The Good: Handling, high-tech features, decent price
The Bad: Where are my Zagat restaurant ratings?
The Bottom Line: An econobox with lots of pizzazz
With gas prices high and likely to climb higher, Americans seem suddenly, finally, to have gotten small-car, high-fuel-economy religion. But in the land of NASCAR and pickup trucks, will they be able to keep the faith? Or, faced with an eternity of poky, little cars, will they once again lapse?
When choosing which of the four versions of the new, redesigned Honda (HMC) Civics to spend a week test-driving, I deliberately went with the least exciting version: a four-door sedan with a small 1.8-liter, 140-hp engine and a five-speed automatic transmission. Last year, I briefly drove all of the new, redesigned Civics -- there's also a coupe, a hybrid, and the sporty SI with a bigger 2-liter, 197-hp engine -- at a press event in Washington, D.C., and I knew the basic sedan was no Porsche (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/1/05, "Honda's New Civics Lap Detroit"). But I had forgotten how much fun a Civic could be.
One sunny afternoon I took the car out into the rolling hills of Northeast Pennsylvania and ended up driving and driving -- punching it up hills, throwing the car into curves, slamming on the brakes when no one else was around, whipping down farm lanes -- just for the fun of it. Who would ever expect to do that in an econobox? I'm happy to report that even this sensible family-sedan version of the Civic is peppy, tightly built, and a lot of fun to drive.
I was struck once again by something I noticed the first time I drove the new Civics. The Civic sedan isn't all that quick off the mark, but it really responds when you punch the gas at speeds of 25 to 65 mph (Honda engineered the Civic to be the fastest car in its class in that speed range). There's actually a high, hard whine to the engine when you accelerate hard, which is satisfying to hear in an economy car, and the automatic transmission shifts very smoothly.
HIGH VALUE, HIGH-TECH
This driving performance is one reason the Civic's sales are up 20% to 138,744 this year through May. It's also why it's hard to get your hands on one right now: The Power Information Network figures Civics only spend an average of 10 days on dealers' lots before being sold, a fraction of the industry average of 57 days.
The price is right, too. You can get the no-frills Civic sedan in the most basic DX trim level for as little as $15,310. But the price doesn't soar all that outrageously as you add options: The mid-range LX trim style -- which includes full power, cruise control, keyless entry and other amenities -- starts at $17,260. And even the fancy EX version of the car with a navigation system, better sound system, moon roof, alloy wheels, and other add-ons, starts at a reasonable $21,310. (The sporty SI only comes with a stick shift and starts at $20,840.)
The new Civic demonstrates how quickly advanced technology now makes its way into inexpensive models. Standard gear includes a drive-by-wire electronic throttle system, electronic brake distribution, brake assist, halogen headlights, and a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, as well as safety features such as dual-stage front airbags, side airbags, side curtain airbags (an essential safety feature on small cars, as far as I'm concerned), anti-lock brakes, and active head restraints.
By mounting the little engine sideways, Honda's engineers also managed to give this compact car a surprising amount of leg space. The front-engine compartment is stubby, but the car's front end looks attractively rakish because the windshield extends out so far. That creates space for the driver's and front passenger's legs to extend forward under the dashboard in a sort of cockpit-like arrangement.
The telescoping and tilting steering wheel adds to the spacious feel because you can push it way forward if you need to put the seat forward to make space for a rear passenger, or pull it way back and put the seat back when you're alone. One of the Civic sedan's few downsides is that the back seat is a little cramped, as you would expect in a compact.
It's also pretty austere, with magazine slots in the doors, a couple of cupholders in the fold-down armrest in the middle -- and that's about it.
Up front, the interior is very high-tech looking. The shift lever sits on an aluminum pod in the center console that looks like a recycled robot part. The two-tier instrument panel is the result of the company's in-depth study of a driver's eye movements while driving. Less frequently consulted gauges such as the tachometer and odometer are on the closer, lower level, while the speedometer and gas gauge are way out on the dash on a higher level under a little hutch. The numerals are large and easy-to-see, so you can easily read the gauges without taking your attention from the road.
The navigation/sound system on the new Hondas is very cool. Push a button and the flat screen that shows the nav system's map and other functions pivots up to reveal slots for CDs and MP3 disks behind it. Insert your disk, push another button, and the screen pivots back in place, allowing you listen to music and operate the navigation system at the same time, via a combination of touch-screen commands and buttons on the sides. The new Honda Ridgeline pickup truck, by the way, has a similar setup (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/26/06, "Ridgeline's Uphill Climb").
Honda's navigation system isn't nearly as good as some others (Mercedes', for one) at navigating in rural areas like the one where I live. You too often end up in uncharted areas where the guidance doesn't work. But it has some wonderful search features. I easily found ATMs, restaurants, gas stations, and other handy services in most of the small towns around where I live.
You can look up, say, different styles of restaurant and rank them according to how close they are to your current position. I found out that the closest Indian restaurant to my home is 22 miles away in Moosic, Pa., while the nearest veggie restaurant is more than 70 miles away in Parsipanny, N.J. My only gripe is that the Ridgeline's nav system also has Zagat restaurant ratings, but the Civic's doesn't for some reason.
My test Civic was rated to get an enviable 30 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. Fuel economy remains high, even when you push the car. In a stretch of 220 miles of mixed driving -- a lot of it driving hard and fast in Pennsylvania hill country -- I still got 33.1 mpg.
If you're really into fast driving, you might want to consider the SI coupe, which ranks right up there with the Mazda 3 (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/22/05, "A Mazda for Youths (And You)") and the Mitsubishi Eclipse (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/21/05, "The Eclipse: Flash and Fury") as a fun-to-drive, inexpensive compact. But if you decide to be sensible and go with the less expensive, more fuel-efficient Civic sedan, you're still going to be getting one heck of a car for your money.
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