Honda Civic – outstanding at every turn

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Those of us who write about the auto industry often get asked what we consider the best sports car, or truck, or sport utility or whatever. People want us to come up with just one make. But there seldom is one suitable answer. There are just too many things to consider.

Today, however, we are prepared to answer a similar question with only one qualification. The question is: what one car line is most capable of serving all the transportation needs of a typical family?

For 2006, it would be the Honda Civic.

We can’t think of another nameplate that offers such an outstanding mix of performance, outstanding fuel economy, build quality, proven reliability, affordable prices, creature comforts, modern styling and excitement as the new lineup of Civics.

And the one qualification — for families with more than five members we would put a Honda Odyssey minivan in the driveway.

This new Civic can be everything to all people, a far cry from 32 years ago when it was a fledgling brand on North American highways. The Civic having entered the U.S. as an extremely fuel efficient bare-bones small car in 1973, and became a hit a year later when the OPEC oil crisis left gas expensive and in short supply.

The Civic has grown and matured through more than three decades and eight iterations since its rather modest beginnings.

To make it even more attractive to buyers, most Civics have been built in the United States or Canada since 1984. That means thousands of American workers are making their house payments and putting food on the table thanks to Honda.

But how can one car line handle the needs of everyone? Granted, there is not a station wagon or minivan to be found in the Civic ranks. But there are two sedans and two hatchback coupe choices that will satisfy folks of all ages and income levels. For those who need more room, we made the above Odyssey exception, although those families might, indeed, be better off with a pair of Civics. And forget basic transportation. The Civic has evolved far beyond basic transportation.

Even today’s base DX model comes with a full array of desirable equipment such as air conditioning, power windows and locks, stereo with CD player, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, six airbags including side curtain, active front-seat head restraints and antilock brakes with Electronic Brake-force Distribution. There are no stripped down versions like those of yesteryear.

The DX coup starts at $14,910 and the DX sedan at $15,110 making them perhaps the most desirable cars for around 15 grand in America.

And if you want to move up the amenity ladder, such things reserved for high-end cars just a few years ago can be purchased such as DVD navigation.

The Civic has grown in size although it is still considered a compact. It is as big as the mid-sized Honda Accord of just a few years ago, and it can provide long-distance seating comfort for two adults in the back seat.

In spite of the increase in equipment and size, the Civics’ appetite for gasoline has not increased. It is still one of the most fuel-efficient cars on the market.

We just finished a week behind the wheel of a Civic sedan, and we drove the other three 2006 Civic models — the coupe, the hybrid sedan and the performance-oriented Si coupe — in Chicago traffic and on a test track. We found the entire lineup impressive.

The new hybrid was particularly noteworthy with excellent performance and a gas mileage rating of more than 50 miles to the gallon. The new hotrod Si coupe, infused with 197 horsepower, is a dream for a sports car enthusiast on a budget.

All of the models have a new swoopy design that looks totally modern yet, we think, not too modern to turn many people off. A steeply raked windshield gives the coupe and sedan an aerodynamic look while keeping Honda’s best-in-class visibility intact.

The Civic is larger than last year, and that seems one of the big selling points for all redesigned cars and trucks these days. There’s no disappointment here. The Civic sedan has grown 1.4 inches in length, 1.5 inches in width and 3.2 inches in wheelbase.

Both the sedan and coupe arrived at an opportune time as gas prices reach all-time highs during the fourth quarter of last year. And to go along with the good timing the new engine has more horsepower combined with better gas mileage.

The standard 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine now comes with 140 horses in all models. Last year the Civic was powered by a 1.7-liter engine generating 127 horsepower in the EX edition and 115 in the DX and LX trim levels.

There’s no need to settle for the standard 5-speed manual transmission to save a few gallons of gas a year. The new 5-speed automatic is capable of 40 miles to the gallon on the road and 30 in town using unleaded regular, the same rating as the manual. Highway mileage is up from 38 in the 2005 model.

The Civic sedan is very energetic with the new automatic, with nice off-the-line punch for that stoplight-to-stoplight driving. And it will handle all fast-moving chores on the highways and interstates with aplomb.

The sedan is agile with predictable handling. It is easy to drive and park. And it offers a very comfortable ride over all road conditions.

The interior is impeccably designed with excellent fit and finish and high-grade materials. The highlight of the dashboard layout is a two-tiered instrument cluster with a large digital speedometer and gas and temperature gauges in an arc atop the dash much like a head-up display. It is a wonderful convenience for the driver who will never have to take his eyes off the road to access his speed.

Other gauges such as the tachometer are located in the normal position in front of the steering wheel.

The only downside we can think of is that some people, perhaps, might prefer a traditional speedometer. It’s not offered on any model.

The stereo and climate controls are knobs that rotate with an upscale feel. A tuning knob is included on the radio. Tuning knobs have become rare, but not extinct, on radios in favor of switches and buttons, and we rave when a new model still includes a tuning knob. Nothing has been designed that is better for quickly finding stations.

As noted prices start at around $15,000 for the DX and escalate to $21,110 for the EX with navigation such as our test sedan.

And if you don’t believe us, a panel of 49 auto journalists from around the U.S. and Canada has just chosen the Civic as the North American Car of the Years. That accolade was announced just a few days ago at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The new Civic sedan or coupe is practical and affordable. And it’s a car a person can take pride in owing. And it’s an award winner to boot.