The fuel-gauge needle barely moved. Nearly 60 miles into the drive, it was still resting on "F." That was in the right lane, the relatively slow lane on Interstate 95 heading south toward Richmond.

A slot opened on the left. I gave the 1998 Honda Civic HX coupe more gas. It didn't want to drink -- not at first. There was a discernible downshift, a kind of mechanized gasping. Should I reconsider? Stay in the center lane? Move to the right?

The little Civic decided for me. Its engine surged -- and just in time, too. A Lincoln Mark VIII was rolling full blitz, its driver easily exceeding the 65 mph speed limit posted for that Virginia section of the interstate. I moved into the left lane about two car lengths ahead of the Mark VIII, which accelerated even more.

That surprised me. It was if the driver was determined to clear everyone from her path. Moving back into the center lane was not an immediate option. All of its apertures had closed. So I gave the Civic HX a bit more gas -- another downshift, another engine surge, but not nearly enough oomph to stay out of the way of the demon in the Mark VIII.

The woman was tailgating. She wasn't backing off an inch. But she solved the problem -- sort of.

In a mind-bending traffic maneuver, she zoomed right into the center lane with barely half a car length between her automobile and oncoming traffic, and she continued on that angle, at high speed until she reached the right lane -- whereupon she boosted her acceleration, shot back into the center lane, accelerated and wedged again into the left.

I got out of the left lane as soon as I could do so safely and worked my way back to the right, where I stayed for the rest of the trip.

But to the woman in the Mark VIII, I say this: I don't know who you were. I hope you got to where you were going, and that you didn't kill anyone in the process. And as far as I'm concerned, hey, you'll never see me in front of you in the left lane again, not in a fuel-sipping, low-torque Honda Civic HX coupe anyway.

None of which is to say the Civic HX coupe is a bad car. Quite the contrary. It is one of the best small cars available anywhere. But it's not built for speed. It's built for common sense. The problem is that it exists in a world that, at least on the nation's highways, makes no sense at all.

Consider the Civic HX coupe's virtues: It gets 39 miles per gallon of gasoline on highways that lead to fuel pumps where the stuff, in unleaded form, can be found as cheap as 97 cents a gallon -- which is partly why people feel no financial pain operating cars like the powerful Mark VIII.

The tested HX coupe was equipped with Honda's automatic Continuously Variable Transmission, which helps to eliminate "gear hunting," evidenced by the incessant downshifting and upshifting, on uphill climbs and downhill runs. This, the HX coupe's transmission does quite well, and the transmission also does exceptionally well at neighborhood speeds.

But many of us must use expressways to get to work, where we run into two basic problems in the HX coupe: One, it gets no respect. Other drivers assume they can chase you off the road. Two, that assumption is correct.

The front-wheel-drive, four-passenger HX coupe is equipped with Honda's 16-valve, single-overhead-cam, four-cylinder VTEC-E engine, which produces 115 horsepower at 6,300 rpm and 104 pound-feet of torque at 5,400 rpm. We're not talking jackrabbit starts here.

Honda Civics can be had in eight versions, including DX, LX and EX sedans; DX, HX and EX coupes; and CX and DX hatchbacks. They are small cars with a mission -- to get you from point A to point B as cheaply and safely as possible. Fast, at least in the case of the HX, just isn't a part of the equation.

1998 Honda Civic HX

Complaint: Highway acceleration, low-end torque. Not the least bit impressive.

Praise: An exceptionally well-built small car. It feels rich, even though it's an eco omy job. This is a keeper as a commuter.

Head-turning quotient: Forgettable.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent small-car ride and handling. Acceleration? Enough said. Excellent braking (power-assisted front discs and rear drums).

Mileage: Truly 39 miles per gallon. Unbelievable! Fuel tank holds 11.9 gallons of recommended 87-octane unleaded. Estimated range is 458 miles on usable volume of gasoline. You'll seldom visit gas pumps in this one.

Safety: Dual front air bags, side-impact beams, excellent roll-cage construction. Today's Civics are rated among the safest small cars by auto safety experts. But they're still small cars, which means they can be smushed by, say, a Lincoln Mark VIII.

Sound system: Four-speaker AM-FM stereo radio and cassette installed by Honda. No big deal.

Price:Base price on the HX coupe with the Continuously Variable Transmission is $14,400. Dealer invoice on base model is $12,920. Price as tested is $14,795, including a $395 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: Excellent overall value and quality for the money. Compare with Toyota Tercel, Toyota Corolla/Chevrolet Prizm, Ford Escort, Mazda Protege, Dodge/Plymouth Neon, Chevrolet Metro, Kia Sephia, Hyundai Elantra.