For the past week I've been tooling around town in a diesel powered, Euro-spec Honda Civic. I like it so much, and it attracts so much attention, that it makes me wonder why Honda never decided to sell this car in the 'States.
First off, the European version of the Civic looks so much sportier than the U.S. model. It's sleeker and sexier than what we get here, including the Si!

Continue reading after the jump and check out the bonus video of John McElroy doing a walk-around with the Honda Civic Sport five-door hatchback.



Though the version I drove is a 5-door hatchback, thanks to some well-executed styling tricks, it actually looks like a 2-door coupe. The front door handles are oversized and given extra prominence to draw your eyes to them, while the rear handles are strategically hidden just above the belt line at the trailing edge of the rear windows. The cut lines for the rear doors are also partially integrated into the daylight opening (DLO), making them harder to spot. And the rakish angle of the rear sail panel tricks your eyes into thinking the car is more compact than what you'd expect from a 5-door.

The headlamps, hood, front fascia and fenders, are beautifully blended into one smooth, bullet-shaped nose. The trailing corners of the hood actually form the base of the A-pillars, creating an almost un-broken sweeping line from the leading edge of the hood up into the roof. From the side, there is a pronounced wedge shape to the car. And in the rear, the backlite is split into two different sections. This helps mask the fact that it's a hatchback, yet undoubtedly contributes to the aerodynamics since it also forms an integrated rear spoiler. Overall, the car has an aggressive stance that just begs you to drive it hard.

But the real reason I ended up spending a week in this car has to do with the engine, the 2.2 liter i-CTDi diesel to be precise. It's a remarkable motor and reminds me of a private dinner I had a decade ago in Tokyo with Hiroyuki Yoshino, then CEO of Honda. We talked about all kinds of plans Honda had for alternative fuels and alternative engines, but Mr. Yoshino assured me the company would never, ever build a diesel. I was surprised, to say the least. Why would Honda, a company known for its engine prowess, swear off diesels? Yoshino-san assured me that diesels ran counter to the company's affinity for high-revving engines, and that they could not meet their customers' expectations. But then diesel mania took Europe by storm, and any mass-market automaker without one is locking itself out of half the market. So Honda engineers rolled up their sleeves and came out with an engine that would even make Rudolph Diesel burst with pride.

You all know the story on modern, direct injection, common rail, turbo-diesels: quiet, smooth, clean and powerful. The same is true with the i-CTDi but with one added wrinkle. It's fitted with a variable nozzle turbo (VNT) that gets it to spool up fast at low revs, yet breathes freely at highway speeds. That comes courtesy of my pals at Honeywell who make the Garrett turbo, and who were ever so nice to drop the car off at the office for me to evaluate.

The effect of the VNT is terrific. This thing pulls strong from the moment you dump the clutch. Light throttle, part throttle, full throttle, it doesn't matter. The torque just keeps on coming.

In Europe Honda claims this combination will go 0-to-60 mph in a little over 8 seconds, which compares to about 12 seconds for the gasoline hybrid Civic. But while the EPA rates the hybrid at 42 mpg, I was getting about 44 mpg with the diesel. In other words the diesel gets slightly better fuel economy but with a substantially more performance. In Europe, the diesel Civic is priced slightly under the hybrid. And over there, diesel fuel is cheaper than gasoline. Does the hybrid even stand a chance?

Honda plans to make this diesel engine available in the U.S. sometime in 2009, which is when it figures it will be able to meet our stringent diesel emission standards. I can hardly wait, especially if they decide to wrap it up in that sexy European body.

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