|It's hard to find a more competitive new car market than the compact class. And it's more than just price, as the number of entries has skyrocketed in recent years. |
Honda once led the class, in every measure that mattered, from performance to price to quality to pizzazz. And just as important image-wise, Honda led the hot, sport compact niche. In fact, many credit Honda with unknowingly creating the sport compact craze with the Civic CRX.
In recent years, however, the four-door Civic, the sedan that carried the water for the company, has been more bland than beautiful, more efficient than exciting.
No more. With the redesigned, restyled, rejuvenated 2006 Honda Civic models, the company has returned to the fray with renewed energy.
Across the line, there's more power, improved ride and handling, and better people packaging. There are more choices as well: a sporty new Civic Si coupe, a fully populated tier of coupes and sedans with new engines and transmissions, and a more efficient and effective Hybrid sedan. The jury's still out on some of the more ambitious styling ventures, but overall, the new swoopy look turns heads and generates smiles.
Prices start at $14,360 MSRP for the base coupe with a 140-horsepower four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission and top out at $21,850 for the gas/electric Hybrid sedan. In between there's a sedan listing at $15,360 with the new five-speed automatic. The Si is likely to begin below $20,000. There are other cars in the class that undercut these figures, but the Civic includes important safety features, including antilock brakes and side-impact airbags as standard equipment, that many others leave on the option list.
Welcome back, Honda. Now, it gets interesting, again.
|Honda doesn't hold back when it comes to fleshing out a model line. For 2006, there are no fewer than four Civic models, two coupes and two sedans. Three of the coupes and three of the sedans, the DX, the LX and the EX models, share a 140-horsepower, 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder with a standard five-speed manual transmission and an optional five-speed automatic ($800). A performance-oriented coupe, the Si, comes with a 197-horsepower, 2.0-liter inline-4 fitted with a six-speed manual. The Hybrid sedan has a 1.3-liter four-cylinder coupled with a permanent magnet electric motor and a continuously variable transmission. |
The DX coupe ($14,360) and DX sedan ($14,560) are the base models. Standard equipment is confined to power windows, tilt-and-telescope steering wheel and height-adjustable driver's seat. Buyers wanting a radio must supply their own or order from the dealer, but a rear window-integrated radio antenna is standard.
The LX coupe ($16,310) and sedan ($16,510) expands the standard equipment list to include air conditioning; power mirrors; central locking; cruise control with steering wheel-mounted controls; a center console with sliding armrest; overhead map lights; a 160-watt, four-speaker, AM/FM/CD stereo with MP3 and WMA playback and speed-sensitive auto-volume control; front passenger seatback-mounted magazine pocket; and floor mats.
The EX is the nominal top of the line in both coupe ($18,260) and sedan ($18,260). Added to the no-extra-charge features on the LX are power moonroof; variable windshield wipers; a second 12-volt power outlet; a 60/40 split folding rear seatback; a seven-speaker, 350-watt, XM-ready, premium stereo with auxiliary input jack and steering wheel-mounted controls; and outside temperature indicator. The sole factory option, other than the automatic transmission, is a package combining a navigation system and XM Satellite Radio ($1750).
The Si coupe comes with all the gear found on the LX coupe plus leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, amber-tinted headlight trim rings and a body-colored rear wing spoiler. Options include high-performance tires and the navigation system with XM Satellite Radio.
The Hybrid sedan ($21,850) adds to the LX's features automatic climate control, a roof-mounted radio antenna, a rear decklid spoiler, and hybrid-pertinent digital data displays. The only factory option is the navigation system ($1500).
Dealer accessories include 16-inch alloy wheels ($876), chrome exhaust tips ($119), and aero-style, exterior body add-ons for the sedan. Honda Factory Performance packages are available for the Si, one for the LX and EX coupes and sedans. The Si HFP package includes lowered springs, more tautly tuned shocks, a sports muffler, 18-inch alloy wheels, a full lower-body aero kit and the HFP emblem ($3880). The LX and EX HFP package for the coupe ($3183) and sedan ($3680) substitutes 17-inch alloy wheels, drops the muffler and adds a rear spoiler. Installation costs extra and is set by dealers.
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|Honda re-did everything for 2006. Not only are powertrains updated and upgraded, and a new platform developed, but the sheetmetal is new. Not a single body panel is carried over from 2005. |
The sedans and coupes don't share any body panels. And trim elements and markings distinguish each iteration.
The platform underneath is new for 2006, seriously strengthened in rigidity, stiffness and crash absorption capacities, with minor adjustments to accommodate the varying dimensions of the coupe and sedan body styles. As part of its campaign to revitalize the Civic's appeal to the sport compact market, Honda has incorporated reinforced mounting points and gussets to allow suspension and certain other modifications without diminishing body integrity.
From the front, styling differences are subtle, but marked. A polished, horizontal bar dominates the sedan grille. Slender headlamp assemblies angle upwards as they curve around the fenders. A single, broad air intake fills the lower portion of the fascia.
