To get an idea of how supremely screwed the Detroit auto makers are in the U.S. market right now, check out the new, redesigned Honda Civics when they start hitting the showrooms on Sept. 15. Critics have been warning for years that Ford (F), GM (GM), and DaimlerChrysler (DCX) were riding for a fall because their small-car offerings were uncompetitive. Now, Detroit's main rivals have a raft of hot new compacts on the market -- Toyota's (TM) Scion tC, VW's redesigned Jetta, the Mazda 3, and the updated Subaru Impreza -- just as gas prices are soaring.
When it seemed things couldn't get worse for Detroit, out comes Honda (HMC) with four new versions of its wildly popular Civic, the top-selling U.S. small car at retail, with more than 300,000 units sold annually.
I just drove all four versions of the new Honda Civic at a press event outside Washington, D.C. -- a four-door sedan and two-door coupe (coming out Sept. 15), a hybrid (Oct. 5), and the sporty Si (Dec. 1) -- and they're as good as or better than any small car on the road. Exact prices will be announced as the cars come out, but Honda says they'll sell in the $14,500 to $21,500 range. The best guess is that the base-level sedans and coupes will start at $14,500, while the fancier EX around $18,000, with the hybrid and Si close to the top end of the range.
SLEEK AND SWOOPING.
If you're a college student shopping for a car, definitely consider the Civics. Honda designed the cars to appeal to younger buyers than previous Civics, and even with the base models you're going to be getting a lot of car for the money.
The new Civics have a distinctive, swooping design I find very appealing. As with the Scion tC, it looks as if the designers used the top part of a circle as the basis for the curved roofline. And as with a BMW, there's very little space around the wheels, which gives the cars a clean side-profile and improves aerodynamics.
The '06 Civic sedan is slightly wider and longer than the previous version of the car, and its wheelbase is three inches longer than before. The windshield is stretched out and raked very sharply, creating room for a very wide dashboard that meets the base of the glass way out in front of the driver.
GLIDING THE GAPS.
Down under the dash, the driver and passenger have lots of legroom. Up top, the dash has space for a two-tired instrument panel, one tier (with important functions such as speedometer) further out than the other. The readouts are large, so they're easy to see even though they must be three feet out from the driver's eyes. Sitting at the wheel is a little like being in a cockpit, though the controls are simple and intuitive to use.
The new Civics come laden with standard safety features, including antilock brakes, front seatbelt pre-tensioners, active head restraints to reduce whiplash if you're rear-ended, and front and side air bags. Even side-curtain air bags, a key new safety innovation that isn't even an option yet on some rival small cars, are standard on all the '06 Civics.
Handling and pep are remarkable for entry-level cars. The ride is quiet, both at low and highway speeds. On test drives of each model, I aimed for every pothole I saw, and the Civics' upgraded suspension system reduced all but the very worst of them to insignificant blips.
SQUEALING THE TIRES.
The sportiest of the models is the more expensive Si coupe, which only comes with a six-speed manual transmission and has a powerful 197 horsepower four-cylinder engine. Among the small cars I've driven, only the Mazda 3 and the new VW Jetta comes close to rivaling its quickness and handling. In the Civic Si, I found myself repeatedly squealing the tires without meaning to.
However, if I were a student shopping for a fun-to-drive, inexpensive car, I'd check out the basic Civic sedan and coupe. I was surprised by how quick and nimble they are with a manual transmission, even though they're only powered by a 140-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. They're not superfast from a dead stop, but they're quick once they're rolling. Honda claims that going from 25 to 65 miles per hour, the new Civic will out-accelerate every car in its class. The car doesn't feel quite as quick with an automatic transmission, but you can squeal the tires if you put the car in low gear and floor it.
The disadvantage of both the basic coupe and the Si is that they're two-door vehicles with a cramped rear seat (3- and 6-inches less rear legroom, respectively, than the '05 coupe and Si), while the four-door sedan and hybrid versions of the new Civic are quite roomy in the back. The Si also uses premium gasoline, which is getting pretty pricey.
If fuel economy is your goal, the hybrid Civic gives Toyota's wildly popular Prius some hot competition. Other than a few styling features, such as plainer wheel covers, you would never know by looking at the Civic hybrid that it was any different from one of the fancier Civic sedans. The rear seats don't fold down, and you can't get a moonroof because reinforcing the top to accommodate one would add too much weight.
But you get power windows, doors, and mirrors, as well as a CD player and most of the other features you would expect in any well-appointed small car these days. There's even an optional navigation system. And the Civic hybrid has none of the clunkiness that makes the Prius seem odd, such as the funny shifting system and tiny rear window.
The main thing the new Civic hybrid lacks is pep, mainly because it has a smaller gasoline engine than the other models -- only 110 horsepower. Then again, Honda claims that in a 2,500 mile cross-country drive, the new Civic hybrid averaged 43.6 miles per gallon, vs. 42.5 mpg for the Prius.
Of course, you could pay a lot less for one of the better domestic small cars, such as Chevy's new Cobalt or the updated Ford Focus -- especially with the huge price discounts Detroit is giving right now. But Honda is clearly pulling ahead of Detroit's best offerings, again. And in this case, you get what you pay for.