I MISSED OUT on the whole boy racer thing. In my village, tractors and cars of indeterminate breed tied together with baling twine were the transport of choice. Hence, when I was asked to road test the Honda Civic, my heart sank. A family saloon held no attraction to me and I had no idea that the Civic was dear to the heart of the racing fraternity.
The Civic is one of the world's best-selling cars. It's bland and inoffensive, and you probably pass at least 10 on your way to work. Honda dealer Reliance Motors (tel: 2380 2231) decided to lend me a 1.5-litre, 115-brake-horsepower Honda Civic Vti ($155,880), which has fabric seats and a plasticky interior. The best I can say about both surfaces is that they probably wipe clean, although I couldn't vouch for this.
The cabin is spacious and cleverly designed, with a flat floor platform, so three people can stretch out in the back seats, and the one in the middle doesn't have to crouch over the transmission hump. The cupholders - always dear to my heart - are in abundance, and there's a large boot, just right for bags of children's stuff. The exterior is hardly memorable. Honda tries to rev the excitement level by giving the paint colours alluring names, but it doesn't really work (Nighthawk Black Pearl, anyone?) There are dual headlights, but these are like trying to improve a bad dress by adding a brooch - too little too late.
Civic has lots of safety: dual airbags, anti-lock brakes and G-force Control Technology that allows the car to absorb energy on impact. The Civic scored four stars in the European New Car Assessment Programme's front- and side-impact tests.
The 105bhp Civic Exi seems to be the favoured car of Apple Daily reporters - the reason for which becomes obvious when we put the car through its paces around the back streets of Mongkok. Speed is of the essence when racing to the scene of a crime or snapping an illicit rendezvous.
So, with a tedious interior and exterior, why do so many people fall for the Civic's charms? The car is like the plain girl who still seems to attract men, but you can't quite work out why. Honda calls the Civic a 'driver's car'. The Civic is a superman car. In regular mode, it's a mild-mannered Clark Kent, quite content with school and shopping chores. But with one flick of a switch, the Honda enters sports mode and becomes Superman, flying around corners with the rev counter redlining merrily.
The double-wishbone suspension allows you to feel the road. You wouldn't want to drive through traffic in sports mode because the car becomes a bit of a bone-shaker, but on the open road, it's a different story. The car is practically glued to the highway. The suspension system incorporates a toe-control arm that sounds like a gadget that's sold next to the massage chairs in China Products, but increases stability and improves handling on corners. So, I zip around the tightest bends. If I had my way, I'd be delighted to spend the day on the bends of Shek O Road. This car drives like a dream! You can throw it around and it doesn't wobble because Honda has increased the torsional stiffness of the chassis by 47 per cent.
Weaving in and out of Hong Kong traffic, the handling is superb. The brakes are so responsive that you're always in complete control. You feel that the engine is really working for optimum output and its roar is something that lets you know that you're alive. But there's little chance of hearing anything over the sound of the engine at full tilt.The Civic's acceleration is swift and, unlike in some of the more cocooned luxury saloons, you really feel it.
Brilliant on the open road, the Honda really tries. The engine feels a lot more responsive and the rear visibility seems better than in the more eye-catching Toyota Corolla ($120,600-$142,020). Within this price range, you'll have to decide whether to go for comfort or for the engine. Let's be realistic, if you live in Australia and spend hours in the car, then comfort is key, but in Hong Kong you'll be unlikely to take any serious road trips, unless you spend the day driving around. So, why not sacrifice the leather and have some fun? The Honda Civic's dark secret is out.
What drives it? 1.5-litre, 115bhp wariable walve timing electronic control 16-valve, four-cylinder engine, with continuously variable transmission
How fast is it? Reliance Motors says it hits 100km/h in 14.02 seconds
How thirsty is it? Eight litres takes you 100km.
Safety? Anti-lock braking, electronic brake force distribution; rear Isofix child restraint and child-proof locks; dual airbags, side-impact door beams; crumple zones and more.
How much is it? $155,880; Civic factory body kit $11,800 (excluding parts, labour and first registration tax)
Available: Reliance Motors, 38 Gloucester Road, Wan Chai. Tel: 2827 8622.
Alternatives? The Toyota Corolla GLi ($149,040), Mazda3 Premium ($148,900) and Peugeot 206 XT 1.6 hatchback ($154,800) are fine cars.