Honda Civic – close to perfect

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Let’s list the things most people would desire when shopping for an affordable new car…

For most people the ultimate vehicle would be easy to drive, easy to maintain, comfortable in all driving situations, reliable, durable, safe and fuel efficient. And it would possess a good resale history.

But most people would think some compromises would have to be made. Finding the perfect car is probably like finding the perfect mate.

Eventually, realism sets in and some concessions are necessary.

After revisiting the Honda Civic, a 2004 four-door EX, we have renewed our conviction that it comes as close to perfect for under $20,000 as any car in the world.
The compact Civic, which can be purchased in coupe, sedan or hatchback versions, exhibits all of the above traits.

If there is one slightly sour note, it’s with performance, which is sedate unless you opt of the Si hatchback trim with its 160 horsepower.

Honda has been building the Civic since 1973 and over the years it has set the standard for what a small, entry-level car should be. Continual improvements and an evolutionary design have kept the Civic consistent in styling - most people can pick out a Civic whether it’s a decade old or brand new - and consistent in quality.

Last redesigned in 2001, the Civic exterior is refreshed for 2004 with restyled front and rear bumpers, hood, headlights and front grille. Honda says this gives the Civic a stronger stance and a bolder, more aggressive personality.
Inside, the audio system gets improved speakers, and enhanced sound dampening materials are designed to keep outside noise levels down. Some value has also been added to the base DX, which is generally a stripped-down model.

A value package adds air conditioning, a CD player and a center console with armrest and storage for a savings of about $500 if these amenities were purchased separately.

The sedan and coupe come in three trim levels - DX, LX and EX. The performance-oriented Si is available in the hatchback model.

There are three other specialty models including the natural gas-fueled GX, the hybrid (gas-electric) sedan and the base HX coupe.

Honda has maintained a healthy price structure. There’s no argument that you could pay less for another, comparable make, but you will probably end up paying more in the long run. That’s because when trade-in time arrives, the Civic will command a better price than anything in its class. And note, if you decide to sell your Civic yourself, you will be flooded with calls.

Let your budget dictate. The DX starts at $13,500, the mid-level LX begins at $15,850 and the upscale EX starts are $17,720. If the budget is tight, the LX with automatic and side airbags may be the ticket at $16,410.

Unfortunately, antilock brakes are not available on the DX and LX models. And both come with the slightly smaller 1.7-liter 115-horsepower engine.

That makes the EX perhaps the real bargain if you can swing a couple of extra grand. For $18,310, the EX is equipped with automatic transmission, side airbags and antilock brakes. Other standard features include remote keyless entry, power windows and doorlocks, air conditioning, cruise control, stereo with CD player and height-adjustable front seat. And the EX comes with the 1.7-liter engine generating 127 horsepower.

Our EX test car came with the slick-shifting standard 5-speed manual transmission and without the side airbags for a sticker price of $17,720 including destination charge.

Driving the Civic should convince most people that the slightly elevated price tag for a small car is worth it. The interior is straight-forward, the gauges are plain and easy to read, the switchgear is right at hand. Virtually anyone who has driven a later-model car can sit down in a Civic for the first time and be comfortable with all the controls.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here for automakers that associate escalating price with escalating complexity.

It’s striking too, that all the seams fit perfectly. Trim pieces are attached with perfection. Materials appear of first quality.

Rear-seat passengers will find ample leg and hip room considering that the Civic is a compact car. And the rear seat folds down in a 60-40 split to help when carrying bigger loads is necessary.

The biggest fault we have with the Civic sedan is that there is no other engine option outside of the 127 horsepower 4-cylinder. When mated to the 4-speed automatic - probably the choice of most people - acceleration is acceptable but just a couple of ticks above lethargic.

At full throttle, 60 miles an hour can be achieved in a very ordinary 10.5 seconds. If you can stick with the manual, the engine becomes more-lively and the driver has more options to gain an advantage when merging and passing.
The ride quality is good, designed to move people in comfort. For a stiffer suspension and outstanding cornering traits, the Si hatch is the ticket.

Safety is a big issue with most people, especially parents who may be purchasing a Civic for their young, college-age student. In tests conducted by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the Civic earned five out of a possible five stars for driver and front-passenger protection in a frontal impact, and four out of five stars for side impact protection.
You may have to spend a little more for the Civic, particularly to get the things you want. But when you are buying perhaps the best small car in America, the extra cost is worth it. And you probably will recover most of it at trade-in time.