1997 Honda Civic

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1997 Honda Civic
Available in 8 styles:  Civic 2dr Coupe shown
Asking Price Range
Estimated MPG

30.1–37.2 city / 36.2–44.1 hwy

Expert Reviews

    Expert Reviews 2 of 2


Detroit Newspapers

Ever since its debut in 1973, the Honda Civic has been one of the best small cars you could buy, and even though the competition has been busy over the past 23 years, that's still true.

In fact, if you factor variety into the equation, you could make a case for the Civic being in a class by itself. Besides a bevy of power train choices, the Civic line includes a hatchback, one of the few survivors of this once-ubiquitous subspecies.

That's significant, because the little Civic hatchback is one of the most versatile members of its family -- small wagon cargo capacity in a tidy package.

However, the focus of this report is the Civic HX Coupe, which continues the Civic's long tradition of innovation with a new kind of automatic transmission --the CVT, for Continuously Variable Transmission.

The CVT option is available, at least initially, only on the Civic coupe, and it's the only automatic for this particular model.

Other Civic models offer conventional automatics, and it seems clear that Honda wants to test market response before making the new transmission more widely available.

I'm not exactly the market, but here's my response: the CVT works, and it's better than I expected.

OK, so what's a Continuously Variable Transmission?

The idea of the CVT is to eliminate the gearing of a traditional transmission, and the shifting that goes with it.

The CVT transmission transmits power to the front wheels with a drive belt connecting two conical pulleys. As the driver operates the throttle, the belts slide up and down the pulleys to provide the proper drive ratio.

No upshifts or downshifts -- seamless operation and better efficiency than a conventional automatic.

Pioneered by Van Doorne Transmissie in the Netherlands, this concept has been around for a long time, originally appearing in the aptly named DAF in 1958.

I've driven some early CVTs, and they were awful. Pundits called them "rubber band cars." When heat built up in the transmission, it emitted odors reminiscent of Akron's tire factories in the '50s.

Honda's version of the CVT doesn't do that. Aside from a hint of uncertainty at low speeds, and a hint of vibration at stoplights, it's smooth and about as close to seamless as automatics get.

Like any automatic, the CVT takes a bite out of the Civic's acceleration, particularly from a standing start.

But it's not a big bite, and for a car with 115 horsepower, the HX Coupe is surprisingly brisk out of the blocks.

And it's efficient. With the optional CVT, the HX Coupe is EPA rated at 35 miles per gallon the city cycle, 41 on the highway.

In contrast, the basic DX coupe, with 106 h.p. and conventional 4-speed automatic, is rated at 29 city, 36 highway, while an automatic-equipped EX Coupe -- the top of the line -- is pegged at 28/35.

Well, that's probably enough about the CVT. But it strikes me as yet another example of the spirit of mechanical adventure that separate s Honda products from the rest of the herd.

And now, the rest of the story.

Redesigned for '96, the new Civics are all bigger than their predecessors.

In the coupe, the dimensional increase is most noticeable overhead, where a 3.2-inch higher roof line yields additional headroom, both fore and aft.

Other interior dimensions have also increased, but only fractionally, and in any case Honda is better than most at creating lots of space inside a small package.

Similarly, storage for small stuff has been improved.

Good control placement has been another Honda strong suit, and that's true of the new generation -- no hunting, readily discernible markings, controls that are identifiable by touch.

However, Honda did pep things up a bit in the instrument pod by adding a dash of color to the instrument faces instead of the previous classic white on black.

This sort of thing can easily be overdone, but the Honda approach is restrained and tasteful -- a smal but welcome touch.

Another welcome improvement is the new plastic used on Civic dashboards. Yes, it still looks like plastic -- this is an economy car, after all -- but it does a better job of reducing glare.

That's good, because the higher roof line lets in even more light.

Honda cabins have always had an open feeling, and this pleasant trait is even more pronounced in the latest edition.

There's a more tangible benefit to this, too. Thanks to their droopy noses, Hondas have always provided excellent forward visibility for the driver.

But the increased glass area in the rear also improves driver sight lines in the rear quarters, improving your chances of avoiding nasty surprises on the freeway.

Seating comfort is above average for this class, and cargo capacity, which can be augmented by flopping the rear seat backs forward, is good.

On the road, the new Civic Coupe is a model of good deportment, with precise steering and quick responses.

Ride quality is firm, enhancing the solid sense of control, and there's enough give to smooth out the rough edges of nasty surfaces.

If there's any complaint to be made, it's that the Civic's all-around dynamics could be a little more stimulating.

Perhaps it's a function of this car's all-around competence and quiet operation, but it feels just a little anonymous compared to the brash, noisy exuberance of a Neon.

On the other hand, for all its endearing dash, the Neon doesn't have the same level of refinement.

While the Civic's new styling is distinctly Honda, it doesn't qualify as head-turning.

Although there's extra length to keep the higher roof line in proportion, the Coupe's smooth lines aren't what you'd call dramatic -- not when the Civic is parked next to a Pontiac Sunfire coupe, anyway.

One Civic element that's definitely more attractive than last year, however, is price.

In addition to a number of technical and ergonomic refinements, one of the big design goals for the sixth-generation Civic was engineering cost cuts.

That's why all the Civics have drum brakes at the rear, rather than discs.

Disc brakes do a better job of dissipating heat, but they also cost more than drum brakes.

Would I prefer disc brakes at all four corners? Sure.

But the truth is that you'd have trouble detecting any difference in performance, even on a race track, since the front brakes do most of the work, particularly in a front-drive car, which has a heavy forward weight bias.

The most impressive thing about Honda's cost engineering is that it's all but impossible to discern.

This is still a high quality car, with sophisticated mechanical credentials.

And thanks to cost-cutting, the Civics don't occupy such a lofty price perch in the compact segment.

Beyond that, they continue to be the standard by which other small cars are judged.

As for the HX Coupe, it gets to be a question of what's important to you.

There are certainly s mall coupes with more flash. And there are some -- the Neons -- with more dash.

But there are none with a higher level of all-around competence, comfort or engineering excellence.

You just can't go wrong with a Civic.

    Expert Reviews 2 of 2

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