Still the small-car gold standard. by Ray Thursby
Much of the credit for elevating the status of inexpensive subcompacts can be given to Honda. Before the Civic came along more than two decades ago, low-buck offerings tended to be little more than alternatives to used cars, desperation purchases made by the financially challenged.
That's certainly not the case now. Clever engineering, good assembly quality and a comprehensive menu of features both standard and optional have made cars in this class, the Civic among them, more than palatable. They can -- and do -- offer driving pleasure and surprising comfort on top of relatively low price tags.
The key word in the last sentence is "relatively." With stickers edging toward the $20,000 mark for fully loaded Civics, alternatives go beyond the likes of Toyota Tercels, Mitsubishi Mirages, Nissan Sentras, Dodge/Plymouth Neons and others of similar size, price and packaging. For example, a Ford Contour, Nissan Altima or even Honda's own Accord can cost less than a top-of-the-line Civic EX sedan (from $17,675, including destination), while offering more in the way of interior space.
But a sensible Civic, one equipped well but not lavishly, remains an exceptionally good value. And at least one Civic model offers a novel and effective technical feature not found on any other car sold in the U.S.
Honda's small car presents a familiar face to the world, one that's retained its family character through several redesigns, inluding the wholesale 1996 overhaul.
Three body styles are offered in a variety of trim levels: the 3-door CX Hatchback is the least expensive (from $10,945), followed by the DX coupe (from $12,675) and DX sedan (from $13,030).
From the windshield forward, the trio shares sheet metal; a sloping nose and low cowl give the driver excellent visibility, and the front end is made more distinctive by the new headlight treatment that went with the 1996 redesign. From side and rear, links to Civics past are more pronounced, but the current soft-edged contours seem a bit more anonymous than equivalent Honda shapes from earlier years.
Nevertheless, the new cars look clean and uncluttered.
The dictates of style have not compromised functionality. All three Civics have large doors, and offer good access to well-shaped stowage space in back. It's also worth noting that Honda claims significant increases in structural rigidity for the current Civics, an assertion borne out by our test Civic's smooth, quiet behavior on rough pavement.
Civic coupes and sedans share a basic but acceptable DX trim level. Amenities on the order of dual outside mirrors, an AM/FM radio, and tilt steering are supplied. All sedans and automatic transmission coupes and hatchbacks also get power steering. The Hatchback CX is somewhat plainer, doing without the radio. A mid-grade LX sedan adds air conditioning, cruise control, power windows and power locks, while EX sedans and coupes come with just about everything one might reasonably want in a Civic and the option of the family's most powerful engine (127 hp), a power moonroof and ABS.
But the most intriguing version for innovation-seekers is the HX coupe, which is available with a continuously variable belt-drive transmission (CVT). The CVT -- as installed in our test Civic -- goes one step beyond an automatic gearbox in simplicity and ease of use.
The Inside Story
Regardless of model, there's nothing fancy about a Civic interior. It is well-designed, roomy and comfortable, with materials selected more for durability. This perception of solidity is reinforced by monochromatic color schemes (your choice of beige, gray or black).
Instruments and controls are simple in layout and function. A base Civic has but three instruments -- speedometer, fuel gauge and coolant temperature. Uplevel models add a tachometer. Switches are easy to reach (these are compact cars!) and carry clear markings. Honda has added a bit of color to the previously black-on-white instrument faces, a small but attractive update.
If the Civic cabins are a bit plain, they make up for that by providing enough room for four adult occupants (or two grownups and three children) and nearly 12 cubic feet of trunk space.
Another commonality of the Civic lineup -- in fact, of Hondas in general -- is lots of glass area, affording very good driver sightlines.
Ride and Drive
From the days of the first Honda microcars, one of the company's major claims to fame has been mechanical sophistication. In this regard, as in so many others, the Civic will not disappoint.
Getting small powerplants to do the work of larger ones is a Honda trademark. Any one of the three Civic engine choices combines sprightly performance and exceptional smoothness with outstanding economy. All Civic engines use a four-valve design for maximum efficiency; the EX and HX coupe units add a variable valve timing system (called VTEC by Honda) that makes them extraordinarily responsive at any speed.
Combined with the standard five-speed manual transmission -- one of the easiest-shifting gearboxes around -- the Civic engines cater to people who like to drive. When mated to the optional four-speed automatic, which uses electronic controls to minimize unnecessary shifting on hills, they deliver effortless operation.
Good as they are, though, neither of the conventional transmissions is as impressive as the HX coupe's CVT. Controlled by what looks like an automatic's shift lever -- complete with three forward ranges, though only Drive is really necessary for most use -- the belt-drive transmission is a fascinating device. Pull away from a stop and the engine revs rise faster than the car accelerates. In less time than you might expect, engine and car speed synchronize, without the usual pauses for gear-changing. It is uncannily smooth, and more responsive than a normal automatic. It's also more fuel efficient.
The CVT does take a little acclimation before comfort sets in. One tester initially likened it to driving a manual-transmission car with a slipping clutch. This is most noticeable during hard acceleration: the engine spins right up to its maximum speed and stays there until the driver lifts off or the desired vehicle speed is reached.
Throttle lift-off will likely occur first, as the CVT Civic has a maximum speed well in excess of 100 mph. Used more prudently, the CVT is efficient enough to return real-world fuel economy in the high-30 mpg range.
There's nothing lacking in the remainder of the Civic's mechanical hardware, either. The four-wheel double-wishbone suspension is more expensive than conventional struts, but pays off with a blend of ride and handling qualities seldom found in low-dollar cars. Steering ease and precision brake performance are other Civic strengths, though limiting the availability of anti-lock braking to only uplevel models is an unfortunate move on Honda's part, in our view.
From the very beginning, the Honda Civic has been an exceptional value for buyers looking for a mix of sophistication, solid engineering and driving pleasure in a low-maintenance, fuel-sipping small car. In its latest form, the Civic continues the tradition.
The only caveat to be offered here is pricing. And the latter concern has only to do with the EX model; pick an HX, LX or DX, or even an ultra-plain CX hatchback, add those items you can't live without, and the value is unquestionable.
In any case, give the CVT-equipped HX Coupe a trial spin. As a functional and efficient innovation, it adds another techno-credit to the Civic's long list of achievements. Honda is testing market response to the CVT initially only in the coupe, but we expect to see it become an across-the-option soon.
Ever since its debut in 1973, the Civic has been the car that defined its class. And that's still true today.
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