Versus the competiton:
It’s almost too easy to confuse conservatism with dullness.
But most people seem to be conservative, especially when it comes time to lay their money on the line for a new car. Many people complain about snooze-arama styling, then turn around and buy a car like the Honda Civic sedan. With it’s conservative, upright stance, you’d never confuse it for a sports sedan.
But look closer. The car, assembled in Marysville, Ohio, is carefully constructed with gem-like headlamps. The paint job is quite good — the test car had a distinctive blue-green hue that drew thumbs up from admirers.
Even the five-spoke alloy wheels drew praise. Like a fine gray-flannel suit, classic styling draws attention in this class.
The car comes in three ascending trim levels, DX, LX and EX.
Even if the styling isn’t sporty, its drive train is, and that’s what separates Hondas from their Japanese competitors. Under the hood resides a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine. With single-overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, the engine is good for 106 horsepower at 6,200 rpm. Top-level EX models are endowed with a 127-horsepower VTEC engine.
Whichever level you buy, front disc/rear drum brakes are standard, with anti-lock standard on the top level EX, so braking is good.
Power, fed through a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, is about what you’d expect for a small overhead cam four: anemic at launch, with much better power as speed builds. The engine feels a little strained with the four-speed automatic, although shifts no longer have the gooey quality they once had.
What makes small Hondas so attractive is what you don’t see. A double wishbone all-independent suspension that gives the car a direct, go-cart feel. Throw this puppy around and you might mistake it for a sports sedan — that is, until the body lean sets in. But sharp, quick steering makes this auto almost effortless. Some might find the steering heavy at low speeds, but it has good road feel.
The engine grows loud as the revs build, but it’s not unusual in this class, and the sound it makes is a high-quality one. There’s remarkably little tire and wind noise for a small car.
This car has a tossable, involving quality that has always been a hallmark of small Hondas. It makes them fun to drive. It also keeps you in intimate contact with the road. If you don’t like that, look elsewhere.
Traditionally, Hondas tend to seat the rider low. This Civic sedan is no exception. With a low belt line and lots of glass, the cabin feels especially roomy and affords the driver a good view in all directions. It also makes one feel as if they’re looking into the bumper of every car on the road. Even Ford Contours feel bigger. But driving position is excellent, with decent support from the front bucket seats.
The dash is sophisticated and modern, carefully assembled using high quality plastics. Here is where Honda always seems to be ahead of its rivals. The radio is high on the dash and easy to operate without taking your eyes off the road. The climate controls just below it are a series of buttons and sliders, also easy to operate.
The power sunroof that comes in the top EX model steals little interior room and didn’t rattle when closed. The switch for it is buried on the left side of the dash. Worse is the fact that it’s unlit at night. Also unlit are the power window and mirror switches.
As good as the driving experience is, there were a few minor gripes. Honda’s ergonomics are usually superior. But the cassette unit on the test car was buried just in front of the cupholder. When in use, the cupholder blocks the cassette deck. And you’ll need the cassette deck, since the radio reception was especially weak in the test car, pulling in only the most powerful signals. Even some local stations failed to come in cleanly.
But other parts of the cabin are nice. There’s plenty of storage, with map pockets on the front doors, a cente r storage bin, and an ample glove box. The center console is padded, and a comfy place to rest your arm. There’s even a little coin bin on the left side of the dash.
The trunk measures slightly less than 12 cubic feet, but seems larger because of its useful shape.
So how much does all this fun cost? The DX sedan starts at $12,735, with a five-speed; $13,535 with a four-speed. The test vehicle, equipped with power everything and a moon roof, started at $17,280. Fuel economy is good, with EPA ratings of 28 city, 35 highway.
Conservative styling, careful construction and a fun, flexible engine make this little grocery-getter a car for all reasons. It’s stylish enough to take you to the fanciest of places, yet its initial cost is low and it sips fuel.
In the end, it’s Honda’s unique match of conservative styling and fabulous small-car handling that make this gray-flannel suit of a car such a hit with buyers.
1998 Civic Sedan EX
Standard: 1.6-liter single overhead-cam engine, four-speed automatic transmission, front disc/rear drum brakes with anti-lock, dual front air bags, air conditioning, AM/FM four-speaker stereo, keyless entry, rear seat heating ducts, rear window defogger, intermittent wipers, remote trunk/fuel releases, center console with storage box and cupholders, cruise control, power windows, power locks, folding split rear seat, visor vanity mirrors, map lights, coin box, power moon roof, power mirrors, P185/ 65R14 tires, full wheel covers.
Options: floor mats, cassette player.
Base price: $17,280
As tested: $17,943
EPA rating: 28 mpg city, 35 mpg highway
Test mileage: 30 mpg