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A Look Back at the Honda Civic

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author photo by Joe Tralongo October 2015

One of the most well-known names in the automotive world is the Honda Civic. Through generations, the Civic has remained a mainstay for the entry-level buyer looking for value, economy and fun. Although at times the Civic has stumbled, it has never fallen, and with the launch of the 2016 Civic, Honda is about to write another exciting chapter in the long history of America's favorite compact.

We Make It Simple

First Generation: 1973-79

The Civic first set tires on U.S. soil in 1973. Offered as a hatchback and sedan (the sedan was identical to the hatchback, aside from replacing the hatch with a small trunk), the little Civic measured a mere 140 inches in length, yet its interior was roomier than many domestic compacts. Thanks to its independent suspension and plucky 50-horsepower engine, the Civic quickly gained a reputation as a fun and frugal economy car. Honda's Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion (CVCC) engine was introduced in 1975. The design was so efficient that it was able to pass tough new federal emission standards without the need for a catalytic converter or unleaded gas. Honda also grew the Civic line by introducing a wagon. Further cosmetic enhancements were added for 1978, with integrated front turn signals the most notable change. By 1979, the CVCC engine was pumping out 63 hp, an impressive achievement for such a small car.

Second Generation: 1980-83

The Civic had established itself as real player in the small-car market, and the second-generation model grew slightly larger, slightly roomier, slightly more powerful and much more popular. The CVCC engine design became standard on both the 1300 and 1500 models. The hatchback and wagon remained, with a proper 4-door sedan joining the Civic family in 1981. A 3-speed automatic transmission replaced the old Hondamatic 2-speed, and in 1982 a super-efficient FE model was added, touting 55 miles per gallon on the highway. In 1983, the sporty S trim was introduced. It featured a more aggressive suspension, larger tires, a more upscale interior and a choice of red or black paint.

Trying Out a New Look

Third Generation: 1984-87

In 1984, the Civic had a radical departure in design, with a lower, leaner vehicle that featured a nearly vertical rear end on the hatchbacks. The wheelbase grew by 5 inches, and output jumped to 60 hp for the 1300 and 76 hp for the 1500. The wagon took on a radical new tall look and, in 1985, gained the option of a driver-activated 4-wheel-drive (4WD) system and a 6-speed manual transmission. In 1986, the sport-themed Si trim debuted, aimed squarely at the VW GTI. In 1987, Honda rounded out this generation with a fully automatic 4WD system introduced on the wagon, which Honda called Real Time 4WD.

Fourth Generation: 1988-91

The fourth-generation Civic took on a softer, more rounded look. It again grew in size and featured a low cowl and hood. An independent double-wishbone suspension and fuel injection marked the mechanical highlights, while features such as power windows and door locks joined the options list. Output rose to 70 hp on the base DX, 92 hp on the LX and 105 hp in the wagon. The sporty Si took a brief vacation but returned in 1989 with a 108-hp engine, bolstered sport seats, a power sunroof and unique wheels. In 1990, the luxury EX trim was introduced, moving the Civic into uncharted territory, a move that would ultimately prove a resounding success.

Fifth Generation: 1992-95

The 1992 Civic brought another increase in wheelbase and length. The trademark low cowl and dash were gone, as were some of the more stylish interior traits found on earlier Civics. The wagon model was also put out to pasture, while the hatchback model received a unique 2-piece hatch. The model range included the CX, DX, LX, high-mileage VX, sporty Si and upscale EX. Variable valve timing, called VTEC by Honda, was fitted to the VX, EX and Si trims. Fitted with lightweight wheels and tires, the fuel-sipping VX achieved an impressive 55 mpg and 92 hp. A driver's side airbag was fitted on all models, while the EX trim received anti-lock brakes. The 125-hp Civic Si gained 4-wheel disc brakes, cruise control and a 7,200-rpm redline. In 1993, Honda introduced the Civic coupe but only in DX and EX trim. The coupe offered the option of a passenger side airbag and a high-output stereo.

