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2003 Honda Civic

Sporty handling, miserly fuel economy.

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2003 Honda Civic

by Mitch McCullough


Honda Civic is an icon. Honda sells more than 325,000 Civics a year in the U.S., making it one of America's best-selling compacts. They are notable for offering excellent fuel economy and sporty handling.

But the Civic can't be described that easily because the lineup is composed of a family of diverse models: a practical four-door sedan, a slick two-door coupe, and a hot hatchback.

Honda completely redesigned the entire Civic line for 2001. Refinements for 2002 included improved handling and reduced noise and vibration, though we think there is still room for improvement in that area.

For 2003, sedans and coupes come with improved seat fabrics and the outboard rear headrests are now adjustable. There's a sporty new four-spoke steering wheel on most versions, and a new center console and armrest on LX and EX. Civic LX and HX models now come with a standard CD player, and the driver's seat on the LX is now height-adjustable, as it has been on the EX. Aluminum wheels are now standard on the EX coupe.

Model Lineup

Honda Civics come in three body styles: four-door sedan, two-door coupe, and three-door hatchback. Sedans and coupes are available in three primary trim levels: DX, LX, and EX.

Civic DX and LX are powered by a 1.7-liter four-cylinder engine rated 115 horsepower. LX adds air conditioning, power-operated controls and luxury features.

EX models get a 127-horsepower engine, body-colored power mirrors, a remote entry system, and a tilt-and-slide glass sunroof. The EX engine displaces the same 1.7 liters as the DX and LX engine, but gets a boost from Honda's excellent VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Electronic Control) system. Larger wheels and tires help put the power to the road.

A four-speed automatic transmission ($800) is optional for DX, LX, and EX models, all of which come standard with a five-speed manual transmission.

Civic Si is only available as a hatchback, and the hatchback is only available as an Si. Civic Si comes with a high-output 2.0-liter i-VTEC (for variable valve timing with intelligence) engine rated 160 horsepower. Si comes with a five-speed manual and is not available with an automatic transmission.

Prices range from about $13,000 for a DX to about $15,000 for an LX to about $17,000 for an EX to about $19,000 for the Si.

Specialty Civics are available as well. Coupe HX ($13,610) comes with a fuel-efficient lean-burn engine teamed to the standard five-speed manual transmission. Capable of 44 mpg, it achieves an impressive 117 horsepower. Optional on HX is a continuously variable automatic transmission, or CVT, for $1,000. There's also a Coupe GX with a natural gas-powered engine that Honda claims is the cleanest internal combustion engine in the world. For their part, the DX, LX, and EX four-cylinder aluminum engines earn the government's ultra low emission vehicle, or ULEV, certification. A Civic Hybrid is available that uses a small gas engine and a big electric motor to achieve 50 mpg, which New Car Test Drive reviewed separately. We think hybrids are the best short-term solution to reducing air pollution and fuel consumption, and the Civic Hybrid is the best example of one of these.

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Options are limited for the many trim levels. Side-impact air bags add $250. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) are standard on EX and Si, optional on GX.


The Honda Civic sedan and coupe are conservative in appearance, but contemporary in design. They present a wedge-shaped profile with a high, curt tail and low, abbreviated prow. The hood sits an amazing 2.6 inches lower than the hood of the previous-generation Civic.

The front is clean and conservative with a discreet horizontal grille set between large, triangular multi-lens headlamps that curve around the corners. A wide air intake stretches across the body-colored bumper, and a low front spoiler has been added for downforce. Relatively flat flanks are interrupted only by the moldings. Windshield pillars arch into the rolled roof to meet the narrow C-pillars. Bold tail lamps dominate the blunt rear panel, underscored by a body-colored bumper. The sedan's tail lamps have been revised for 2003.

They look like they're from the same family, but the sedan and coupe differ in appearance. In fact, more than three-fourths of their body panels are not interchangeable. The coupe features a more aggressive windshield rake for a sportier look, and its tail lamps light up in a signature pattern. The sedan and coupe do share the same wheelbase and structure.

The styling of the Honda Civic Si hatchback seems to polarize people. Some think it's ugly; others love it and are quick to defend it. It's edgy and wedgy. The huge, flat windshield is steeply raked. The nose slopes radically downward, giving the car excellent aerodynamics and driver visibility. Its unique mesh grille is framed by huge triangular headlamps. The Si is slab-sided, without any sculpture in the sheet metal. Also, the wheels and tires do not look big enough for the bodywork. The Si features a subtle roof spoiler, a dual tipped exhaust, and comes standard with a moonroof.

Honda is known for its space-efficient design, and the Civic packs its engine into a condensed engine bay, leaving more space for the interior. The door handles are the lever kind, which I find harder to operate than the kind you stick your hands through.

Interior Features

The Honda Civic is ergonomically excellent, making this an easy car to operate. From the driver's seat, the Honda Civic is a comfortable car. From the back seat, it is less so. As in most Hondas, the passenger compartment feels airy and open.

