There are compact sedans with more power, there are compact sedans better equipped to catch the eye, and there are compact sedans that are significantly cheaper.
But for all that, I don’t think there’s a compact sedan going that’s any better than the new Honda Civic. In fact, it’s hard to come up with another car in this class that’s even as good as the Civic.
That last assertion, of course, will be open to some debate, particularly if snappy styling is a big priority. The Civic’s lines and detailing are smooth and contemporary but not vastly different from the previous model and certainly not as distinctive as the looks of the Ford Focus or Dodge Neon.
On the other hand, demure styling hasn’t kept the Civic from being the best-seller in its class in years past, and I’ll be very surprised if that changes with the new edition.
The elements that count here are practical: durability, reliability, comfort, mechanical sophistication, quiet operation and low operating costs, including fuel economy.
Let’s not forget good citizenship. Although the Civic’s four-cylinder engine is offered in four levels of output, from 105 to 127 horsepower, all models are certified as ULEV (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) in all 50 states.
And the Civic has crash-worthiness: a four-star rating for side-impact survivability, a five-star rating for frontal impacts from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is pretty impressive for a car in this size class.
A high fun-to-drive quotient doesn’t hurt the car’s appeal.
Although there’s very little about this car that hasn’t been given painstaking scrutiny, its external dimensions have changed very little. The wheelbase remains almost the same at 103.1 inches, width has increased by less than a half-inch, the ceiling has been raised two inches, and overall length has shrunk by a half-inch to 174.6 inches.
Nevertheless, Honda’s interior design troops have done their usual brilliant job of making more space inside a small package. Total interior volume is up by 2.6 cubic feet, and, more important to passengers using the second set of doors, rear seat legroom has stretched by almost two inches.
These increases put the Civic sedan closer to the middle of the EPA compact class. Remember, the classes are determined by interior volume rather than exterior size, which makes this car more useful to young couples and small families.
So how’d they do that?
Naturally, Honda isn’t about to share all its secrets, but two elements contributed significantly to the Civic’s expanded interior volume.
First, that taller ceiling definitely pumps up the volume, and it simultaneously makes it a little easier to get in or out.
Second, Honda has substituted a more space-efficient strut-type front suspension for the previous control arm setup. This has not provoked wholesale hosannas from the car buff community.
Honda had long b een lauded for spending the extra money for its successful double wishbone suspension, which does a very good job of keeping the tire’s footprint solidly in contact with the road during hard cornering. It’s harder to achieve the same result with struts, but in truth my Civic EX tester felt as nimble and as eager as its predecessors on snaky sections of road.
Make that nimble, eager and wholly predictable. And we should also note that BMW uses front struts, too.
Under the hood, Honda has performed yet another feat of internal combustion legerdemain. Although the new Civic engine family is a little bigger than the old — 1.7 liters vs. 1.6 liters — it’s more fuel efficient, more civilized in terms of noise and vibration and, as noted earlier, greener in terms of what’s coming out of the tailpipe.
Horsepower in my top-of-the-line EX model is unchanged at 127, but there’s a nice torque increase, 114 foot-pounds vs. 107. Torque, you’ll recal is the good old get-up-and-go power commodity, and it’s what most of us are using most of the time, particularly in urban traffic.
The nice thing here is that there’s not only more torque, but it reaches maximum considerably lower in the engine’s operating range, 4,800 r.p.m. vs. 5,600 for the previous engine. Not only does that make for nice getaway punch, it also makes the car more pleasant to live with.
Honda’s formidable reputation in the area of power trains (No company matches this one for extracting big power from small displacements.) rests to a large degree on high-revving screamers like the 240-horsepower, 2.0-liter four that propels the S2000 sports car.
Now, no one loves the S2000 more than I, but let’s face it, unless you happen to be the driver who draws the dawn patrol shift in a 24-hour race, you’re probably not all that eager to start managing a screamer first thing in the morning, particularly when you’re inching along in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Thus, Honda’s latest Civic fours are more pleasant to live with on an everyday basis. There also are a 115-horsepower version, in the basic DX and mid-range LX editions, and a 117-horsepower, lean-burn edition that powers the HX coupe with its continuously variable automatic transmission.
More pleasant does not equate with slow. Even though the new Civic sedan weighs 51 pounds more than the previous incarnation, it has respectable hustle: 0–60 m.p.h. in just over eight seconds with the standard five-speed manual transmission.
As always with cars this size, I strongly recommend a manual transmission, which does a better job of making the most of the engine’s power. And as in previous Civics, Honda’s manual transmissions deliver an exemplary degree of crisp, positive shifts coupled with a clutch whose take-up is as light, sweet and precise as any in the business.
All of which adds up to an endearing mechanical concerto that never ceases to satisfy the conductor.
Speaking again of screamers, the potent 160-horsepower Si version of the coupe has disappeared with the arrival of the new generation.
That’s happened before. The hot rod versions come and go.
I anticipate that we’ll see a new and even hotter edition of the Si at some point in the not-too-distant future, particularly with new competitors on the near horizon.
Ford is getting set to launch a 170-horsepower SVT version of the Focus ZX3 hatchback next year, and BMW’s all-new revival of the old Austin Mini Cooper is about a year away.
Civic hatchback gone
A car that will not return to the U.S. Civic lineup is the hatchback. America isn’t a strong hatchback market, and Honda has elected to put its chips on the coupes and sedans. I hate to see the hatchback disappear, because it was such a seminal car when it made its debut back in 1973. Its clever use of interior space became a Honda trademark, as did its innovative CVCC engine.
But time marches on and all things change. Since that first Civic rolled onto the scene, Honda has sold more than 10 million of them. It’s been Honda’s best-seller for more than two decades, and you can buy a Civic in more than 140 countries.
The key element in this car’s success, particularly in the United States, is that it’s a small car that doesn’t constantly remind its owner of its size. That applies to its comfort, roominess and interior appointments, as well as performance.
I agree that $17,689 is a pretty hefty chunk for a car in this size class. But that’s the tab for a loaded EX, such as the two test cars I drove (one five-speed, one with a four-speed automatic). The basic DX sedan starts at $13,400, while the better-equipped LX goes from $15,450.
Again, you can pay less, and the state of the automotive art has advanced to the point where it’s unlikely that you’ll drive home with a headache no matter what you buy. Buti you want the best of the breed, this is it.
Rating: 4 Stars
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-drive compact sedan
Key competitors: Chevrolet Cavalier, Chevrolet Prizm, Dodge Neon, Mazda Protege, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Subaru Forester, Toyota Corolla
Base price: $17,600
As tested: $17,689
Standard equipment (EX): ABS, front side air bags, air conditioning, AM-FM-CD-cassette audio, power windows, power mirrors, power locks, keyless remote entry, cruise control, tilt steering
Engine 127-hp 1.7-liter 4-cyl.
EPA fuel econ 32 m.p.g. city
37 m.p.g. hwy.
Curb weight 2,943 pounds
Wheelbase 103.1 inches
Length 165.1 inches
Width 68.3 inches
Height 65.3 inches
Assembled Marysville, Ohio