The Civic is Honda's signature car. It's the car that catapulted the company to fame in the U.S. during the fuel shocks of the early 1970s. And maybe it's purely coincidence that one of the best Civics ever is appearing just as gas prices are soaring even higher, thanks to Hurricane Katrina and big global appetites for oil.
But the Civic is more than just the attention-grabbing Hybrid and the rorty, engaging Si coupe. It's also the heart of the brand that, along with the Accord sedan, accounts for a majority of Hondas sold each year in the U.S. That means each Civic model has to be good - and this eighth-generation lineup has to be better than the one before, just to recapture audiences captivated by Scion, the Mazda3, and the Koreans.
In a world where economy cars can mean anything from a hand-me-down F-150 to a $28,000 MINI Cooper Convertible, the Civic has to be nearly all things to all people. Good thing it succeeds on most counts, particularly in its most exotic forms.
Think about it: this eighth-generation Civic is to the 1973 model what you are to your Civil War ancestors. It's fitting that there's everything civil about the new car, so vastly different from its forbears and still attuned to the basics of great efficiency and value.
This time, there are four distinct models in the lineup. That's to capture the ever-fracturing and shrinking small-car market, which Honda predicts will downsize by another 11 percent in the next five years. Diversity means a broader appeal - whether it's to the younger crowd leaning to the sporting Si, the work and commuter crowd wanting the coupe and sedan, or the green-and-proud Hybrid drivers.
Each one shares a deeply raked windshield that defines the entire vehicle and its packaging. The shape is leading-edge and that's the result of American tastes, says Mark Pafumi, the Civic's chief American engineer, who adds that the wedgy profile was chosen for the new range at a styling exposition in Japan. Prior to that, the new Civic had been on a collision course with conservative styling. But since this lineup is North America only, and since Honda's image has drifted into a more mature niche of late, it was time to make a new statement for the Civic lineup - to reset its image with Americans, Pafumi says.
The fast windshield and proportions do make for an instantly recognizable, even upmarket shape. It also creates a cabin with a deep space from the driver seat to the windshield base. Honda fills it with a dash that offers an unusual double-decker instrument panel; the tach lies in the usual spot framed by the steering wheel, while the digital speedo rides atop it on a recessed crescent. The cockpit effect isn't just noticeable - it makes you feel like you're piloting a video game, an effect that works better in the Coupe and Hybrid models than it does on the Sedan.
The cabin is otherwise laid out efficiently and handsomely. The front seats in base cars and more expensive versions support well. The console can hold 25 CDs or a purse, depending on your orientation. The Z-shaped handbrake bites into knee room a little bit, but the height-adjustable seats in even base cars leave great headroom for tall drivers. The radio faceplate slopes away from the driver, too, but its soft finish makes it clearly visible when you choose FM, satellite radio, or CD/MP3.
The suspension is MacPherson struts in front, multilink rear on all models, with stiffer tuning on the Si model (more on that in a minute). Safety gear abounds: Every Civic gets dual airbags, side and side curtain airbags, and anti-lock brakes. Power windows and door locks and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel are standard on all models as well. Options include satellite radio and a navigation system on the Si, Hybrid and EX sedan and coupe.
The Sedan and Coupe
Think of the sedan and coupe models as the foundation for the more interesting models. Though the two have different wheelbases, different sheetmetal, and even different windshield angles, they share similar powertrains and suspensions and have the same mission: to crank out the volume sales while the Hybrid and Si lend the whole lineup a touch of verve.
The four-cylinder that powers both the sedan and coupe is a 1.8-liter four, up a tenth of a liter in displacement from last year. It's outfitted with a special set of cams that, in low-load driving, shut down an intake valve to reduce pumping losses and improve fuel economy. That, coupled to a new five-speed automatic, means the four-door and two-door models can achieve a highway average of 40 mpg and a city average of 30 mpg. You won't be titillated by the combination of automatic and 1.8-liter four - it's smooth and pleasant to drive but utterly economy-minded - but you'll sail by gas pumps even if you don't opt for the Hybrid.
The 106.3-inch wheelbase on the Civic sedan measures up nearly the same as that on the original Ford Taurus from 1986. But the cabin space is quite different from that mid-size sedan. The Civic's wider than before, but that fast windshield means the four-door loses about 1.4 inches of rear-seat legroom. The rear doors are cut narrow at their base, meaning it's not easy for long legs to clamber in and out of the back seat. And six-footers with short legs will rub their hairless scalps on the headliner.
As for the Coupe, it rides on its unique 104.3-inch wheelbase, which leaves it with 5.7 inches less rear legroom than before. But the shape plays out dramatically in its two-door coupe styling. And who uses coupes to seat four anyway?
Handling on both versions is superior to the Hybrid version, but you won't mistake them for the Mazda3. Conventional power steering is quick and crisp, as is braking response. The ride is a little busy for the longish wheelbase, probably because of a compact suspension design. It's more noticeable on the coupe, where the springs are firmer and the stabilizer bars are slightly thicker.
Both these models come in DX, LX, and EX trim levels. Equipment varies, but all the interiors are pretty plush, with pleasant fabrics and tightly grained plastics - and even hard-plastic sun visors trimmed in fabric. More expensive versions get a CD player audio system with a 16-character customizable display and MP3 capability.
