Yes, Honda's new 5-door Civic hatch is radical, firstly in interior and exterior design, secondly in packaging and versatility and thirdly in clever new i-VTEC engine technology.
One would expect it, not so? A throaty howl starting at 4 500 r/min, gradually rising to an enthusiastic shriek by the time the rev needle maxes out at just over 7 000 revs.
Or think of the new eighth- generation Honda Civic's 1.8- litre i- VTEC- mill as an audio experience not dissimilar to the Honda S2000's, albeit a tad less steroid-induced.
This of course, from a company who dreamt up VTEC- technology to produce riveting top- end performance accompanied by a spine-chilling soundtrack when the second set of cams starts to kick butt at high revs.
Mechanically, VTEC has always pumped iron. But the real charm lies in the audible change of engine acoustics. Mr Hyde becomes Dr Jekyll, and the personality change is signified in no uncertain terms.
In fact, it is shouted out. For upwards of 5 600 r/min, VTEC-engines mean business. This is real Honda territory, when cams, pistons, con rods and the crank churn out a symphony of perfectly synchronized mechanical bliss.
Honda mills enjoy working.
Which comes as no surprise, really, seeing that Honda is the world's largest engine manufacturer. Some 20 million units per year power cars, bikes, boats, lawnmowers and the like with Honda horses.
So, what else would one expect of a company whose engines dominated F1 in the mid-to late-80s and early-90s?
What else, but a lively 1.8-litre 4-cylinder with a terrific sound track, to power their new futuristically styled Civic hatch to stardom?
Models bound for SA
Being the world's largest manufacturer of engines, it virtually follows that the heart of any Honda must be the power plant.
Likewise with the new Civic range, which really consists of two separate model lines, based on two different platforms: the 4-door sedan (which debuts in SA in just more than a month's time), and the 5-door hatch (which follows in the middle of 2006).
Wheels24 recently drove two variants of the 5- door hatch in the south of France, and both impressed - the 1.8 i-VTEC with its lovely shriek and lively performance, at least at sea level, and the 2.2 CTDi with a willing common rail turbo-diesel, served by second generation Bosch injection on an all- aluminium 16-valve 2.2-litre.
The latter is exceptional, not only for strong mid- range punch, but also because it drives easily at both the bottom and top ends of the rev range, a somewhat uncommon phenomenon amongst diesel mills with their penchant for sluggish off-boost performance below 2 000 r/min, combined with a stone-walled zone above 4 500 r/min.
Like VW's new 2-litre diesel, the 2.2 CTDi revs to 5 000 r/min, which provides just a little bit of breathing space at crucial moments.
Even though the last 500 revs does nothing in terms power hikes, it does mean you're not forced to change gears at uncomfortable moments.
Honda is, like the other Japanese manufacturers, waiting for local diesel fuel to be cleaned up before the 2.2 CTDi will be a proposition.
In the mean time we will concentrate on the 1.8 i-VTEC, as even the 1.3-litre petrol unit (already known to SA via the Jazz, but now with a new intake system and drive-by-wire) will not make it to our shores. At least not in the Civic.
The 5-door hatch, furthermore, will only be driven over here via Honda's newly developed 6- speed manual transmission, with the brand new 6-speed electro-hydraulic box called i-SHIFT as a possibility for later release.
The 4-door sedan, however, will be powered via the 1.8 i-VTEC coupled to the 6-speed manual or a newly developed 5-speed auto box.
The message transmitted by the throaty new 1.8 i-VTEC is immediately obvious, of course: Honda has returned to its sporty roots, last seen in the super- handling sixth- generation Civic with its low and wide stance.
Which is not to say that the lessons learnt from the more upright, functionally friendlier seventh- generation Civic have been forgotten.
Instead, Honda has achieved the remarkable feat of lowering and shortening the eighth-generation Civic hatch - including a substantial reduction in wheelbase (from 2 680 to 2 635 mm) - without shrinking interior space.
Which all points to one single factor: brilliant packaging, no doubt helped along by a fuel tank placed under the front seats.
Combined with a torsion beam rear axle to free up boot space and provide for a fully flat floor once the 60:40 split seats have been folded forward and glided - quite easily, it has to be said - into the rear footwells, the new Civic's interior offers class-leading accommodation all around.
Another very useful option is to simply tilt the seat squabs upwards, to create a massive free space directly behind the front seats, measuring more than 1.2 m from car floor to ceiling - big enough for small children to stand upright in (to change bathing trunks, for instance, when holidaying by the sea).
Used to its full capacity, including a well in the boot floor (which could also be utilised for a full-sized spare wheel if a space saver or tyre seal package is not to your liking), the boot itself stretches to 485 litres, just 15 litres short of a Merc E-Class's volume.
The downsides are two-fold:
A fuel tank restricted to 50 litres (whereas the segment norm - as in the Renault Megane, Peugeot 307 and Toyota Corolla - is 60 litres, although the Civic will make up some lost ground in terms of tank range via excellent fuel consumption).
