor as well as smoother and more refined at all engine speeds – I took it to 6000 in third gear to check. No argument...COMMON-RAIL DIESELImprovements to the engine have, Honda says, resulted in a 10% cut in fuel consumption with a (combined) figure of 6.1 litres/100km and CO2 output of 146g/km listed for the Elegance six-speed manual. The engine needs 9.1 seconds to reach 100km and top speed is 212km/h.The 2.2 diesel uses the latest common-rail diesel injection to produce 110kW at 4000rpm and peak torque of 350Nm from 2000-2750rpm. The six-speed manual transmission allows fuel consumption (Honda data) of 4.7 litres/100km and CO2 emissions of 124g/km. Launch to 100km/h takes 8.7 seconds and top speed is 216km/h.Both models have Eco Assist technology that uses the cars’ speedometer illumination to advise on driving technique: blue at idle, under acceleration and when decelerating, green when the right foot gets gentle and blue-green when attention starts to wander.Here are the prices (sedan prices for comparison in brackets): you can argue whether they’re high or low after reading on...Civic 1.8 i-VTEC Elegance - R248 000 (R259 000)Civic 1.8 i-VTEC Elegance a/t - R261 000 (R271 900)Civic 1.8 i-VTEC Executive - R270 000 (R269 900)Civic 1.8 i-VTEC Executive a/t - R283 000 (R282 900)Civic 2.2 i-DTEC Exclusive - R343 800 (no sedan diesel)Prices include a five-year or 90 000km service plan and three-year or 100 000km warranty. Service intervals set at 15 000km.1.6 i-DTEC Elegance and Executive versions are expected in about eight months but a Sport Pack that includes front, rear and side skirts, tail hatch spoiler, illuminated entry step garnish, “sports” fuel filler lid and 18” Krypton alloy rims (extra option) is available now.Other immediate differences between the hatch and sedan include the size and shape of the fascia ventilation slots and the main instrument panel – now with a large, round rev counter (check through the image gallery for interior shots and graphics). The more-important speedometer is still digital and still seen over the top of the steering wheel but the shape of the cowl is flatter and wider than that of the sedan.Most of the control switches have been amended or moved and the whole centre console redesigned - for the better.TYRE TRACKS FOLLOWEDThe Civic (or Ballade, depending on the year) is celebrating its 30th year in South Africa. I’ve been around long enough to remember each of the variants over the years (this is the ninth generation, though SA jumped two of them). Some of you might remember that Honda was a sort of second string to Mercedes for many years before going solo and bringing motorcycles, marine engines, power pumps and generators together in showrooms.The original Ballade was, for its time, an outstanding car. This its most recent descendant has certainly followed in its ancestors’ almost fossilised tyre tracks.Manabu Nishimae, based in London as president of Honda Europe but also CEO for the Honda world region that includes South Africa, was a special guest at the Stellenbosch-based launch. He said: “Every evolution of the Civic gets a new value and the striking sports design of this one is a revolutionary evolution.”He added that the latest version was also the first step to a 30% reduction in CO2 emissions intended to be achieved by 2020; helping to reach this target would be a smaller diesel engine for the Civic. The automaker was also, he said, working on fuel-cell, battery, hybrid and natural-gas propulsion systems to live up to its ‘Blue Skies for Our Children’ environmental mark.You can also bet on a Civic hatch Type 'R' model.FLAT BELLYLess environmentally friendly, perhaps, will be Honda’s entry in October 2012 into the World Touring Cars championship to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Honda’s Suzuka racetrack with a Civic packing a 1.6 racing engine “to enhance the sport image of the car”.Honda’s F1 history has been woven into the 2012 Civic hatch: former F1 dynamicists were brought in to tune the cars’ aero pedigree. The result is the distinctive and rather fine body shell that gives a quiet and refined ride and a 10% cut in air resistance. The car’s underbelly is flat to cut turbulence and the obedience of earlier Civics to the dictates of crosswinds, Honda says, has been corrected.Aerodynamic efficiency, the automaker adds, is central to the Civics’ design. The horizontal brake light, (see image gallery) for example, doubles as a spoiler to manage airflow over the top of the car and the rear combination tail-light clusters have an aerodynamic function to cut off body-side airflow and reduce turbulence.IMPROVED BACK WINDOWOther cabin amendments include the division of the fascia into zones (that gallery again!) – a driving zone for the, er, driver that includes all instrumentation and digital read-outs and a passenger comfort zone that includes the audio controls and aircon – though both are still within easy reach of the driver.Owners of earlier Civic hatches complained of the limited rearward vision through the post-slot back window, particularly at night. A second, lower, glass panel is now included in the hatch door (see image gallery).Buyers expect lugging space in a hatch: the Civic complies with 477 litres of boot space (about 100 litres more than the market norm, Honda says) and 1210 litres with the rear seats folded – which they do either horizontally or vertically – the latter to accommodate tall items (think yucca plant).The Civic is remarkably quiet on the road, at any speed. Honda attributes this to a new front suspension and stiffer rear torsion bar (the previous fault of rear bump-steer has gone) as well as fluid-filled, rather than just rubber, bushes to suppress noise, vibration and harshness and pretty much eliminate road and suspension noise.The very direct steering system includes a shock-absorber in its column.Seriously, this is one very, very quiet car.DAYTIME LIGHTSThe 2.2 diesel, Honda says, is the flagship and claiming the title "performance king of diesel hot hatches" according to Graham Eagle, Honda SA’s sales and marketing director, who reckons the cars will sell about 100-plus a month on their styling, performance and high level of not-optional features.“I think it is the most desirable Civic yet,” he added. Well, he would...The Elegance models come with 16” alloy rims, diode daytime running lights, multifunction trip data computer, auto aircon, single CD player/radio with four speakers and iPod, auxiliary and USB connections, multifunction steering-wheel, ABS and traction/stability controls, tyre deflation warning, full package of air bags, “Magic’ folding seats (gallery again) and power adjustment and heating for the external mirrors.The Executive range adds 17” alloy rims, front fog-lights, retractable external mirrors, aluminium pedals, six speakers dual-zone auto aircon, cruise control, leather (heatable) seats, auto wipers and headlights, power windows, leather steering wheel and rear accessory socket.The Exclusive specification level includes a glass sunroof, a premium sound system with amplifier and sub-woofer, Bluetooth hands-free cellphone connectivity (with dedicated buttons on the steering wheel), and high-intensity discharge auto-levelling headlights with washers.It also has a reversing camera and front parking sensors.Civic hatchback competitors include: VW Golf, Audi A3, Mazda3, Alfa 147, BMW 1 Series, Peugeot 308 and Toyota Auris.