The only question some have about the new Hybrid is the $3.29 a gallon one. What will real-world mileage be like? Honda says the Civic Hybrid now gets about 43.6 mpg in everyday driving - and in their tests that aces the Prius, which they claim gets about 42.5 mpg. (To wit: TCC's editorially owned Prius normally turns in 42 mpg in mixed driving.) You won't see those internal numbers in ads because the official EPA numbers are still lower than the Prius, but Honda is conscious of a budding hybrid backlash wherein buyers get less fuel economy than they had expected.
The source of all this gas-sipping delight is a new 1.3-liter four mated to a better IMA hybrid system. The engine by itself now produces 93 hp; with the assist of the 20-hp electric motor, it's only 5 hp short of the power found in last year's LX cars without hybrid assist. A dual set of cams offers up five basics engine-operation modes that opens up the valves more at highway speeds and eases off them a little at lower speeds, shutting them off entirely in coasting and at stop-and-go speeds and letting the battery unit do the grunt work.
As for the updated Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system, it includes more efficient batteries, a motor wound tighter with flat wire (round wire takes up more space), and a continuously variable transmission with a slightly more open gearing. Most importantly, it now can operate in battery-only mode like Toyota's Prius, a major boost to efficiency. Regenerative braking is 170 percent improved from last year's model, too. All told the Civic Hybrid checks in at 50 mpg city, 50 highway.
Of course, driving dynamics are different than a gas-only car. Low rolling resistance tires and electric power steering mean less precise feel and slightly more wandering on the highway, an artificial brake feel from the regeneration of heat back into battery power, and overall, a driving experience that feels more programmed than natural.
The Hybrid's minor cosmetic changes include a small spoiler, clear turn-signal lenses, blue lighting for the interior and a wonderfully rich blue cloth interior and blue vinyl dash cap, different wheels, and turn indicators built into the sideview mirror housings.
To the stock equipment of the sedan and coupe, the Hybrid adds remote keyless entry, steering-wheel audio controls, and a 160-watt audio system with an auxiliary jack for your MP3 player. Automatic climate control is standard, along with 15-inch wheels and tires. And no folding rear seat can be ordered, because that's where the battery lives. The envy of all your friends in line at the Exxon station? That's free, and abundant.
Lord, let more economy sports coupes be more like the Si. With its 197-hp 2.0-liter four singing a glorious song, a stubby shifter doing the six-speed hula, and the hustle and flow of the dear departed Prelude VTEC, this under-$20,000 steal is our favorite of the new lineup and probably the best Civic ever designed for enthusiasts.
The engine steals the show. The round resonance from its air intake eggs you on to the 8000-rpm redline and the tuned exhaust note feels expensive and ready for exercise. Though it's only got 139 lb-ft of torque it launches swiftly, thanks to six well-spaced gears. Honda says the performance numbers are 60 mph in 7.5 seconds, from a car that also gets 31 mpg on the highway.
Traction seems brilliant in limited driving. Big 17-inch wheels are standard, with 18-inchers available, and three-season sticky tires offered, too. A helical limited-slip diff sends torque from spinning wheel to tractive wheel. Heel-and-toe driving is simply done, there's little sense of body roll and the braking feel is right on - no spongy mush, no rock-hard ABS rattle.
If you're sensitive of rear end and ear, you'll note a little bit of a boomy ride thrumbling into the cockpit over the engine note. Too, the Si has the same electric power steering as in the Hybrid, but meatier tires make it feel better somehow.
Not only does Honda stuff the Si coupe with the happy-noises powertrain, it subtly reworks the cockpit into a flight simulator, changing its lighting to red and hooking in a rev indicator flanking the speedo, adding a big audio system with an iPod jack, suspension mount reinforcements for the aftermarket crowd, and fitting metallic pedals and trim into the cabin, along with grippy sport seats. A rear deck wing and cladding get strung about the outside.
In the Si - as well as the Hybrid and EX models - Honda's wonderful touch-screen navigation system finds a home if you check the right order boxes. Ours had been programmed to find the Hooters in West Palm Beach and a haunted house. And with all the sharp responses and thrilling noises coming from under the Si's skin, we were ready to drive to those points from our test drive. In Chicago. It's that good.
The Civic line will issue forth in neat order, starting on September 5 with the Sedan and Coupe. On October 5, the new Hybrid goes on sale. And on December 1, enthusiasts will be ripping around your neighborhood in the new Si, which immediately strikes us as one of the two best Civics ever built. Of course, the original CRX would be the other. Honda is close-lipped about a possible return of that badge, but know that a sub-Civic economy car is on the way. How better to boost its street cred from the start?
In all, Honda expects to sell about 300,000 of the new Civic range each year. All sedans will be built in Ohio; hybrids, in Japan; and coupes, in Canada. A CNG version will arrive in 2006.
So once again, the Civic is as it has always been - a faultless recommendation for other drivers, and a source of real satisfaction for enthusiasts and gas-savers alike who know which two versions are the real gems.
2006 Honda Civic Sedan/Hybrid
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
2006 Honda Civic Coupe/Si
Major standard equipment: AM/FM/CD player; power windows and door locks; tilt/telescope steering wheel; 15-inch wheels (DX); 16-inch wheels (LX, EX); 17-inch wheels (Si)
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
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