Although the 1976 launch of the Accord is widely credited with transforming Honda’s reputation, and sales success, and propelling the company hitherto known for its motorcycles and small cars into the “big league”, that is probably somewhat unfair to the Civic, which had first appeared a few years earlier, in July 1972. The second longest lived “nameplate” among Japanese cars, and now on its eight incarnation, what started out as a small two and then a three door car is now offered in a bewildering variety of different models to suit the varied tastes of markets around the world. Until the launch of the seventh generation models around ten years ago, America was offered cars which at least looked similar to those sold in Europe. That all changed and now there is little but the badge which is shared across the Atlantic. Whereas Europe gets a rather boldly styled hatchback model, the Americans are offered a conventional four door saloon and a two door coupe. The US market Civic is available with a choice of 4 different engines: two of them powered by petrol, in capacities of 1.8 and 2.0 litres, with both a petrol/electric hybrid and a compressed natural gas model completing the range. The Hybrid version does appear in European markets, in the four door body style, but as this is not a big seller, it may not look all that familiar to European eyes.
The Civic is a regular in the top ten sellers list in the US, and thus Honda have clearly decided to play things safe. What you get is an utterly conventional small saloon, generally rated as a “compact” by the rental car agencies (though with Car Grade Inflation, I noted that Hertz now call this one a “mid-size”). Despite its relatively diminutive dimensions, you do get ample seating for four adults. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by just how much leg room seemed to be available in the rear seats, though head room was only just greater than the amount I needed, and I think three adults would find it a tight squeeze were they all to try to occupy the rear seats at the same time. There is a reasonable sized boot, which is accessed either from the key or the release lever to the left of the driver’s seat. No remote button, and no button on the boot lid were a bit of an irksome irritation. The boot itself is regular in shape, and there is a small amount of space under the load floor where things could be tucked around the space saver spare wheel. The rear seat back rest can be folded down for extra luggage space, if required. Inside the cabin, there appeared to be little cubby holes all over the place, with a large area in front of the gear lever, another commodious slot above this on the dash, smaller cubbies on the left of the dash, the cup holder area, under a sliding cover, between the seats could also be used for more stowage, joining the moderate glove box, the door pockets and the area under the centre armrest.
One of the less conventional aspects of this rather unrisky car is the dash display. There are two groupings of instruments, with the more remote of the pair used to house a digital display for the speedometer, and arc displays for fuel level and water temperature. Mounted right behind the wheel is a separate display for the rev counter, trip computer information and warning lights. It proved easy enough to use. The centre of the dash is angled away towards the top, and contains the stereo controls, and below this are the various buttons for the air conditioning. Both of these proved easy to use. The only other buttons on the dash, to the left of the wheel, are for things like a reset of the trip odometer, and the instrument lighting rheostat. There are a number of column mounted functions, for the cruise control.
The 2.0 engine is reserved for the moderately sporting Si cars, so all other petrol versions come with the 4 cylinder 1.8 motor, which develops 140 bhp, some 57 less than the Si model. Considering the available power, the test Civic felt quite brisk, and the engine was certainly very smooth, and willing to rev all the way to the red line should you feel so inclined. Unlike the fun Hondas of yore, though, this is not a car where you either need to rev it hard (a la S2000), or even particularly want to do so for the aural pleasure that it brings. The test car had the optional five speed automatic transmission fitted, which operated to provide very smooth shifts between the gears. This is a relatively simple installation, with no choice of modes, and so unless you want to hold onto the gears manually, you just put the lever into “Drive” and let it get on with things. Fuel economy, on the mix of freeway and canyon roads which comprised the test mileage, came out at 34.2 mpg, US, which converts to 40,9 mpg Imperial, which is quite an impressive figure. The steering was somewhat vague feeling around the straight ahead position, though it did gain more weight, and hence feel, as you turned the wheel. There was a surprising amount of body roll on the corners, but the handling was generally tidy, with not much understeer. The roads around Los Angeles seem to be getting worse and worse, and whilst I did find some recently surfaced ones, I also experienced some which were just a collection of lumps, bumps and big pot holes. On these surfaces, the Civic did not fare too well, but this was probably quite an extreme test. No issues with the brakes, though they did need quite a firm press on the pedal for those rather unexpected pauses on the freeway that come from nowhere. There is a small pull-up lever handbrake in the centre console area. As the Civic is quite a small car, with plenty of glass, it was quite easy to judge the extent of the front and back of the car and to manoeuvre the Civic, although with quite sloped front and rear screens, you could not actually see either extremity.
A bewildering array of different trim versions of this Civic are offered. The test car was an LX, which if you follow a hierarchy of DX, DX-VP, LX, LX-S, EX, EX-L and the sporty Si would seem to be somewhere in the middle of the range. Needless to say you won’t be marvelling at long lists of “surprise and delight” features, or even very much in the way of what you would call luxury. Opting for an LX means that you get 205/55 16″ wheels, cruise control, a centre console and remote central locking. The LX-S merely adds a leather wrapped wheel, alloy wheels and a rear spoiler. You need to go to the EX models before you find 4 wheel disc anti-lock brakes and traction control, though, which is a little surprising in this day and age. Suddenly, the $15,655 for an entry level DX saloon has shot up to $21,005 for an EX-L, and you can add a further $600 for the automatic transmission. Not quite the bargain you might have thought. Even so, it is all quite nicely finished, though, with evident good build quality, and an overriding feeling that nothing would squeak or rattle for a good while to come. The test car had a beige interior, and whilst it would win few prizes for style, it was at least rather less funereal than some dark coloured car interiors that I have recently experienced. Just one thing seemed really cheap, and that was the sun visors, were about the nastiest I have come across for many years. Thin items made of hard plastic, with no vestige of padding, they were an excellent example of how manufacturers have to try to find little areas to shave just a few cents off the cost of a car.
The Civic has regularly been accoladed as a “best in class”. With no significant weaknesses, and a reputation for reliability, it is not hard to see why. However, I have to express disappointment. Honda built a reputation not just for dependability, but for engineering excellence, with cars that are fun to drive, something which was present in the little S800 sports cars of the mid 1960s all the way through to the clever VTEC engines that lit up Accords, Integras and yes, Civics, in the 1990s. But with this car, what I found was simply an automotive white good. Competent for sure, but not a car that in which you would ever take much pleasure looking at it, let alone is it the sort of car that you would take out for the fun of it. Maybe the Si models have a little of the sparkle that characterised the Honda of 10 – 15 years ago, but even with a more potent engine, I suspect that the other ingredients for some brio are simply not there.