The Civic Plays It Safe

Sixth Generation: 1996-2000

For 1996, there was a major shake-up in the Civic lineup. Honda placed a stronger emphasis on the sedan and coupe while scaling back the hatchback, offering it only on the DX and LX trim levels. Styling for the sedan was more mainstream, while the hatchback was roundly criticized for being awkward and uninspiring. In 1998, the natural-gas-powered GX was added, and the HX coupe replaced the VX hatchback as the Civic line's high-mileage champ. The HX also introduced the first continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) to the Civic family. In 1999, Honda reintroduced the Si badge, only this time affixed to the coupe, not the hatchback. Powered by a 160-hp 1.6-liter VTEC engine, the Si included 15-inch alloy wheels, a sport suspension and unique interior fabric and seats.

Seventh Generation: 2001-05

The 2001 redesign continued the Civic's upscale move. Although its size remained the same as the sixth-generation car, the driver-oriented double-wishbone suspension was replaced by a softer (and less expensive) MacPherson strut setup. The Si badge returned to the hatchback. Based on the European Si, it featured a dash-mounted shifter and 160-hp 2.0-liter i-VTEC engine, sport seats and 15-in alloy wheels. HX, LX, GX, DX and EX trims remained in the lineup. In 2003, the Civic Hybrid debuted featuring a 1.3-liter engine and auxiliary electric motors for a combined output of 93 hp. The hybrid attained an impressive 46 mpg in the city and 51 mpg on the highway. Near the end of this model run, the seventh-generation Civic gained larger wheels, more features and improved sound insulation for the sedans.

Honda Banishes Boring

Eighth Generation: 2006-11

Clearly stung by criticism that the Civic had become too soft and too safe, the eighth-generation Civic addressed its critics head on. The radical new look included a hood that was short and low, a long, raked windshield and a fastbacklike rear end. It was a design that worked particularly well for the coupe. Inside, the Civic's dashboard featured a split-level design, placing a traditional analog tachometer behind the steering wheel and a digital speedometer readout up near the windshield's base. The LX, DX and EX were all powered by the 140-hp 1.8-liter engine, with the Si coupe delivering 197 hp from its 2.0-liter engine. A 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic was offered on all but the hybrid, which used a CVT. In 2007, a sedan version of the Si was introduced, and in 2008, leather seats were introduced but only on the EX-L trim. At the close of 2011, Honda reported sales of nearly 1.5 million Civics and close to 8 million total sales since its introduction in 1973.

Ninth Generation: 2012-15

The ninth-generation Civic would be one of the most controversial redesigns in the car's history. Although its size and styling remained consistent with the previous-generation car, critics roundly denounced the 2012 Civic for cost-cutting measures that resulted in increased interior noise, cheaper interior plastics and a harsher ride. Consumer Reports, which had recommended the Honda Civic with a buy rating for as long as anyone could remember, dropped the 2012 model from its list. Eager to make amends, the 2013 Civic saw a major makeover, with improvements to the car's suspension and brakes. The interior was made quieter, and the dash and doors received better plastics, plus a revised center stack. New standard features included Pandora radio, a rear backup camera and Bluetooth. In 2015, a new SE trim took the former DX spot, slotting between the base LX and top-dog EX.

Tenth Generation: 2016

The 2016 Honda Civic represents a monumental leap forward in the car's evolution. The 10th generation Civic is not only bigger in all the places that count (wheelbase, interior room, horsepower and fuel economy), it also sees the line expand to include a performance oriented Type R and the return of a hatchback model. Power for the Civic comes in two forms: a 158-hp 2.0-liter engine (LX, EX) and a 174-hp 1.5-liter turbocharged engine (EX-T, EX-L and Touring). Accompanying the Civic's bolder styling and sportier handling are new technologies such as Honda Sensing, a set of driver assist features that include lane departure warning, forward collision warning and adaptive cruise control. Playing no favorites, the 2016 Civic will also offer both Apple Car Play and Android Auto.

2017 and 2018 Models

In addition to the fully redesigned 10th generation Civic, Honda is reviving the sporty Civic Si for 2017. It’s available as a coupe and a sedan, makes 205 hp and, for the first time, is turbocharged. Another first is the introduction of the Honda Civic Type R to the U.S. This high-performance Civic has been available throughout Europe but now Americans who want a hot, small car can get a Civic Type R as well.

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A Look Back at the Honda Civic - Autotrader