Volkswagen continues creeping toward resurrecting the Beetle and extending its legacy of three score years of classless mobility.

Representatives insist the new ladybug coupe is a real car designed in California to be made in Mexico before we switch millennia. Nobody, they insist, is going to pull the plug on Herbie II.

Those, however, are vows spoken as Honda introduces a bazaar of1996 Civics that's almost certain to stiffen competition in the bargain basement of penny-pinching motoring that, like all good partners, merges willingness with a ton of fun.

Spry and thrifty, of course, were the Beetle's original allures. But in those days, from the late '30s to the '60s, the only significant and enduring challenges were the matchbox Renault 5 and a small, corrugated Citroen that even the French called a garbage can.

By the time 1973 and the first Civics rolled into our lives, the Beetle was on its shell, belly up, wheels twitching, reduced to being manufactured in remote plants to meet the needs of Third World countries.

Today, especially in the United States, it's a shooting gallery out there. Neon is knocking on Mirage. Chevrolet versus Ford. Nissan against Saturn. More than a baker's dozen of little wheels. Even BMW has a hatchback, the 318ti, with a base price under $20,000.

And Honda's Civic, with something like 10 million sold worldwide, has dominated the midgets for years. Last month, it was named Automobile magazine's Car of the Year. Surgeons currently are at work rebuilding the sagging jaws of the snooty who make Mercedes, Ferrari,Lexus and Range Rover.

So if the new Beetle is to successfully lock fenders with the old Civic, Volkswagen might give serious thought to developing a subcompact that sells for 1957 prices, goes10 years between tuneups, gets 300 miles to a pint of chicken broth, and features a telescoping body that can be extended like a dining room table depending on the number of riders.

Honda, meanwhile, needs fear little contemporary competition for the current covey of Civics--and the collective noun is appropriate.

Rather than turn you walleyed by relating model codes and body styles to trim packages and pricing tables, let's group Honda's littlest guys into three families:

There are Civic sedans, coupes and hatchbacks. The company has created distinctive lines for each subspecies, rather than settling for building coupes that frequently look remarkably like two-door sedans.

Three engines are available, all sharing a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder block tweaked to several stages of cleanliness and fuel efficiency. Power levels reach from 106 to 127 horsepower.

Base prices start at $10,000, top out at $17,000 and either are unchanged from last year or nudged up no more than a whisker.

You want clean? One Civic engine is so far ahead of requirements that it already meets California's tough standar ds for low-emission vehicles (LEV) that will take effect in 1998.

You like stingy? There's a Civic that travels 45 highway miles on a gallon of gas, which means Los Angeles to Phoenix for less than one $13 tank of unleaded.

During our worst of times--those arid months in 1974 when embargoed Angelenos drove to Bakersfield to wait 90 minutes in a gas line--the public asked little of its subcompacts beyond seats, a wheel at each corner and fuel consumption measured in sips. Performance and elegance mattered zip.

Then automotive autocrats dictated stiffer standards of structural safety, engine cleanliness and fuel efficiency. Subcompacts got bigger. Consumers who had grown to like the idea of zipping in and around traffic in Asian go-carts began expecting more than monastic comforts. Subcompacts got expensive.

So in two decades, "economy car" has become an oxymoron while subcompacts now emulate grown-up cars with air bags and anti-lock brakes, power moon roofs and CD sound systems with tweeters in the door pillars. And Civics have all these major pleasantries--including a system poised to revolutionize the automatic transmission of power.

Although not available until next year, Honda's Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) uses a steel belt running between a pair of pulleys. When power is applied or decreased, the pulleys change diameters, rather like sprockets on a 10-speed bicycle, allowing an infinite range of gear ratios.

When moving the car from rest through respectable to unlawful speeds, CVT provides motion with none of the noticeable shifting of standard automatics. It's stepless gearing, rather like accelerating in an electric vehicle.

CVT isn't perfect. Driven hard, the system whines and whirs and suggests there's a collection of bungees and rubber bands stretching and tugging down below. There are times when it sounds ready to collapse like a cheap slingshot. But CVT could be one step into the future of automatic transmission.

As this clearly was a family affair, we were able to drive four Civics representing most shapes, three transmissions including CVT, and all engine sizes. Our favorites were the EX cars, the sedan and coupe, both with five-speed manuals and 127-horsepower engines.

Larger inside and out than last year--also longer, wider and taller--both cars show a bobbed trunk allowing slightly less cargo space but slightly more rear-seat room. The look of this sixth-generation Civic is leaner, a little more formal, and quite suggestive of the larger, more expensive Honda Accord.

Internally, the car is clean, accessible and very, very friendly. We're willing the bet the price of your next stop at Jiffy Lube that those who have never piloted a Civic before will step in, start up and drive off as if moving in worn-well Reeboks.

We liked halogen headlights that splash light for broad blocks, and deeper insulation keepingall but high-decibel buzzes from the passenger compartment. We weren't too happy with Honda's decision to replace the rear disc brakes with drums and felt it added a little slop and anxiety to the stopping process.

No Civic is a powerhouse. Getting from rest to respectable freeway speeds is almost a double-digit wait. Start bullying the car and there's some roll, mild yelps of pain as low performance tires start scrunching sideways, and proof positive that the Civic-minded at Honda are sighting more on soft ride than firm handling.

But as a package of almost boring reliability plus a smoothness that only comes from having done everything so right for so long, the Civic EX, as a sedan or a coupe, shows bearing and abilities way above its $16,000 station in life.

The Volkswagen Beetle, by literal translation and 1937 job description, was always the "people's car." It may be significant to note that since it first scampered onto the scene, the Civic has alwa ys been the "citizen's car."

1996 Honda Civic EX

The Good: Gem among subcompacts for value, reliability and cheerful motoring. Styling cuddles closer to Accord. Clean and thrifty engine shows much community conscience.

The Bad: Softer handling.

The Ugly: Not at all.

Cost Base price: $16,280. (Includes two air bags, anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, cruise control, power windows and locks, power moon roof and keyless entry.) As tested: $16,884. (Adds floor mats, security system, destination and handling charges.)

Engine 1.6-liter, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine developing 127 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, front-drive, four-passengersubcompact sedan.

Performance 0-60 mph, with five-speed manual, 9.2 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 115 mph. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 33 and 38 mpg.

Curb Weight 2,518 pounds.