Honda Civic hatchbackHonda doesn’t design new diesel engines that often, but when it does, it makes some of the best.

A 2.2-litre diesel Honda Civic is already out on UK roads, but this new i-DTEC is the first ever 1.6-litre capacity diesel Honda has made.

Honda insiders are describing it as their most important engine in a decade and say it will soon be powering a quarter of all the cars they sell in the UK.

It means this new Civic is now up against the 1.6 diesel-powered versions of the Volkswagen Golf and the SEAT Leon. We’ve just driven it for the first time and discovered it certainly has the numbers to give the Golf and the Leon a run for their money.

The Civic’s main headline is its 118bhp and emissions of just 94g/km of CO2. Not so long ago, diesel engines were producing these numbers the other way around with a sub-100 brake horse power figure and emissions greater than 100g/km. It’s a major achievement by Honda’s engineers to swap these over. The result is that this Civic not only has more poke than the Golf but you won’t have to pay any road tax because its emissions are below the 100g/km threshold. Its torque figure beats all similarly sized rivals too with its maximum 221 lb/ft coming in at 2000rpm – just where we want it.

Honda Civic Hatchback

If that wasn’t enough, it’s also the lightest diesel engine in the world, making it less nose-heavy than many other diesels hatchbacks. It also rides even better than the 2.2-litre diesel Civic, thanks to new fluid-filled bushes in the front suspension. Sadly, the car is let down ever so slightly by its rear suspension, which when you hit bumps, throws the car out of its smooth rhythm.

Honda has used a simple torsion beam rear suspension design because it wanted to give the Civic class-leading for boot space (a massive 100 litres over its rivals), but it can’t compete with the independent rear suspension of the Golf and Leon for refinement and handling.

Honda has certainly taught this new i-DTEC to take small sips from the fuel tank though. It returns 75mpg. This isn’t a figure taken from the brochure; I did actually see figures near to this on my test drive which was split between the motorway and winding mountain roads.

This diesel is extremely quiet too, thanks to some Honda-trickery in cleverly separating engine components that share the same resonant frequency. Additionally, there’s a lot of soundproofing between the engine and the cabin, and what’s more, inside there’s even a noise cancelling sound system, making this one of the quietest diesels to sit in and drive currently on sale.

Honda Civic hatchback

If you are after a family car to keep your weekly fuel bill down, yet still feel lightfooted enough to drive to work and have some fun, then the 1.6-litre i-DTEC Civic delivers. And at £19,400, it’s only £405 more than the equivalent Golf and £2,000 less than the 1.6 TDi A3.

With its performance and fuel efficiency combo bettering anything currently on offer from rivals, Civic sales should see a boost in 2013 – some predictions say sales will treble – helped in in part by a huge surge in fleet owners looking at this new diesel to cut down its fleet fuel costs.

Three out of every four customers for the new Civic diesel are expected to be fleet drivers.

Honda also chose this launch to announce that this new 1.6-litre diesel is just the first of a new range of diesel engines which will replace its entire current line-up over the next three years, falling under the ‘Earth Dreams Technology’ banner – a moniker similar to VW’s BlueMotion and Ford’s ecoBoost.

The Honda Civic should be in dealers for test drives in January 2013.

By Dan Tye, Deputy Editor