Mike Humble spends a week with a Honda Civic – the sister model to the HHR-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
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 HHR-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.
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 they had just placed a Civic onto their 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 replaced after such a long period of standing. The car was a little hesitant heading northbound, but otherwise drove like a band 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 and, 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 engine came back.
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.
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!