Completely redesigned for 2006, the Honda Civic is in its eighth generation and its 33rd year. How does a model last this long and become the best-selling small car in the U.S. for the past nine years and the third-best-selling passenger car in 2004? The same thing that's consistently placed the Civic as a cars.com Overall Best Bet since the distinction began: It does everything well, and some things very well. In the face of growing competition, Honda is rolling out all the Civic variants within the next few months: the coupe and sedan on Sept. 15, the Civic Hybrid on Oct. 5 and the Civic Si on Dec. 1. I drove them all on one very busy day.
The import "tuner" craze in California started many years ago with the Civic, but that elite group shunned the seventh generation, in part, because its styling went mainstream. Honda has addressed that with a more aggressive look. All versions except the Civic Hybrid have manual transmissions as standard equipment — five speeds in the coupe and sedan and a six-speed in the performance-oriented Civic Si. The Hybrid no longer offers a manual, Honda says, because the version with an automatic, continuously variable transmission, delivers as good or better results. (If you simply prefer to shift for yourself, the Honda Insight is now the only hybrid sold with a stick.)
There will no longer be a Civic HX, a coupe that used more conventional means to achieve high fuel economy. It's best not to get caught up in the technology anyway. Whenever I advise consumers of this, I use the Civic as an example: As in the previous generation, every version of the car except the Si gets an estimated 30 mpg or more in city driving, with highway figures closer to 40 mpg.
|Honda-Estimated Fuel Economy (city/highway, mpg)|
The Hybrid's fuel economy has improved, and Honda suspects that its real-world results will mirror mileage estimates. Based on the numbers alone, the efficiency has increased about 5 percent, according to Honda. With its roughly 5-percent increase in curb weight, the Hybrid isn't noticeably quicker or slower; Honda hasn't made the car unnecessarily quick at the expense of fuel economy — as in the Accord and other hybrids introduced recently, a questionable move.
In terms of emissions, which is a separate issue, all Civics sold nationwide are rated Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles (ULEV) — except the Civic Si and the Hybrid. The Si is a Tier-2 Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV-2), and the Hybrid is an Advanced-Technology Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (AT-PZEV), clean enough to earn its manufacturer credits toward the zero-emissions requirement. The Civic GX, which runs on compressed natural gas, will return next year. It, too, is almost certain to be rated AT-PZEV.
The Hybrid's Integrated Motor Assist drivetrain achieves the efficiency boost by means of many improvements: The electric motor/generator is the same size and weight but is itself more efficient and generates more torque. More energy is recaptured because a computer now controls conventional and regenerative braking (which charges the battery pack). IMA now can shut off all of the 1.3-liter engine's four cylinders and cruise under electric motor power alone in some circumstances. Because the motor is attached to the crankshaft, the engine never stops turning when the car is in motion, as it does in the Ford and Toyota hybrids, but it can shut off the fuel supply and valves, which has a similar effect. Honda says the decrease in friction means more energy goes to the motor/generator, which helps increase electricity generation by 170 percent over the 2005.
There's still a noticeable momentary hesitation when accelerating from a stop, and the brakes are a bit shy of feeling like a regular car's — especially as one nears a complete stop. Otherwise, the Hybrid is eminently drivable and peppy enough to satisfy most drivers.
The conventional models have improved, with less engine noise and a welcome additional gear in the automatic transmission. The greatest upgrade is in the Civic Si, which I never cared for because its low-rev torque was always lacking. Now the torque comes on sooner so quick launches don't require you to rev the engine to an rpm that hurts your teeth. (See the pop-up graph.)
I spent about 15 minutes flinging the Civic Si around a slick new racetrack outside of Chicago called the Autobahn Country Club, where the acceleration, braking and handling meshed well. Civic purists decried the 2001 switch to MacPherson struts from a double-wishbone front suspension design. The latter is theoretically superior, and it makes aftermarket modifications simpler and typically more affordable. Apart from the design argument, the previous-generation Civic models simply didn't have the handling prowess of the Ford Focus or Mazda's Mazda3.
The 2006's front strut and rear multilink suspensions have been refined, and I thought they performed admirably. The ride quality, also a shortcoming in the previous generation, is better — still firm but better controlled over rough pavement.
The Civic has long been a car that has felt more expensive than it is. The 2006 furthers this with a higher-quality, quieter interior. A jack-style seat-height adjustment and standard tilt/telescoping steering wheel are an ergonomics bonus. The backseat still has a perfectly flat floor and is usable by adults, though Honda specs show a minor decrease in the sedan's front-seat headroom and an increase in the backseat. Front-seat legroom stays the same, while the backseat has lost 1.4 inches in the sedan. The 2006 coupe is down 1 inch of headroom in front (or -1.3 with a moonroof) and 0.3 inch in the back (or -0.7 inch with a moonroof). As is typical of coupes, this one's backseat is less accommodating for taller passengers.
The 2006 Civic is more than competitive, with a nicer interior than the Mazda3; more refinement than the Chevrolet Cobalt, Ford Focus and Toyota Corolla; and better fuel economy — as a model line — than all.
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