Not all innovative cars cost a fortune. Take the Honda Civic Coupe HX, which is available with a unique one-speed shiftless transmission. You can own a car that features what may be the future of the automatic transmission for less than $15,000.
If you are not the pioneering type, you'll be pleased to know that Honda offers the Civic coupe with a standard five-speed manual transmission or an optional four-speed automatic. Whatever gearbox you choose, you'll drive home a winner. The 1997
Honda is a classy, well-made small car with lots of room. And ever since Honda redesigned the Civic last year, the car has been selling in record numbers. Our Civic HX Coupe came with Honda's 115-horsepower, 1.6-liter ''VTEC Lean Burn'' engine. It's a
single-overhead cam, 16-valve motor that runs smoothly and quietly and delivers decent performance. Honda offers two other 1.6-liter engines in various Civic models that make 106 horsepower and 127 horsepower. But if you want Honda's Constantly
Variable Transmission, you have to settle for the 115-horsepower engine. The CVT transmission has a metal drive belt that connects to two variable-ratio pulleys, which expand and contract based on engine speed and load. It has no gears. Behind the
wheel, the feeling is unique. You touch the accelerator, the car moves forward, and the engine steadily runs slower as the car accelerates. You feel no changing of gears, just steady, seamless acceleration. The Civic HX is not particularly quick. If
you want better acceleration, stick with the five-speed stick shift. But it's not slow, either. In fact, the HX performed admirably when called upon to merge onto an interstate or pass slower traffic. Honda spokesman Mike Ackerman in New York says the
CVT transmission has been available in Japan for several years, and it has proven durable and dependable. Production constraints (about 80 percent of all Civics sold in Japan have the CVT) kept the unique gearbox out of the U.S. market until recently.
By the way, a few years ago, Subaru offered a CVT transmission in its Justy hatchback. The car was a failure, not so much because of the transmission, but because it was a dowdy-looking auto of average quality. CVT transmissions are available in
several European cars, and some industry analysts think the gearbox may someday replace the standard automatic transmission. Aswith all Civics, fuel economy is excellent in the HX coupe. Our bright red test car delivered 37 mpg in the city and 41 mpg
on the highway. The Civic's four-wheel independent suspension system is tuned to deliver a semi-soft, semi-sporty ride. The car is fun to drive and able to handle some sporting maneuvers, such as quick cornering on tight curves. The power-assisted
rack-and-pinion steering is exceptionally smooth, and it gives the driver just the right amount of feel for the road. Honda kept the cost of the Civic down by decreasing content.
Instead of four-wheel disc brakes, which were available on previous Civics, the '97 line offers power-assisted discs up front and less-expensive drum brakes on the rear. No matter, because stopping power is excellent. This is one change that saved Honda
some money on manufacturing but did not affect the car's overall performance. Our test car did not have an anti-lock system, a feature that is standard on the $12,000 Chevy Cavalier, one of the Civic's rivals. FIT AND FINISH Few people would
argue that $14,300 is a lot of money for an economy car. You can get several other similar cars - such as the Ford Escort, Pontiac Sunfire and Kia Sephia - for much less. But you won't get Honda's reputation for outstanding quality. Though the other
cars in this class are fine automobiles, the Honda Civic is a cut above. And you pay a little extra for that. Our test car was very well designed and manufactured. It's an easy car to like and live with.
he bucket seats are nicely styled and comfortable, and the user-friendly dash is attractive and well laid out. The high quality of materials such as the upholstery, carpet and plastic trim never makes you feel as if you settled for an economy car. The
car has class. Honda builds the HX Coupe with a lot of standard equipment. Our test car sported air conditioning, power windows and door locks, rear window defogger, powerful AM/FM radio, clock, attractively designed analog gauges and split rear
folding seats. The Civic's trunk is fairly large for a compact car, and when the rear seats are folded forward, the car can haul a decent load. Perhaps the Civic's most endearing traits are its size and the feeling of trust you get when you start
the engine. There is a hard-to-define quality about the Civic that makes you feel as if this is a car that won't break down. Indeed, I can't recall the last time I saw a dead Civic on the side of the road, hood raised and emergency flashers on.
Visibility is excellent, so parallel parking is a breeze. In all, I think the Civic is an excellent car for city dwellers who make occasional road trips. Specifications: Base price: $14,300. Safety: Dual air
bags, side-impact protection, front and rear crumple zones. Price as tested: $14,770. EPA rating: 35 mpg city/39 mg highway. Incentives: None. Truett's tip: Honda's Civic Coupe is an excellent small
car. It offers high quality, decent performance, excellent fuel mileage and plenty of equipment.