That torsion beam axle. It saves on space and money, right, but it also compromises the rear end ride by being less sophisticated than the Ford Focus and VW Golf's fully independent multi- link rear suspensions.
Handling and performance
Handling, on the other hand, is excellent, as we've come to expect from Honda.
The car tracks true, with less tram lining than traditional Honda helms - at least on European roads. The electric power steering also offers a better and more consistent feel, without support peaks and troughs, than any other comparable system, except possibly the Golf's.
Even more of a highlight is the Civic's neutral balance, even on 16 inch or 17 inch alloys, let alone optional 18inch wheels.
But most impressive is limitless front-end bite. This car had been designed to be pushed, and pushed hard through corners.
Which is not something one can do without the necessary horses, of course, of which the 1.8 i-VTEC has plenty, in the shape of 103 kW at 6 300 r/min and 174 Nm at 4 300.
The real wonder of this new mill is not class- leading power outputs, however. Toyota's 1.8-litre, after all, delivers a closely-matched 100 kW and 171 Nm.
Honda's biggest achievement, however, lies in slashing petrol consumption to a claimed figure of 6.4 litres/100 km for the combined cycle.
This is how: In normal driving, light pressure on the gas pedal would result in a half- open throttle valve, causing flow restrictions and therefore pump losses.
i-VTEC, however, circumvents these losses by opening the throttle valve completely, ensuring a free air flow which would normally result in high output - which is not what's wanted with a light foot on the loud pedal.
To curtail output then, to the desired level, i-VTEC's economy cams retard the closing of one of the two intake valves, whereby some of the air/fuel mixture is momentarily expelled back out of the combustion chamber, minimizing unnecessary output and thus improving fuel economy.
On top of that, the 1.8 features a newly developed integrated cylinder head and exhaust manifold (with two catalytic converters now much closer to high temperature combustion gases, for a quicker heat- up), as well as variable length intake manifolds, the latest friction reducing technologies and piston oil jets for superior cooling, so that the i-VTEC can run at a high compression ratio of 10.5:1.
The diesel, conversely, runs at an extremely low ratio of 16.7:1.
All of these things - in a car weighing roughly 1 250 kg, depending on model - are good for a 0- 100 km/h sprint in less than 9 secs and a top speed of 205 km/h for the 1.8 petrol.
Safety and the cabin
Honda fully expects a 5-star EuroNCAP crash test rating for the Civic.
With eight air bags, ABS brakes with EBD and BAS as well as VSA (vehicle stability assist) as standard across the range, the car certainly does not lack in safety features.
But it is the work that Honda has put into developing multiple load- bearing pathways through a new front-end frame structure that pleases them most.
Another clever feature is called ACE (advanced compatibility engineering) which ensures improved positioning and therefore better energy absorption in crashes between vehicles of different sizes.
The fuel tank is also surrounded on all four sides by a protective frame, and special attention has been paid to the front seat structure and an innovative seat belt reminder system for rear passengers, as displayed on the fairly unique instrument panel.
The latter, housing the rev counter and multi- function computer read- outs, appears to be floating in mid- air, somewhere behind the sporty multi- buttoned 3-spoke steering wheel.
Above the wheel, and much closer to the windscreen, a speedo nestles directly in the driver's line of sight. Being a large digital read- out, it is impossible to miss, even in tight fast corners.
All the other functions are organized ergonomically around the cockpit area. In this regard, it is final proof that Honda has built the 5- door hatch for the enthusiastic driver.
Styling and revolution
The cabin's radical look and layout reflects the new Civic's most obvious feature, namely daring futuristic styling.
If the Renault Megane's cubistic cutting-edge modernity has made everything else in the C-segment look outdated, the Civic's space-age bubble places the Honda in the Star Wars zone.
Darth Vader's triangular mouth and cheekbones have nothing on the Civic's plethora of similarly shaped items, like the fog lights, exhaust pipes, arrow-like door handle cut-outs, the 3-spoke steering wheel's inner shape and even the more veiled triangles of solid mono- brow light clusters, fore and aft.
The dash and instruments, on the other hand, are dominated by circular shapes, including a red starter button with which to swing the engine into action.
All in all, the new Civic conveys coupe overtones, and not only because of hidden Alfa-like rear door handles, but also because of flat C-pillar arches and the tailgate's fast-back shape.
The hatch opening, by the way, has been specially strengthened around the aperture to compliment the Civic's rigid body - which boasts a quite slippery cD of 0.3, a drag figure normally only achieved by far longer cars. In this regard, an underbody cover extending from bumper to bumper certainly helps.
The rear window's spoiler split, strangely enough, hinders far less than was initially feared for. And even without a wiper the glass stays remarkably clean in stormy weather (like we experienced in France).
The angle of the A-pillar, however, does interfere in off-ramp corners of a certain radius.
The rest though, is simply top notch - especially the drivetrain, with particular reference to a fantastic gear change.
Futuristic styling will continue to be the biggest talking point.
But brilliant packaging will be the new Civic's enduring achievement - although more than most people will forever remember the 5-door hatch as a return to Honda's sporting roots.
This car, in short, has got speed, space, spirit and style aplenty.
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