CALL IT CYNICAL, vicious, sadistic, whatever. I was determined topunish the 1988 Honda Civic LX sedan. I really wanted to beat it up.

I mean, the press clippings on this car and its five Civic cousinsare unbelievable. Raves, raves, everywhere, raves!

I figured no car could be this good; and I told the Honda folks asmuch when they delivered the metallic "gothic gray" test model. Theysmiled at my incredulity and gave me the keys. I cursed theirself-confidence and cranked the engine.

There'd be no easy roads for this one -- none of thatschlepping-through-the-Shenandoah Valley jazz. No. For this little petof the nation's auto critics, I had planned a route of unusual cruelty:District of Columbia streets -- lots and lots of bumpy, brutal,pot-holed, chassis-breaking, litter-strewn, traffic-jammed D.C. streets.

But now, in retrospect, I know why the Honda people were smiling: The1988 Civic LX took everything that awful D.C. streets handed out; and itfinished the course in rattle-free splendor.

It also endured a dozen or so hours of idling in "rush hour" trafficwithout misbehaving in any way.

In short, the test car was every bit as good as the Honda people saidit would be. I'm not accustomed to that. I guess I owe 'em an apology.

Complaint: The clutch and five-speed manual gearbox were a littlemushy and wimpy. Shifting in this car was so devoid of effort and feel,it should've been an automatic.

Yeah, I know. That's a nitpick. But there's not much else to complainabout here.

Praise: Honda's front-wheel-drive Civic series was already good. Thecompany could've rested on its laurels. It didn't.

The 1988 Civic sedan is 166.5 inches, an overall 3.3 inches longerthan its predecessor. It has 3 cubic feet more cabin space, which helpsit seat four adults in greater comfort. The new car, with its slopinghood and wide windows, even looks better than the old sedan.

It's no wonder that Honda consistently has less than a 20-day supplyof cars in a market where a 60-day supply is considered normal. "Good"is never good enough for this company. It's always trying to improve.Bravo!

Head-turning quotient: Cute, solid, unmistakably Honda.

Ride, acceleration, handling: Superior small-car ride and handling.The Civic LX sedan went over bumps without bouncing up and down, handledshallow potholes with minimum shudder, and moved through heavy trafficwith finesse. Credit here goes to Honda's use of double-wishbonesuspensions front and rear, which help each of the four wheels makeindividual adjustments to bumps and depressions without upsetting thecar's overall balance.

The test car's 1.5-liter, dual-point, fuel-injected, four-cylinder,16-valve engine produced excellent acceleration. The engine is rated 92horsepower at 6,000 rpm -- more than enough gallop for a car weighing2,039 pounds.

Sound system: Aha! Yes! It's here in the notes. The two-speaker,AM/FM Honda stereo radio-cassette was mediocre. Hee-hee!

Mileage: Easily 33 to the gallon (11.9- gallon tank, estimated390-mile range on usable volume), running mostly driver-only, windowsup, heater on, in the District of Columbia. The Civic LX's mileageincreases significantly (up to 37 mpg) in steady highway driving.

Price: $1O,894, including an estimated $1,000 in options and a $219destination charge. Base price on Civic LX sedan is $9,675, and dealer'sinvoice price without options is $8,224.

Purse-strings warning: This is a high-demand car made by a companythat doesn't seem to have any problems selling any of its products. Lookout for dealer "premium" charges and other non-value-added markups.