Honda raises the benchmark -- but not the price. by Marcia Ruff
The Honda Civic -- already the acknowledged benchmark among small cars -- took another self-improvement course for 1996. Thanks to a thorough and thoughtful redesign, the Civic is now bigger and quieter, has a better ride, a more handsome interior, and an innovative array of technology. Despite these changes, prices are virtually the same as in 1995. It's no wonder the Civic was the best-selling small car in America in last year, outselling Saturn and the Ford Escort.
The new Civic looks bigger and more substantial, as well it should. The Coupe (from $11,900) and Sedan (from $12,280) models are two inches longer and three inches taller than before. The Hatchback (from $9980) has sprouted even more, adding four inches in length and almost four inches in height. It remains the pipsqueak of the family, however, with a body 10.6 inch shorter than the other two models, though it rides on the same wheelbase.
A new look of substance goes along with the Civic's larger dimensions. Previously, the front end consisted of a pair of small headlights connected by the hood closure line. A tidy grille and bright, reflector-style headlights now dress up the nose, giving the Sedan in particular the look of a junior Accord.
The new Coupe looks slightly less sporty, perhaps because of the greater height. The Hatchback, which was designed in Honda's European studio, is the most changed. Its egg-like delicacy has given way to more aggressive lines that sweep back to a steeply raked, one-piece hatch.
The trunk capacity for the Sedan and Coupe is 11.9 cubic feet, just about one cubic foot less than the Accord's. With a low liftover height and split-folding rear seats that open to the trunk, the Civic Sedan and Coupe are flexible cargo-carriers. The Hatchback is even roomier: 13.4 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats up.
We drove several Civics, including a HX Coupe equipped with the new Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), which adds about $900. Our report, price info and the data panel focus on the flagship EX Sedan.
The Inside Story
The larger exterior dimensions translate into a roomier interior for the new Civic. The extra length has been allocated to rear leg room, making rear seating remarkably spacious for such a small car and a great improvement over the last model.
The increase in height allows more head room and taller seats. The latter should please those who have complained about climbing out of the Civic's traditionally low-slung seats.
Once inside, the view is familiar to Honda drivers. The dropaway hoodline and glassy greenhouse give an airy feel to the interior and provide excellent all-around visibility for the driver.
The redesigned interior is still -- for the most part -- an ergonomic pleasure. Edges have been rounded, creating a more soothing environment. The pod containing the radio and climate controls has been moved up on the center console, improving access. The big, clean gauges on the dashboard now feature a midnight-blue and red color scheme that is attractive yet readable. Oval-shaped warning lights freshen the look as well.
In general, the materials used throughout the interior are of better quality; the textures are more pleasant to the touch and less reflective. It's quieter inside the Civic now, too, thanks to a stiffer body and more sound-deadening material. All these factors add up to a greater sense of substance and quality.
All is not perfect, of course. The new cupholders are placed at the base of the center console, where overhanging components limit the height of cups that may be inserted. Worse, though, is the fact that the flip-up cover for the cupholders blocks access to the optional cassette or CD player.
Another gripe is that the power door locks can be activated only at the driver's door. If you regularly open other doors first to load packages or children, the newly available remote keyless entry system ($200) will save you a great deal of aggravation.
Ride & Drive
Since this is a Honda, clever technology is expected, and the new Civic doesn't disappoint. A trio of 1.6-liter, 16-valve, four-cylinder engines provides power for all the Civics. The base 106-hp version is the first production gasoline engine to meet California standards for a low-emission vehicle (LEV).
Knowing this, we had low expectations when we got behind the wheel. These were quickly blown out the window. The high-revving little engine was zippy and quick. Paired with a five-speed manual transmission, it was responsive and provided plenty of power. If this is the future, we can live with it.
For the most performance, you can opt for the 127-hp top-of-the-line engine, which incorporates Honda's famed VTEC technology, electronically managed variable valve timing that boosts power while improving fuel economy. Peak power comes at 6600 rpm, which can be noisy. It's gratifying, however, to enjoy this level of performance while getting 30 miles to the gallon around town and 36 on the highway.
Real environmentalists should try the 115-hp lean-burn VTEC-E engine, which is available only in the HX Coupe. Half the valves remain closed below 2500 rpm to improve fuel economy. With a manual transmission, this results in 39 mpg city/45 mpg highway, although there's 25% more horsepower than last year.
The second piece of earth-friendly technology available on the HX Coupe is CVT, which combines the convenience of an automatic transmission with the fuel economy of a manual. The CVT-equipped coupe gets 35 mpg city/41 mpg highway. Compare those figures to the automatic-equipped DX Coupe's 29 mpg city/36 mpg highway.
A CVT consists of a metal drivebelt and two pulleys. With an infinite range of shift points, the system can keep the engine at peak efficiency, improving fuel economy and reducing emissions.
For such a different technology, it's surprising how normal a CVT seems in operation. The most noticeable difference is a soft whine instead of the usual series of thunks of a gear-driven transmission. Some people may find the sound odd, but we thought its smoothness was well-suited to the Honda's refined personality. Our only concern would be the fact that the innovative CVT technology means you will need to go to a Honda dealership for service instead of having a choice of repair facilities.
The base transmission for all models is a five-speed manual. The shifter has a short, light throw requiring only fingertip operation. The gates are more precise, making for fast, clean shifts.
The optional four-speed automatic transmissions now feature Honda's Grade Logic Control, for smoother shifting when climbing or descending hills. Overall, though, the transmission has rather noticeable shift points. And weak detents in the gear selector make it easy for the shifter to slip past the gear you intended to choose.
One area that has benefited greatly from the redesign is ride quality. The Civic's double-wishbone suspension is essentially unchanged, but more sophisticated shock absorber damping has transformed the ride quality.
The crisp, light handling of past Civics came at the price of a somewhat harsh ride. The newly retuned suspension delivers the same bright handling, but absorbs far more road impact, an impressive accomplishment in a car this light. The Civic now has the best ride in its class.
Note that base models in each class have skinny, 13-inch tires. We recommend stepping up to the 14-inch tires.
One of the challenges to Honda in this redesign was to improve the car while keeping the price low, despite the strong yen. To cut costs, Honda went from four-wheel disc brakes to discs in the front and drum brakes in the rear. Such an arrangement is more typical in this class of small, front-wheel-drive cars, and to be honest, we didn't notice a difference. Braking is still short and grippy. ABS is standard on the top-of-the-line EX Sedan, a $600 option on the LX Sedan and EX Coupe, and unavailable on the Hatchbacks or HX coupe.
The Honda Civic is a class act. Sure, they cut some corners in the redesign. The rear disc brakes are gone. The cassette player is now optional. ABS is unavailable on some models. But the heart of the car -- the powertrain, the suspension, the ergonomics -- are better than ever. When you're in a Civic, you always feel you're in a car designed by people who love to drive.
Of course, holding the price is not the same as lowering the price. The Civic is still a couple thousand more than comparable Neons, Escorts or Saturns. But the fact that Honda sold more Civics last year than the other guys sold of their cars says something about the American buyer's priorities.
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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.