Review : A week with Honda (UK)’s Civic prototype

Mike Humble spends a week with a Honda Civic – the sister model to the HH-R-shape Rover 400, which ended its life as the Rover 45 and MG ZS.

This is a very special car: a Swindon-built pre-production prototype Civic owned by Honda (UK) and which came out of storage in 2018 with just 150 miles on the clock.

Honda Civic – British-built and proud of it

Owned by Honda (UK), this pre-production heritage Civic literally is in as-new condition, despite being in storage for nearly 25 years. A small fortune has been spent on its re-commissioning over the past two years and you can feel the love and TLC that’s been poured into it…

Honda and Rover: the final chapter

Even the most loyal Rover brand purists surely have to agree, if it hadn’t been for the Honda involvement that the recently departed Sir Michael Edwardes instigated back in the late 1970s Austin Rover would have been finished. As most of us know, it started with the Triumph Acclaim in 1981 going on to end after the introduction of the HH-R-shape of Rover 400. BL badly needed a quality partner, while Honda so desperately needed a foothold into the European market. As each model was replaced by another, Rover’s confidence grew along with their engineering input. With the Acclaim it was more of a collaboration, but the later products it proved to be well-respected partnership.

All the vehicles jointly developed with Honda were generally well received by buyers and the motoring press. However, the final Rover 400 Series, which was also UK-produced and badged as the Civic by Honda in Swindon, never really enjoyed the same universal praise when launched. The Rover was too expensive and twee compared to the usual rivals like the Astra or Escort – and I, for one, am inclined to agree. Of course, it had quality on its side and was tastefully trimmed even in the most basic models. Rover’s introduction of torque-axis hydraulic engine mounts finally put to rest the K-Series engine‘s tendency to buzz loudly like an angry wasp when being driven at speed.

A familiar sight to both Honda and Rover owners, the Honda 1.6 D Series engine is ultra-smooth, willing and notoriously reliable. Long gearing somewhat blunts the urgency in motion these engines are normally renowned for. No V-TEC trickery here, just an old-school injected single-cam sixteen-valve designed to rev to infinity

Low mileage but high risk

Having owned both a late 1.4K and 2.0T 400 series, I was, and still am, deeply impressed by just how relaxing and smooth these underrated cars are. The 1999 V-plate 1.4 I owned was literally saved from the jaws of the crusher thanks to Head Gasket Failure (HGF). Bought for the princely sum of £100, it was repaired, serviced and thrown into daily usage. It drove as nicely if not better any other family hatchback and spent a great deal of my stewardship bowling around the M25. For such a weeny engine in a fairly heavy car it was lovely to thrum along at the legal maximum. Weirdly though, I have little experience of the car where the lion’s share of the engineering comes from – the Honda Civic – but the chance recently came to put this right.

I was all set to borrow a 1988 Honda Prelude – a car I secretly adore – when Honda (UK) told me that a Civic had just been added to the company’s heritage fleet. Here was a chance I couldn’t miss and, a few weeks later, the Civic 1.6 LS arrived – looking quite honestly like it had just dropped off the end of the production line. You can imagine my horror when I saw the speedo reading, it was showing a whisker over 300 miles. The plan was to whizz up to the South Midlands to visit my mum, not to mention commuting to work for the week. The journey up was horrendous, The M11 was stuffed, the A14 was broken, there were miles of queues and everything that could have gone wrong ended up doing so. My heart was in my mouth all the way there, but that little Civic didn’t miss a beat.

‘Once Honda had finished assessing the vehicle in 1995, it was parked up in some dark and lonely corner of the Swindon plant and seemingly forgotten about until 23 years later.’

The actual car was a Honda Manufacturing pre-production evaluation vehicle, which means it was one of a batch built to put the assembly track to the test, find out if any build or quality issues arise and familiarise the workers. The cars are then taken into the workshops where they are taken apart and put back together again to train service mechanics in order to set the correct procedures in dealership service bays. Once Honda had finished assessing the vehicle, it was parked up in some dark and lonely corner of the Swindon plant and seemingly forgotten about until 23 years later. Amazingly, its first official MoT test was carried out in the same year, some 24 years after it was produced – with just 150 miles on the clock. Between then and my loan, it had done a little over 150 miles more.

Using my well-trained workshop-tuned bionic eye, I could see the car had undergone some serious re-commissioning. New hoses, new brake callipers, filters, exhaust, plug leads and new tyres were just some of the obvious items that would have to be replaced after such a long period of standing. The car was a little hesitant heading northbound, but otherwise drove like a brand-new vehicle. I popped in to visit a motor factor friend who handed me the elixir of life that came in the form of some industrial strength fuel treatment – after barely 20 miles, all the stuttering and flat spots disappeared. The return journey was an utter joy as all the power and free-revving nature of the D Series 1.6-litre engine came back.

