A New Standard in Compact Cars – Honda Gets Its Civic On

In the world of basic transportation, it’s ubiquitous. Honda’s Civic compact has been a perennially popular automotive appliance for over three decades now–the best-seller for the last nine years. The baby Honda has been a true green machine, pleasing gasoline misers and pollution-preventers alike with its above average mileage, below average emissions, and all-you-need-and-nothing-you-don’t design.


But it’s always had a little something extra, too–a touch of street cred, since the days of the pre-CVCC 1300cc motor that you could buy baby headers and ‘hot’ cams for out of the backs of black-and-white buff books. Yes, the Civic has always been a reasonable, respectable choice for frugal ‘point A to B’ driving–but it’s also always had just a hint of performance potential as well. All that, plus a helping of reliability and a dash of value, has made the Civic the standard in the compact class–the one the other guys tear apart, trying to sniff out the magic inside–for almost its entire run.

For the last two generations of Civic, Honda has expanded upon those core values; extrapolating the model line in two very different directions, first with the Si pocket-rocket and later with the Hybrid. Within the next few months, dealer lots will become home to all-new versions of every Civic model, from the fleet manager’s dream DX to the top-line, leather lined EX; and from the fuel-sipping Hybrid sedan to the corner-carving Si. We recently spent a day driving preproduction versions of all the new models, and we think the boys from Suzuka have hit not one but four home runs.

First off, the basics. This eighth-generation Civic is entirely new, based upon a new structure that’s 30% more resistant to bending, and improved by 106% torsionally. Honda calls the advanced unibody design Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE), meaning it was designed to manage collision energy well in impacts with any sort of vehicle, from compact to SUV. The exterior look is all-new, too–more organic, much sleeker, and totally modern. Both coupe and sedan have grown, partially in response to our uniquely American penchant for ever-larger rides and partially in expectation of a new subcompact (based upon the foreign-market Fit or Jazz) to arrive on US shores next year.

Two body styles are offered. Each boasts a slim headlight/grille structure in one solid sweep; it’s smooth and just a tad aggressive. The sedan is sort of stubby, but the steep windshield rake–more than the NSX–makes it look sleek. At the rear, the four-door evinces a clean, basic look; we find it appealing enough for the compact class. Coupes are far sportier; with a longer hood meeting a chopped greenhouse, and a back end that almost mimics Toyota’s Camry Solara coupe. Both configurations feature a tire-to-fender gap of only about an inch, which gives a tight, balanced look you’d expect in an upscale auto. Honda anticipated upcoming pedestrian safety guidelines in the new Civic, too; the hood and windshield in all models were designed to minimize injuries upon impact.

Inside, all Civics get a radical upgrade, too. There’s a two-tier instrument panel, with a central tachometer below a digital speedometer flanked by temperature and fuel gauges. The cockpit-style look is different, but it works–unless you require a steep angle to the tilt & telescoping steering wheel, in which case the speedo can be partially obstructed. That wheel, by the way, has a new, oviod shape–again, it takes some getting used to, but it’s supremely comfortable. The audio/climate panel is simple yet elegant; we found it to be ergonomical and visualy pleasing. The console’s centerpiece is the shifter; the automatic’s level sprouts from a rounded mound of aluminized plastic, while the manual is more conventional. The armrest hides a cubby designed to hold 20 CDs in jewel cases. Other storage solutions about as well; there’s space for several cell phones and such, and the cupholders feature spring-loaded clamps to securely grasp all sizes of beverage. Even in stripper models, the look is new–and has enough trick features to seem upscale.

The engine family is all-new to boot. Base models get a 1.8-liter SOHC mill, with i-VTEC. Horsepower is up 25to 140; torque is also improved by 18, to 128 lb.-ft. Mileage is expected to average 30 city, 40 highway. A good ways up the food chain resides the Si’s 2.0-L i-VTEC powerplant, making an impressive 197 horsepower and 139 lb.-ft. Like previous Si motors, the real power can be felt at above 6,000 r.p.m.–it’s quite a rush–although a mileage penalty, of 8 m.p.g. city and 9 highway, is extracted. And for the green crowd, the Hybrid’s new powertrain consists of a 1.3-liter gas engine mated to an regenerative battery pack and high-power electric motor, providing 110 horses and registering 123 on the torque meter (thanks to the qualities of electric power, the torque curve is almost flat at above 1,000 r.p.m.). Good for 50 miles per gallon in any driving condition, this represents a gain in power and torque (of 17 and 18) as well as higher mileage (by 2-3 m.p.g.).

