Powerful and comfortable: New Honda Civic has radical redesign after 33 years

Friday, December 9, 2005

When Honda offered a four-door Civic sedan for the first time in 1981, I had to have one. I had endured the gas shortage waiting lines of the seventies, I had put up with skyrocketing fuel prices, and I had been forced to buy expensive unleaded gasoline so that my catalytic converter wouldn't clog. "There's a Honda motorcycle in my carport," I reasoned, "why not a Honda car?"

In 1975 Honda shook up the auto industry with its CVCC (Controlled Vortex Combustion Chamber) engine that eliminated the need for a catalytic converter or unleaded fuel to meet emissions standards. Just two years earlier Honda had entered the U.S. car market with its diminutive 86-inch wheelbase Civic that featured a small sideways-mounted engine and front-wheel-drive. Scooting around on tiny 12-inch wheels, it offered amazing space efficiency and 40-miles per gallon! Although it seated four, that first Civic was too small for my growing family. But by 1981 the Civic had matured into a "real car" with four doors, air conditioning and a trunk that could perform family chores. That '81 Civic served me well for tens of thousands of miles.

Now there is another new Civic -- a larger, safer, vastly more powerful, more comfortable and better-looking Civic. But one thing hasn't changed: it still gets 40-mpg! I recently test drove a nicely equipped Civic four-door sedan that was sticker priced at $19,610. It had a 140-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, a modern five-speed automatic transmission with "grade-logic" control, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, and numerous safety enhancements. It was nothing like my old 67-horsepower Civic.

For one thing, if you could take this car back to 1981 it would be considered a "luxury car." It had a moon roof, antilock brakes, variable wipers, power windows and locks and remote keyless entry, among other things. For another thing, this car is safer than anything you could have purchased back then -- the government gave it a perfect five-star rating for frontal impacts, and a four-star rating for side impacts.

The '06 Civic is available as a sedan, coupe or hatchback and comes in a number of trims. The coupe and sedan get four trim levels. The EX that I drove includes the most wanted options such as cruise control, power locks, windows and mirrors, and a tachometer. There are also four specialty models plus a Hybrid, but I'll save those for future columns.

While many middle-aged buyers will purchase Civics for commuting duties (I know one owner with more than 300,000 long-distance commuter miles on his Civic), I think the typical buyer will be a younger person. I can't think of a more practical car for a college student (I know one of those, too) or a young family. Like previous Civics, it's inexpensive to maintain, offers a good-size trunk and ample passenger accommodations. Unlike my '81, this Civic has an adjustable armrest for front-seaters, a fold-down armrest for rear-seaters, and cup holders for everyone. High-quality materials are used throughout. Fit and finish is typical Honda quality -- that is, flawless.

Most noteworthy is the unique instrument panel. It's a two-story affair, with an analog tachometer below an unusual digital speedometer located inches below the steeply raked windshield. It takes some getting used to, but after a few miles I noticed that I could read the speedometer in my peripheral vision without taking my eyes off the road. Immediately to the right of the digital speedometer is the fuel gauge, and to the left is the temperature gauge. A new Civic driver will have no excuse for running out of gas or letting the engine overheat!

I noticed that the steeply sloped hood is invisible from the driver's seat. That's also a bit unsettling at first, but like the instrument panel, it grows on you. The visibility is remarkable. The suspension and steering systems were re-engineered from the ground up for quick, precise response and a refined ride experience. My EX had disc brakes all around, while DX and LX models have front disc and rear drum brakes. At highway speeds I heard the tires slapping on the road bumps, but little else. The new Civic is not as quiet as an Accord, but the noise level is not objectionable. The aerodynamic Civic qualifies as an Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle.

Civic, always the best-selling compact car in the United States, recently earned another distinction when it was named the "Motor Trend" Car of the Year. Twenty-eight contenders from around the world competed for the prize, which considers overall superiority, value and significance in the marketplace.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at Steve@RobertsonsPhotography.com

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