Honda Civic 2.2 i-CTDi Diesel Test Drive

A Review of the European-market Honda Civic

Honda Civic i-CTDi front-left view
Honda Civic i-CTDi. Photo © Honda

Let's get one thing out of the way: You can't buy this car, at least not if you live in North America. This is the European-market Honda Civic, and it's quite a bit different than the Civic sold in the U.S. But it's powered by Honda's i-CTDi turbodiesel engine and worth the test drive. Honeywell, which developed the i-CTDi's variable-geometry turbocharger, imported this particular Civic to Detroit, allowing for a test drive to see if Honda's diesel is as good its gas engines.

First Glance: Different Strokes for Different Folks

Europeans and Americans have different tastes in cars, which is why Honda builds different versions of the Civic. The most obvious difference is that this Civic is a hatchback, a popular body style in Europe. But the design is more radical; the North American Civic is futuristic, but the Euro Civic goes even further. It looks like a 3-door hatchback, but it's actually a 5-door. The back door handles are concealed in the black window trim. The headlights wrap into the grille, echoing the one-piece taillight out back, while triangular openings in the front bumper — fog lights on nicer Civics, plastic blanks on cheap ones — mirror the twin triangular exhaust ports in the back bumper. The strong crease that goes over the front fender and straight to the back of the car is neat, but the spoiler that bisects the back window was less appealing.

Inside, the Euro Civic gets the familiar split-level dash. A speedometer up above the steering wheel rim and a tachometer beneath, though the exact layout differs from the American car. Like Honda's S2000 sports car, the Civic has a separate "Engine Start" button, a novelty that quickly gets old, since you still have to insert and turn the key before the pressing the button. The rest of the switchgear is Honda-familiar, though the design is closer to the Fit than the US Civic. The back seat doesn't feel quite as roomy, but it does get a flip-up bottom cushion like the Fit. And the trunk is huge, with a big, though heavy, hatch lid that opens down to bumper height.

Under the Hood: The 2.2 i-CTDi Engine

Europeans love diesel. Not only do diesel cars go further on a gallon of fuel than their gasoline counterparts, but diesel fuel is cheaper than gas in many European countries. Honda was a relative latecomer to the diesel game. In Europe, just like in the States, they concentrated on super fuel-efficient gasoline engines, but they eventually got on board, first buying third-party diesel cars and then developing their own.

The Civic tested here is powered by Honda's 2.2-liter i-CTDi diesel, the predecessor of the 2.2i i-DTEC (the "clean" diesel that Honda had considered bringing to the United States). The i-CTDi first appeared in the European-market Accord, similar to the U.S. Acura TSX, and was added to the Civic range back in 2006. For the size of the Civic, 2.2 liters makes it a rather large engine for a car. Most of the Civic's rivals use 1.9 or 2.0-liter diesel. The output is 138 horsepower, and as with most diesel, the torque is significantly higher — 250 lb-ft. For comparison, the 1.8-liter gasoline engine used in the U.S.-spec Civic puts out 140 hp but only 128 lb-ft. According to Honda, the diesel-powered Civic goes from 0-100 km/h (62 MPH) in 8.6 seconds which is 0.3 seconds faster than a Euro Civic with the 140 hp gasoline engine. Official fuel economy figures for the i-CTDi with the 6-speed manual transmission are 35 MPG in the urban cycle (similar to the EPA's city cycle), 53 MPG in the extra-urban cycle, and 45 MPG combined. Carbon dioxide emissions, which Europeans pay close attention to, are also lower: 135 grams per kilometer vs. 152 for the 140 hp gas motor.

On the Road: Good, but Not as Good as Expected

Honda's gasoline engines perform very well, which could be expected of their diesel engines as well. But after test driving this Civic, hopes may have been set a little too high. Let's talk about what the i-CTDi does well: It's very powerful, and the power comes on strong from about 1,500 RPM thanks to the variable-nozzle turbocharger. For comparison, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, which has a variable-nozzle turbo made by Borg-Warner, doesn't start to build up power until 2,500 RPM. One thousand RPM may not seem like much, but since most diesel cars, including the Honda and the VW, only rev to 4,500 RPM or so, the early boost makes a big difference. Another impressive feature is the cold starting. Overnight temps were in the low teens Fahrenheit during the test driving week with this car. Every morning upon turning the key, there would be a 4-5 second wait for the glow plugs to cycle, and then once the start button was pushed the engine would fire up immediately. Once or twice when starting the engine happened without waiting for the glow plugs, the engine still started right away, running roughly for a few seconds then settling down to a clattery idle.

Some downsides of the i-CTDi are that it's noisier than some comparative European diesel and the exhaust smell frequently wafted into the car, something that didn't happen with the Jetta TDI or the Mercedes Bluetec. But to be fair, those cars are U.S.-emissions compliant and the Civic i-CTDi isn't.

Journey's End: Cool and Frugal, but We Won't See It in the U.S.

So what about fuel economy? According to the Civic's trip computer, test drives averaged 5.3 liters per 100 kilometers, which translates to 44.4 miles per US gallon — impressive compared to the 30-or-so you'd expect to average in a gasoline-powered Civic! At the time during testing the Civic, diesel fuel was running at prices that were about 25% higher than regular gasoline, so despite the higher price, it was still more cost-effective than regular fuel. Does that mean you could make your money back on a diesel? Impossible to say, not only because fuel prices are always in flux, but because we don't know what Honda would charge for a diesel-powered Civic here in the States.

Overall, the European Civic was a great drive. It is understandable why Honda is reluctant to sell the hatchback body style in America, but if they gave it a go it could catch with some drivers. As for the diesel, well, it wasn't the revolutionary engine that was hoped for, but it was still pretty good. Aside from this particular Civic i-CTDi, we probably won't be seeing diesel Hondas in the U.S. anytime soon.

The car for this test drive was provided by Honeywell.