From the above paragraph, you’ve probably guessed that we jumped in the Si first (although that car will only make up about 15% of sales…but did we mention the 197 horses?). What you can’t get from the above, though, is just how much of an improvement–over other cars in the segment, and indeed over more pedestrian Civics–this is. Track time, in an improvised gymkhana, proved how buttoned down and powered up the new Si really is–it virtually killed the Eclipse GS and Scion tC on hand for comparison purposes. Peppiness is part of the story; sixty m.p.h. comes up in just over seven seconds. Some suburban road time, as well as a blast down a few rural back roads, really makes the case for this baby muscle-car, though. Sway bars at both ends, plus a tight front strut/rear double wishbone suspension setup, give the car a planted feel even under significant g-forces. It’s tight, although perhaps a little punishing on poor urban roads–and the buzzy exhaust note could become an annoyance on long trips. Power is surprisingly plentiful at all points in the rev range, too; although it’s the last couple thousand r.p.m. (’til the 8,000 redline) that really pin you in your seat. Speaking of seats, the Si has deep buckets, covered in faux suede, with the best bolsters this side of the Lotus Elise–just part of an interior upgrade that also includes blue ambient lighting and a shift light on the tach.

Swapping the Si’s keys for an EX sedan, we found ourselves in a much more sedate vehicle–but every bit as competent. The larger layout seems as roomy as a last-gen Accord. Body lean is evident in all but the most mild manuevers. Acceleration seems to be about mid-pack with the tight 5-speed manual–Honda won’t release a 0-60 time; figure on just under 10 seconds–although the automatic lags somewhat. That tranny may, in fact, be the sole notable slip in the entire package; it’s by no means awful, but as a true slushbox, it sucks palpable power from the drivetrain, and has trouble holding the right gear in any sort of spirited driving. Our only other complaint is the engine noise under full-throttle acceleration–despite claims of noise-reduction measures, the power-sander sound was loud enough to bug the heck out of us. The beige interior scheme seems toned down as well, although it still ups the fun quotient on just about all the competition, save maybe the Mazda3.


Base Civics wear the DX moniker, and in keeping with Honda’s ubiquitous “safety for everyone” campaign, carry copious standard safety features–including six airbags, ABS with Electronic Brake-force Distribution, active head restraints, and the ACE body structure, along with power windows. The LX adds A/C, cruise control, 16″ alloy rims, keyless entry, and power locks. Stepping up to the EX brings a moonroof, a remote trunk release, a 60/40 split-folding rear seat, rear disc brakes, and steering wheel controls for the XM-ready audio system (350 watts in the coupe and Si; 160 watts in the LX/EX, with mp3 and text capability). The Si also adds a limited slip differential and electric power steering, in addition to the 2L mill and interior spiffs. Hybrids feature all the EX goodies, minus the moonroof and 60/40 seats to minimize the weight gain.

We also got seat time in the new Hybrid, which is differentiated from lesser Hondas by a small decklid spoiler and more aerodynamic rims. Offered in sedan form only, with a new, more efficient CVT as the only tranny option, this AT-PZEV-rated car is said to be 10% more efficient altogether. Designed to be able to operate under electric power only at low-speed cruising (under 25 m.p.h. and at low load; the last-gen Civic Hybrid was what’s called a “mild hybrid,” which never moves under electric power only), the second iteration of Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist system is a “great leap” type of improvement and should help close the gap with Prius sales. However, despite a 12% reduction in battery weight, the Hybrid still feels hefty–add that to the low-rolling-resistance rubber and other tuned-for-efficiency features, and you get what’s likely the least fun-to-drive Civic out there (including the last Hybrid, which at least could be ordered with a stick). Still, it’s more engaging than the Prius, and Honda claims better mileage as well.

Also of note: EX, Si, and Hybrid Civics can now be had with a navigation system. It’s tied to a voice-recognition system that allows drivers to simply speak their destination aloud, or perform hands-free audio system tasks. It actually works half the time; which is up about 45% on other such systems we’ve tested. The screen flips forward to expose the CD lot, and also hides a data port for iPods and Blackberry-type devices. A touch-screen interface is also featured. Although testing time was minimal, we found this to be in the top echelon of nav systems.

Firm pricing has yet to be announced; although a range of $14,000 to $22,500 was given. Expect the DX–which will make up only two or three percent of sales–to occupy the value slot, with the midlevel LX at around $16,000. EX models should bring an additional $2,000 above that, snagging a predicted 38% of sales. The special Si should run about $20,000 and the Hybrid $22,000; each should make up about 15% of production. The nav system should add about $1,250 to those figures. DX, LX, and EX models–coupe and sedan–should be available by September 15th; the Hybrid is coming in early October while the Si is slated for a December 1st release.

We haven’t driven a bad Honda in years; even the disappointing Del Sol was at least a neat idea. The 2006 Civic line is no exception to the brand’s winning streak. Soichiro Honda’s namesake firm has cranked out yet another class-leader, sticking to the formula of top-notch engineering, innovative design, and bulletproof manufacturing. True, the 2006 Civic does eschew, to a point, the usual “everything you need, nothing you don’t” philosophy–but we like it. More importantly, we expect the American buying public to like it…and the competition, forced once again to their drawing boards, to hate it. <

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