Two Top Notch Compacts Become Even More So

Radio personality Garrison Keillor used to joke that Lake Wobegon was a place where the children were all above average. One could also easily say that about the compact-car market: When motorists can choose among the Honda Civic, Saturn, Toyota Corolla, Ford Contour, and Plymouth Neon, there's no need to settle for mediocrity.

With that in mind, I spent a couple of weeks test-driving the Civic and Saturn, two sales leaders that have been redesigned for 1996. The Civic has been completely overhauled, while the Saturn merely got a face-lift.

The new Civic still comes in three styles: hatchback, coupe, and sedan. Although the exterior has been completely redone, the styling of the coupe and sedan is sedate. Aside from larger headlamps and taillights, they look very similar to the Accord. The hatchback has a stylish European look, thanks to the steeply raked rear hatch.

The Civic's real attraction is inside. All three models come with a 1.6-liter engine that loves to be revved. The CX, DX, and LX sport a 106-horsepower engine; the EX gets a 127-hp VTEC power plant.

Thanks to sound-absorbing insulation and a stiffer engine block, the new Civic is much quieter. All dashboard controls are positioned high on the instrument panel, allowing the driver to fiddle with the radio or heater without glancing away from the road. The high roofline offers ample headroom, even in the rear. The trunk size hasn't changed, but Honda has added a convenient split rear seat.

Civic drivers will notice a plusher ride. But Honda's major mechanical innovation is one that relatively few American buyers are expected to choose. In early 1996, the Civic HX coupe will carry a continuously variable transmission, which eliminates jolting gear shifts on hills or when passing. The new transmission is quicker from zero to 60 than a conventional automatic, and it's more fuel-efficient: 35 miles per gallon in the city, 41 on the highway.

Despite the improvements, Honda has held the line on prices. Recently, the company announced a 1.3% increase in base prices for all Civic models except the EX. A top-of-the-line EX equipped with standard features--antilock brakes, automatic transmission, air conditioning, cruise control, and power windows--will sell for about $16,620, including destination charges. That's about the same as a 1995 model and keeps the EX competitive with Saturn. A similarly equipped SL2 sedan should cost about $15,300, though other options can push the price as high as $18,000.

For the money, I've always thought Saturn was a pretty good car whose main attribute is a dealer network with a stellar reputation for service. But General Motors has made worthwhile improvements for 1996. A rounded roof and curving rear pillar give the car a little more pizzazz--and more headroom. Extra insulation and a new valve cover make the car considerably quieter. At high speeds, the 1.9-liter engine runs smoothly, although it still sounds somewhat harsh at high rpms.

For 1996, GM designed "fuzzy logic" software for Saturn's automatic transmission. The car's computer analyzes the driver's driving style, then adjusts the shifting pattern accordingly: The engine revs at higher speeds for aggressive drivers, at lower rpms for sedate ones. Other new features include daytime running lights plus a rear deck lid that won't spill water runoff into the trunk.

Minor irritants include a front console that bulges out of the dash and a power switch that controls the right side mirror--but not the left. Still, Saturn has earned high grades for quality on the annual J.D. Power & Associates survey, and there's no reason to expect a change.

Which car is better? Personally, I enjoyed the Civic EX with a stick shift, although it wasn't a runaway decision. Others may prefer the Saturn, a solid car with no-muss, no-fuss dealer support. But with either choice, you'll be driving a car that's above average.