When the Honda Civic hit American shores in the early `70s, big gas-guzzling V-8s from Detroit ruled the roads. The boxy little Japanese Civic was fuel efficient and a fun alternative to the big boys - and just in time for a fuel crisis.

Here we are 30 years later, with rising gas prices and the debut of the seventh-generation 2001 Civic. If you're thinking about ditching your thirsty SUV for a more practical vehicle, the Civic is a solid choice. Our test vehicle got an impressive 38 miles per gallon on the highway. But be prepared to pay a premium price for the top-of-the-line Civic EX sedan. At $18,400, it costs nearly $2,000 more than a well equipped Ford Focus sedan, which earned a four-star rating from us.

He: I see we've both given the new Honda Civic sedan three out of four stars. Good heavens! You mean we agree on something again?

She: That's right. There'll be no fighting today. So you can't use that inane remark you swiped from sexist comedian Gallagher. You know, the one I saw on the Post-It Note on your desk that said, "Men are bolts. Women are nuts."

He: I think that was "Men are dolts," sweetheart. Actually, I've been waiting for the right moment to spring that one on you. But I promise not to pick on you today. First, let me dispense with some of the negatives on the new Civic, which overall is a pretty nice piece. Even though the new 1.7-liter engine gets a boost in horsepower up to 127, it still feels sluggish and underpowered, especially at full throttle. And I was shocked at the shift quality on the four-speed automatic transmission, which Honda normally does so well. There's a noticeable lag when you kick down to a lower gear. You keep waiting for the engine to come to life. I was also surprised that Honda hasn't dialed in more suspension compliance. This is supposed to be the top-of-the-line model, but the ride still feels a bit harsh on rough pavement - not at all what you'd expect from a car that's starting to inch closer to $20,000.

She: I was pretty impressed with the Civic EX's cabin, which I consider the best-looking interior in its class. I especially liked the matte-gold trim accents on the shift lever, parking brake and door handles. Think of gold tastefully toned down with taupe. It's the best use of that color I've ever seen on a car. But there are no lighted vanity mirrors. And our loaded Civic had power locks and mirrors but manual seats. I wish there were two cupholders - not just one - in the rear. And why don't both front seats have map pockets?

He: I guess your expectations are high when you're paying that kind of price. Maybe you'd be happier with the base Civic DX sedan with a five-speed manual. That starts at a more affordable $12,960. But for my money, the Focus is still the car to beat from both a value and a style standpoint, even at the entry level. Don't you think the redesigned Civic sedan looks like one of the most conservative compacts o ut there?

She: The styling is clean, simple and modern but it's not a dramatic departure from its predecessor. I like the fact that Honda opted for minimal chrome touches on the Civic. Also, they shortened the front end, which I like, because nothing dates a car like a long hood. But even though Civic is more compact on the outside, Honda managed to increase trunk capacity and make the inside roomier. The overall effect is to make you feel like you're in a little luxury sedan.

He: You really don't have to worry about any options with the EX model - except for $250 side air bags, which should have been part of the package price. Safety features like antilock brakes are standard on the Civic EX. Workmanship is excellent, but we both noted some excessive wind and engine noise, especially at highway speeds of 70 miles per hour or more.

She: Wow, when we're not arguing with each other, we can actually hear things like wind noise, most of which is usually comin from your direction. And what would Gallagher say about that?

Anita's rating: Above average

Paul's rating: Above average

Likes: Excellent build quality. Great fuel economy. Ample trunk space. Lots of headroom. Attractive cabin with tasteful gold trim on EX model (Anita). Good visibility.

Dislikes: Automatic transmission lag noted with downshifting. Engine could use more power. Ride still feels a bit harsh. Premium price for top-of-the-line Civic EX. Side air bags are an extra $250. Wind and engine noise at highway speeds.

Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan.

Price: Base, $16,410; as tested; $18,400 (inc. $440 destination charge)

Engine: 1.7-liter four-cylinder; 127-hp; 114 lb-ft torque

Fuel economy: 31 city/38 highway

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: (*Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower depending on coverage and driving record.): $1,310.

Where built: East Liberty, Ohio