Honda Civics offer terrific handling, and that statement applies to all models. Ride quality, noise, vibration and harshness have not the best in the class, however. To address this, Honda added more sound-dampening insulation to the doors to the 2004 models of both the coupe and sedan. If you haven't driven a Civic since the end of the last century, you'll find that the current models feel more substantial, more upscale than the pre-2001 models. 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. All Civics are fun to drive, the EX and Si models are more so thanks to their brisk acceleration. All are environmentally friendly. The government has certified Civic DX, LX, and EX models as ultra low emissions vehicles, or ULEVs.
Civic DX and LX models offer excellent fuel economy with an EPA-estimated 32/38 mpg City/Highway. However, DX and LX models offer tepid acceleration performance. The standard 1.7-liter engine produces just 115 horsepower. This is most pronounced with the automatic transmission, where more time and space are needed to pass another vehicle, and city fuel mileage drops to 29 mpg. In other words, DX and LX models are at their best with a manual transmission and in the hands of a driver who can wring power and efficiency from the engine.
The EX models deliver livelier acceleration because they are equipped with the more powerful VTEC engine. Driving a Honda Civic EX sedan with the five-speed manual transmission is a sporty, satisfying experience. Throttle response is good at any speed because the engine extends its torque across a broad power band. The manual gearbox is smooth and precise, with notched stop points between gears. The four-speed automatic also works well, shifting quietly and smoothly.
Most fun to drive is the Civic 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, however, because the Si does not deliver the same rush of power nor does it make exciting racecar sounds. But the Si can accelerate from 0-60 mph in about 8 seconds, which is only a tick slower than the Ford Focus SVT. 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 Civic Si will understeer. (The front tires will lose grip before the rear tires.) The front and rear stabilizer bars and firmer dampers and springs are designed for sharper handling, yet the Si's ride quality is quite pleasant. At 80-90 mph, the Si feels very stable. Transient response (left, right, left) was a little squishy in the 2003 model; the larger tires that come standard on 2004 models may help address this.
The Civic Hybrid is one of the best vehicles available for drivers interested in great fuel economy and low emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the Civic Hybrid at 46/51 mpg on its City/Highway test. But the most remarkable thing about this car is the unremarkable driving experience. That's our highest complement. If you like driving the regular Honda Civic EX sedan you'll like driving the Civic Hybrid. The Hybrid demands no extra knowledge or ability from the driver.
Many people mistakenly think a hybrid car needs charging like an electric car. It does not. You do not plug this car in. The Civic Hybrid, like Honda's more radical Insight and Toyota's now mid-size Prius, is primarily a gasoline-powered car. All three of these vehicles use a an auxiliary electric motor that assists the small gasoline engine when extra power is needed for passing, accelerating, or climbing a grade. In the case of the Civic Hybrid, the 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine develops 85 horsepower and 87 pounds-feet of torque on its own; the electric motor adds another 13 horsepower and up to 46 pounds-feet (36 pounds-feet with automatic transmission) when needed. When decelerating or braking, the electric motor works as a generator to recharge the 144-volt battery pack. The mode of the electric motor is indicated in a bar graph in the instrument cluster. All you have to do is put in gas and drive.
The Civic Hybrid we tested had the optional continuously variable transmission ($1,000), and that made a bigger difference in how it drove than did the hybrid powertrain. The CVT is an option on the regular Civic, so it's not an unknown quantity, though few people have experienced it. It's an automatic transmission and using it requires no special skill from the driver. Essentially the transmission has infinitely variable gear ratios provided by belts running between moveable conical pulley wheels. The advantage is that the transmission always changes ratios smoothly, while optimizing performance and fuel economy. It also provides a strange sensation when accelerating hard, as the engine speeds up and the transmission seems to lag behind, as if the clutch in a manual transmission was slipping. Then the engine revs start to slow down as the CVT changes ratios, yet the car is moving faster.
Other than that, the weirdest sensation we experienced was having the engine automatically shut off at traffic lights off to save fuel. But as soon as you put the car in gear and touch the gas pedal the engine fires up without any hesitation. A small icon in the left-hand gauge indicates when the engine has shut off. According to the dashboard readout, we averaged 40 mpg overall during our test drive. This is somewhat lower than the EPA ratings (48/47 mpg with the CVT), but most of it was city driving with a lot of heavy accelerating.
Braking performance in the Honda Civic is good, but not up to the standards of the class. Braking is well controlled in Civic sedans and coupes, which come with front disc and rear drum brakes. The Si comes with disc brakes on all four wheels. Still, its stopping performance is only average for the class. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) are available and we recommend them. Si and Hybrid models also come with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), which optimizes braking performance and stability by gradually moving more braking power to the front wheels as the car's weight tilts forward while stopping.