Interior wise, there’s little difference between a 400 or Civic apart from that ghastly steering wheel, a Blaupunkt wireless, front seats and fabric choice. Build quality is really quite superb, especially taking into account this one has been pulled apart and built up again more times than a tub of LEGO®

It’s a Honda Jim, but not as we know it

Despite the quoted maximum torque being delivered barely 1000rpm less than the quoted 111bhp, the Civic is flexible and lively on its toes. Being designed for Europe and the UK it’s lost some of the normal Honda traits, namely in its gearing. Usually, Hondas used to spin much quicker at motorway speeds – in some cases well over 3500rpm. The gearing of these models reflects our liking of lazy engines with the legal 70mph on the speedo equating to a fraction under that magic 3000rpm on the tacho. Drive the Civic at a constant speed and the fuel economy is good, drive it like you’ve stolen it and they get through more drink than your local Friday night Wetherspoons. I also loved the addictive induction roar when you open the throttle wide – a veritable and glorious racket of Hondaness.

‘The ride quality is quite remarkable and despite the long suspension travel it holds onto the corners well enough too.’

So, how does it compare with the Rover 400 then? Well, there isn’t much difference really. The ride and handling are the same in fact, the ride quality is quite remarkable and despite the long suspension travel it holds onto the corners well enough too. The main differences are in the trim thanks to a rather horrible looking steering wheel compared to the Rover item, the wireless is a Honda-branded Blaupunkt unit rather than a Philips and the front seats are of a different design. The bolsters are much more pronounced, and they look a little more shapely too, but I find the Rover wins on comfort and the Honda on positioning and support. The dashboard and instruments are the same – only the lack of Rover branding on the rev counter gives the game away.

Externally, the lack of chrome over the Rover is obvious. It’s all colour-keyed and satin black plastic, but of breath-taking quality. Despite looking rather plain, the Civic sold in huge numbers. To choose between this or a 400 is much harder if you have spent time behind the wheel of both…

Visually, on the outside, there is a lack of chrome on the Honda, everything is either colour-keyed or satin black. With the Rover you have that chrome rear numberplate surround and grille to make them really shine in the showroom. However, despite this being a Honda, it doesn’t feel like one. The performance is nothing like as eager and urgent as you would have found in an R8 216. Because of its refined and relaxed nature, it feels like it just wants to bimble along rather than be hurried. There isn’t one iota of sportiness in its nature and, for those who adored the older-generation Honda cars, I can imagine this generation of Civic may have come as a slight disappointment. The car just feels a bit too relaxed, a bit too conservative perhaps. For me the Rover wins – but by a very small margin.

I’ll tell you what it feels like… it’s as if Honda tried to design a Rover and vice versa!

Mike Humble


  1. Mike, I can relate to this car. My last ever company car was a 1997 Civic 1.6LS in grey metallic. I only had it as a hand down before my firm closed. It was actually quite a good performer with a free revving engine and decent acceleration (115ps?).

    I must have liked it because I went on to buy a Rover 414Si, a 45 1.6, then a ZS 120+. I did like the better trim & chrome on the Rover’s but the Civic’s engine seemed more agile. My ZS was the best though and I loved its color coding. I liked the brighter trim Rovers too.

    I recall the later Civics had a chrome trim bar above the rear reg plate, so taken a hint from Rover Group?

    The metallic green colour of this Civic example is the same as on an Accord 2.0 I also had back in the day

  2. I wonder why it’s got a Boston, Lincolnshire registration number?
    Do Civics rust around the rear wheelarches like 400’s?
    I remember driving a preproduction 400 – excellent ride and refinement but just felt a bit bland and boring.

  3. Of all the ‘old’ cars I still see on the roads around here, these and the ’97-’01 Corollas are definitely the most numerous.

  4. Of the British built Japanese cars over 15 years old, it’s amazing how many Nissan Almeras are still running, some of which are 21 years old now. Boring cars to drive and not much fun to look at, but quite reliable and very cheap used now as they don’t have the sex appeal of modern Nissans. Also the odd K11 Micra can be seen locally, usually owned by an older person.

  5. I have to say, I think the rear light cluster treatment on the Civic worked better than on the 400. I think with some ‘Roverisation’ (i.e. chrome), it would still have looked fresher from that angle in 2005 than the 45 did when it finally departed. Hatchback that is, the solely 400/45 saloon rear end design was the best looking of the bunch! I think the saloon’s bumper inserts that mirrored the door rubbing strips (which Honda then replicated on the face-lifted Civic) worked very well too, gave the profile a bit more coherence.

  6. There is a rather battered X reg 1.6 Sport near me, which seems to be in use as a daily driver. This generation of Civic remains my favourite: classy, great engines, utterly reliable and with some excellent colours. Then came the 2001-05 generation, which while just as reliable and well made, was more conservative and a little bland, and then the space age looking 2005 Civic. This looked quite radical and was a good drive, but Honda began to take the radical styling too far in the 2010s and started to charge too much.

  7. I was expecting to get a new yr2000 Civic 1.5 Sport 5 door company car after the temporary 1.6LS I had used. However my Employers closed down, so as a freelancer I bought a ’97 Rover 414Si, then a 45, then a ZS. All cars I still liked.

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