Front-seat accommodations in the Civic are superb. The sedan's front seats provide excellent support, thanks to a rigid structure with aggressive side bolsters. High seat cushions make entry and exit easy. Seat fabrics have been upgraded in the sedan for 2003. The quality of the interior materials and trim is excellent and the interior design is ergonomically superb. Visibility when driving or parking is excellent as the driver is surrounded by glass and looks over a very low hood line.

The coupe's front seatbacks stretch broad and deep, and the headrests are open at the center like a doughnut. Front seatbelts attach to a side anchor bar that slides out of the way when someone climbs into the back seat.

The Si front seats are excellent, comfortable for long drives, and supportive for hard driving. They look and feel upscale. Alcantara-like trim adds richness to the side bolsters while red stitching accents the sporty fabric in the middle. The seating position in the Si is a bit strange with its big dash and sharply raked windshield, and reminds us of the Volkswagen New Beetle.

Rear-seat accommodations are not the best. They are neither roomy nor comfortable by class standards. The Toyota Corolla is better on this score. That said, the Civic sedan offers more rear legroom than pre-2001 models, and the coupe offers some improvement there as well. The flat floor lets rear-seat passengers spread their feet out; there's no center tunnel to get in the way of the center occupant. But three in back is still a crowd. The rear bench is low and hard and does not support the thighs well. The coupe's front seats cooperate for rear entry by sliding forward under power when the seatback tilts forward; a memory function then returns it to its original position. The seat's forward movement creates the largest possible portal for rear-seat entry given the design, but it's still not an easy matter to fold your body into the rear seat of this (or any) coupe, much less haul yourself out. Bottom line: The Civic is happiest with two people, but can haul additional passengers when called upon.

In all Civics, the cockpit looks clean and efficient, with the instrument panel tucked beneath a barrel-shaped cowl. Round white-on-black analog instruments include an oversized speedometer and tachometer in the center, flanked by smaller fuel and coolant gauges. In the coupe, gauges show silver highlights and glow with amber light at night. The Si features black numbers on white gauges, for a sporty appearance; while a bright red Si badge adds color.

HVAC controls are wonderfully designed, with large rotary dials for heating, ventilation, and fan speed stacked just to the left of the audio system controls. Separate buttons for air conditioning, recirculation, and rear-window defrost are arrayed just below the audio system. It's a clean design that's very easy to operate. Audio controls are close at hand, but the system suffers from small buttons and knobs. Worse, the sound was only mediocre.

The Si sports a shifter that sprouts at an angle from the upper console, as in a mid-1960s Alfa Romeo or some of the latest rally cars. Though it looks odd at first, the lever turns out to be perfectly located for quick and easy shifting, almost reminiscent of a formula car. Its close proximity to the steering wheel keeps it handy. It works really, really well and we instantly liked it.

The Civic sedan's trunk space is comparable to other compact sedans. The hatchback is very practical with a big cargo compartment that opens up further when the rear seats are folded.

Safety equipment includes pre-tensioners for both lap and shoulder belts in front, two-stage front airbags, three-point safety belts for five seating positions, child seat anchor brackets for the back seat and an emergency trunk release lever inside the trunk. Optional side-impact airbags are available.

Driving Impressions

The Honda Civic is a line of cars that offer terrific handling. Ride quality and noise, vibration and harshness are not the best in the class, but the current models feel more substantial, more upscale than pre-2001 models. All Civics are fun to drive, and EX and Si models increase this aspect with brisk acceleration performance.

Driving the Civic EX sedan with the five-speed manual transmission is a sporty, satisfying experience. With its more powerful engine, the EX delivers lively acceleration, while the manual gearbox affords more driver control. In EX tune the engine produces 127 horsepower. Throttle response is good at any speed because the engine extends its torque across a broad power band. Shifting is smooth and precise, with notched stop points between gears. The four-speed automatic also works well, shifting quietly and smoothly.

DX and LX offer some of the best fuel economy in the class with an EPA-estimated 33/39 mpg City/Highway. Extracting 115 horsepower out of just 1.7 liters represents impressive efficiency, but the DX and LX models offer tepid acceleration performance. This is most noticeable with the automatic transmission, where more time and space are needed to pass another vehicle.

Most fun to drive is the Si. Around town, the Si is tractable and pleasant, pulling strongly from a fairly wide range of rpm. Honda's latest i-VTEC engine is tuned for torque. You can short-shift through the gears: snick, waahh, snick, whaah, snick, whaah. Downshifting short is fun, too. Barely push in the clutch pedal, and casually flick the lever into the next-lower cog. The Civic Si's transmission ratios seem perfectly matched to the engine. The ratios are close together, allowing the driver to keep the engine in the power band. Out on the highway, the Civic Si engine is very responsive, giving it good performance for passing. It accelerates from legal highway speeds to super-legal speeds fairly quickly. Anyone who remembers the 2.2-liter Prelude VTEC engine may be disappointed when they stand on it, because the Civic Si does not deliver the same rush of power, nor does it make the same exciting race-car sounds. But the Si can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 8 seconds, which is only a tick slower than the Ford SVT Focus. If you want better performance from a Civic, you'll have to modify it or wait for Honda to ship us an R model.