The coupe grille appears more open, with the Honda logo suspended on a matte-black framework. An understated badge tucked away in the far right reaches of the grille identifies the sporty Si version. The coupe headlights are more sharply outlined. The lower air intake opens between two, geometric recesses that feed cooling air to the front disc brakes and house the optional fog lamps.
The front ends, but especially the coupes', push the leading corners down and outward, emphasizing the 2006's wider track (the distance side to side between the tires), which grows by more than an inch in front and by more than two inches in back over the 2005's.
Save for a lower body character line, drawn slightly higher on the coupe than on the sedan, the sides of the new Civic are more slab than sensuous. Understated fender blisters, more pronounced on the coupe, break up the otherwise featureless expanse. What excitement there is in the side view is in the sleekness of what Honda calls a monoform design. A central expression of this is the windshield, the leading edge of which reaches into the hood all the way to the middle of the front wheel wells, pushing the design concept of "cab forward" to a new extreme. On the coupe, the windshield is raked at a radical 21.9 degrees, markedly steeper than the '05's 26.7 degrees, even exceeding the Acura NSX's 23.9 degrees. And the sedan's matches the NSX's, dropping from the '05's 29.1 degrees. The sail (the body panel aft of the rear side window) is unique to each model as well. The coupe's forms an acute angle emphasizing the two-door body style, while the sedan's curves down over the rear door's trailing edge, pulling the eye through the higher roofline. The coupe's be-spoilered, rounded rear profile suggests swiftness. The sedan's somewhat abbreviated trunk lid and chopped off tail end adds perceived mass to the tightly proportioned, smallish sedan.
Likewise, the rear view of each body style differs markedly. The coupe's sloping trunk lid settles into a deep cut in the rear bumper, with the license plate sheltered in an equally deep recess. The sedan's trunk lid drops in an almost vertical, unrelieved sheer from a relatively high crest across the top, all very BMW-like in presence.
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|If the 2006 Civic's exterior is new, the '06's interior borders on shocking. First impression of the instrument arrangement is of a video game. Controls are for the most part where they should be, but not necessarily as they should be. There's little symmetry in organization or shape of features and interfaces. It's not an unpleasant look, but one that requires some acclimation. Ironically, perhaps, the interiors are indistinguishable across the full line, with only minor differences necessitated by the different powertrains. |
Splayed across the top of the seemingly unending dash in front of the driver is a hooded opening with a digital speedometer between LCD coolant temperature and fuel level gauges. Down below, in the more common place for the instrument panel, in the half circle formed by the top half of the steering wheel, that is, there's a large, round, analog tachometer. To each side of this lower IP are large, irregular vent registers. Centered in the dash above the climate control panel is either an LCD window combining the navigation display and audio settings and, in the Hybrid, a selection of graphic depictions of the hybrid system's functions and status or a stereo control head with the pertinent accoutrements. To the right of this squished pod-like arrangement, the dash curves away from the front seat passenger and houses two, more horizontally oriented vent registers, again neither of which matches the other. A wide, but not especially deep glove box rests below a cabin-wide, clam shell-like notch dividing the upper and lower halves of the dash.
There is no center stack to speak of tying together the dash and the drive tunnel. Below the climate control panel is a shallow storage bin with a power point and an audio input jack on the left side. Forward of the metallic-trimmed block of plastic serving as a base for the hand brake and shift levers is a good-sized, rectangular storage bin. Another, shallow cubby is tucked in between the shift lever housing and a pair of seat bottom-level cup holders under a sliding cover. Aft of this is an abbreviated, padded armrest covering another storage bin, inside of which is a second power point. Each door has a hard plastic map pocket. A magazine pouch is on the rear of the front passenger seatback. Architecturally busy interior door panels could be friendlier to fingers in terms of grips and pulls, but armrests provide good support at the right level.
The trunk is fully finished, although Honda blew a perfect chance to make points with owners in slushy snowbelt states by neglecting to mold an inside pull-down into the lining under the trunk lid. A thoughtful touch is a spare tire well large enough to hold the full-size tire the compact spare will replace temporarily in the event of a flat.
The 2006 Civic siblings are easily competitive with other cars in their classes when it comes to interior room. Oddly, however, despite adding more than three inches to the sedan's wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear tires) and more than in inch in overall length vis-a-vis the 2005, front seat leg room is the same and rear seat leg room is actually less, by more than in inch, in the 2006. Hip room does increase in the '06, however, by almost half an inch in front and by more than in inch in the rear. Almost oversize rear doors provide easy rear seat access. Cargo space, again oddly, drops by almost a cubic foot and trails the class leaders by a couple cubic feet; the Hybrid gives up another 1.6 cubic feet to battery and such. The coupes' wheelbase grows by more than an inch over the 2005, from 103.1 inches to 104.3, and loses about half an inch in overall length, to 174.8 from 175.4 inches, with much the same result for occupants. As in, there's about the same front seat leg room and less rear seat leg room, by almost three inches, but more hip room by around three inches front and rear.