Charge too fast into a corner and the Si will understeer. (The front tires will lose grip before the rear tires.) The Civic Si features front and rear stabilizer bars and firmer dampers and springs than other Civic models, yet its ride quality is still pleasant. Transient response (left, right, left) is a little squishy, however. A high-performance set of tires may improve this behavior. At 80 or 90 mph, however, the Si feels very stable.

Civics come standard with rear drum brakes and braking is well controlled. We recommend getting ABS, which comes standard on the EX. Stopping performance in the Civic is okay, but not up to the standards of the class. The Si comes with larger disc brakes in front and disc brakes rather than drum brakes in the rear. Stopping performance is about average for the class.

Though not the quietest cars in their class, the Civics are not as noisy as a Ford Focus. When driving at highway speed, riders may converse in a normal voice without distractions from mechanical racket or wind noise.


You can't go wrong buying a Honda Civic, regardless of trim level. They are reliable, practical, and fuel efficient. Civics are fun to drive and all models offer excellent handling. EX models bring a responsive engine to the party and the Si hatchback is a hoot. All of them feature Honda's durability and reliability. Civics are available with anti-lock brakes and side-impact airbags. All models deliver high fuel economy figures, and qualify for ULEV (ultra low emissions) status.

Model Line Overview

Model lineup: DX coupe ($12,810); LX coupe ($15,010); EX coupe ($16,810); HX coupe ($13,710); DX sedan ($13,010); LX sedan ($15,210); EX sedan ($17,060); Si hatchback ($19,000)
Engines: 115-hp 1.7-liter sohc inline 4-cylinder; 117-hp 1.7-liter sohc VTEC-e lean-burn inline-4; 127-hp 1.7-liter sohc VTEC-e inline-4; 160-hp 2.0-liter dohc i-VTEC inline-4
Transmissions: 5-speed manual; 4-speed automatic; CVT
Safety equipment (standard): dual front airbags, safety cage with front and rear energy management zones, front and rear door impact beams, collapsible steering column, three-point seatbelts for five seat positions with force-limiting pretensioners in front and height-adjustable front shoulder belt anchors, child restraint seat anchor brackets, internal emergency trunk release standard
Safety equipment (optional): side-impact airbags, anti-lock brake system (ABS)
Basic warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in: East Liberty, Ohio; Alliston, Ontario; Swindon, U.K.; Japan

Specifications As Tested

Model tested (MSRP): Civic EX Sedan ($17,060)
Standard equipment: dual front airbags, engine speed-sensing power steering, two-speed intermittent windshield wipers, manual tilt steering wheel, driver footrest, analog instruments with tachometer, rear bench seat with 60/40 split folding seatback, rear seat heat duct, remote releases for trunk lid and fuel door, air conditioning, power moonroof with tilt feature, central power locking system with remote keyless entry, power windows with express down for driver, power controls for two exterior mirrors, driver's seat manual height adjustment, AM/FM/in-dash CD, 15-inch wheels, 185/65/HR15 tires
Options as tested (MSRP): none
Destination charge: ($460)
Gas guzzler tax: N/A
Price as tested (MSRP): $17,520
Layout: front-wheel drive
Engine: 1.7-liter sohc VTED-e 16-valve inline-4
Horsepower (hp @ rpm): 127 @ 6300
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm): 114 @ 4800
Transmission: 5-speed manual
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy: 32/37 mpg
Wheelbase: 103.1 in.
Length/width/height: 174.6/67.5/56.7 in.
Track, f/r: 57.9/57.9 in.
Turning circle: 34.1 ft.
Seating capacity: 5
Head/hip/leg room, f: 38.0/51.2/42.2 in.
Head/hip/leg room, m: N/A
Head/hip/leg room, r: 36.3/49.8/36.0 in.
Trunk volume: 12.9 cu. ft.
Payload: N/A
Towing capacity: N/A
Suspension, f: independent
Suspension, r: independent
Ground clearance: N/A
Curb weight: 2601 lbs.
Tires: 185/65/HR15
Brakes, f/r: disc/drum with ABS
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gal.

Unless otherwise indicated, specifications refer to test vehicle.
All prices are manufacturer's suggested retail prices (MSRP) effective as of March 25, 2002.
Prices do not include manufacturer's destination and delivery charges. N/A: Information not available or not applicable.
Manufacturer Info Sources: 1-800-334-6632 - www.honda.com

Copyright © 1994-2003 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2003 Honda Civic