Fit and finish meet Honda standards. Plastic trim elements look high grade, although the multi-piece dash invites concern about high-mileage squeaks and buzzes. Seats are comfortable, not plush. The fabric upholstery feels durable and its robust nap assists the modest side and seat bottom bolsters in restraining occupants during spirited motoring. Seat bottoms provide better than average thigh support. Head restraints adjust at all five seating positions. The manual height adjustment on the driver's seat pivots on front hinges, thus forcing drivers to choose between seat height and legroom.
The view out the front of the new Civics, with the expansive windshield, low cowl and sloping hood, is unparalleled in the class. A commensurately low beltline would enhance side vision, but there's little about which to complain. Tiny front quarter windows necessary to allow the front door windows to roll all the way down push the side view mirrors a bit too far rearward for quick and easy glances at neighboring lanes. The coupes' smaller C-pillar yields better rear quarter vision than the sedan's more substantial sail. Si drivers may rue the rear wing spoiler when they don't see the following car with the light bar on top until it's too late.
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|As good a job as Honda has done in designing four distinct models of the new, 2006 Civic, it's done an even better job of delivering four, distinct driving experiences. Careful tweaking of the electronics managing the 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine's variable valve timing (and enlarging displacement by a miniscule 0.1 liter, from the 2005's 1.7 liters) pumped up the horsepower from 127 to 140 and torque from 114 pound-feet to 128. According to EPA estimates, the sedan's fuel economy with the more popular automatic transmission has lost one mile per gallon in city driving from the 2005 model but has gained two mpg in highway driving. |
More aggressive overclocking of the chips controlling the Si's 2.0-liter four (and feeding its components some growth hormone; redline jumps from 6800 revolutions per minute to 8000 rpm) boosted horsepower to 197 from 160 and torque to 139 pound-feet from 132. The Si's buyer will pay a price at the pump, as city fuel economy plummets four mpg, to 22 mpg, although highway remains unchanged at 31.
Similar massaging of the Hybrid's engine/motor combo added 17 horsepower and 18 pound-feet of torque to that model's spec sheet. While the Hybrid's fuel economy estimates remain controversial (remember, your mileage may vary), the EPA pegs them at 50/50 city/highway, versus the 2005's 47/48. Worth noting in passing is that in every case except the Hybrid, the Civic bests the competition in EPA fuel economy estimates; the Toyota Prius earns an estimated 60/51 city/highway rating.
All this added go-power would be overkill were the car(s) it nourishes not equally upgraded, and Honda met this challenge with the same commitment. The chassis' added crashworthiness also adds stiffness, giving the car a more solid and more planted feel. Redesigned front and rear suspensions coupled with larger wheels and tires improve directional stability and sharpen steering. The longer wheelbase smoothes the ride.
The LX sedan is the most comfortable and confident Civic we've driven, and a refreshing improvement over the 2005, which had lost some steam and enjoyment in Honda's drive to reduce complexity and costs. Ride was solid but comfortable, with less road noise and wind whistle expected for the class. Shifts were smooth, if not entirely transparent. Brake feel was solid, steering response certain, if not sports car-quick. Thankfully, Honda has not fallen prey to the Sport-Shift fad, so the automatic transmission is just that, a select-it-and-leave-it gearbox. We do wish, though, that Honda would insert a tab below the "D" setting in the gate, as we routinely passed that one right by when shifting out of Park or Reverse and ended up in the "D3" notch. And despite the seeming logic behind the relocation of the digital speedometer, we confess we never quite adjusted to that weird pod on top of the dash.
The major difference noted between the sedan and the Hybrid was in the transmission, as the shiftless CVT left engine speed roving around the tachometer as the electronic brain kept the rpms at their most efficient given road speed and load. Surprisingly, weight was a non-issue, with the Hybrid tipping the scale at a mere 74 pounds over the gas engine-powered sedan.
Differences between the coupes were the most dramatic. The Si's 6-speed manual was a delight of precision, with short throws and certain engagement. Less pleasant was the other coupes' 5-speed manual, which felt a bit rubbery and required careful aim. Handling, too, was a distinguishing factor, although not always as might be expected. The Si's more powerful engine also returned more front wheel-drive syndrome, where hard acceleration excites the steering wheel demanding more driver effort, than the base-engined coupe. This was a small price to pay, however, for the fun time we had playing with the Si. Braking down from socially irresponsible speeds and feathering the throttle through sweeping curves then restraining the steering wheel when powering out on the way to another set of esses was pure joy. Well, we've had more fun in pure sports cars, but for the price and package, the Si delivers. For commuters or college students, any of the everyday coupes will be more than sufficient and more than worth the money, but for those with a little extra to spend and that devilish sparkle in the eye, the Si is the buy.
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|The Honda Civic is back. Not that it ever left, but it had fallen behind the curve a bit, and not just because the competition had expanded and improved. With the 2006 lineup, however, the car that for years set the quality and performance standard for the affordable, compact car market has returned, and now with the style to match the specifications. |
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Chicago.
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