Honda completely redesigned its Civic lineup last year, coming out with all-new sedan and coupe models. This year, Honda has revised the entire Civic line to further improve handling and to reduce noise and vibration. The interior also gets some upgrades, particularly to the LX trim. That makes the 2002 Civic line the state of the art in Honda compacts.
Also new, is a hot new hatchback. The Honda Civic Si, a famous compact among performance enthusiast, adds some vinegar to the Civic lineup.
Regardless of model, the new Honda Civics offer quality, efficiency, pleasant road manners, and a comfortable cabin. They are among the best compact cars available.
Honda's engineers are masters at space efficiency. Civic sedan, coupe, and hatchback body styles were all designed to maximize space for people and minimize the room given for mechanical systems. Compared with the previous-generation Civics, the these new Civics are roomier inside, yet smaller on the outside. They are marvels of efficient packaging.
Coupes: DX ($12,810) (EM2122PW); LX ($14,910) (EM2152PW); EX ($16,510) (EM2192MW); HX ($13,610) (EM2172PW) / Sedans: DX ($13,010) (ES1512PW); LX ($15,110) (ES1552PW); EX ($17,010) (ES2572MW) / Hatchback: Si ($19,000) (EP3352EW)
The styling of the Civic Si hatchback seems to polarize people. Some think it's ugly, others love it and are quick to defend it. It's edgy and wedgy. The huge, flat windshield is steeply raked. The nose slopes radically downward, giving the car excellent aerodynamics and driver visibility. The special Si mesh grille is framed by huge triangular headlamps. It's a bit slab-sided without any surface interruptions on the sides. Also, the wheels and tires do not visually look big enough for the bodywork. The Si gets a subtle roof spoiler, dual tipped exhaust, and comes standard with a moonroof.
The Sedan and Coupe are a bit more conservative in appearance. They offer a wedge-shaped profile with a high, curt tail and low, abbreviated prow. The hood is an amazing 2.6 inches lower than the hood of the previous-generation Civic. A compact engine is stuffed into a condensed engine bay, leaving more space for the interior. The clean, conservative face features a discreet horizontal grille set between larg triangular multi-lens headlamps that curve around the corners. A wide air intake stretches across the body-colored bumper with a low front spoiler added for downforce. Relatively flat flanks carry linear molding. Windshield pillars arch into the rolled roof to meet the rear arches of narrow C-pillars. Bold taillamps dominate the blunt rear panel underscored by a body-colored bumper.
Sedan and coupe differ in appearance, and more than three-fourths of the body panels are different. The coupe comes with a more aggressive windshield rake than the sedan for a sportier look. Civic coupe's taillamps offer a signature pattern of light at night. The sedan and coupe share the same wheelbase and structure. But the coupe has steel reinforcements for bulkheads, the floor pan and the front and rear roof pillars to compensate for the absence of the sedan's center side pillars.
The door handles are the lever kind, which are harder to operate than the kind you stick your hands through.
Regardless of body style, the Civic is a roomy car. Honda achieved this when it redesigned the Civic by raising the roof, moving the A-pillars forward and creating a flat cabin floor. Like most Hondas, the Civic passenger compartment feels airy and open.
The sedan seats provide excellent support and utilize a rigid structure with aggressive side bolsters. The seat cushions stand about an inch higher than the previous design to make entry and exit easier.
The Si seats are excellent, comfortable for long drives, and supportive for hard driving. They look and feel upscale with alcantara-like trim on the side bolsters and a sporty fabric in the middle with red accent stitching. The seating position in the Si reminds me of the Volkswagen Beetle, with the big dash and the sharply raked windshield. The Civic Si seems more comfortable than der Beetle, however.
The first thing people notice about the Si interior is that the shifter is mounted on the console like on an old Alfa Romeo. Though it looks odd at first, it turns out to be perfectly located for quick and easy shifting. It's close to the steering wheel. It's almost reminiscent of a formula car. Honda calls it rally style, but I've never seen a rally car with a console-mounted shifter. Regardless, it works really, really well and we instantly liked it.
In the coupe, the front seatbacks stretch broad and deep, and headrests are open at the center like a doughnut. Front seatbelts attach to a side anchor bar that slides out of the way when someone climbs into the back seat. The seat also cooperates for rear entry by sliding forward under power when the seatback tilts forward, then returns to its original position due to a memory setting. That forward movement creates the largest possible portal for rear entry, but it's still not an easy matter to fold your body into the rear seat of this (or any) coupe, much less haul yourself out.
The rear bench seat is large enough for two adults to ride comfortably. Three is a crowd. In the sedan, rear legroom increases by nearly two inches over the previous-generation (pre-2001) Civic sedan. The coupe gains about a half inch over the previous-generation coupe. Rear-seat space for hips and shoulders is fractionally larger in the new Civic than in the previous-generation model. The flat floor allows rear-seat passengers to spread their feet out, and is among the best compacts in this regard. This is particularly noteworthy in the coupe where traditionally a two-door format skimps on rear foot space.
The hatchback is quite practical with a big cargo compartment that opens up further when the rear seats are folded.
The cockpit looks clean and efficient with a new instrument panel tucked beneath a barrel cowl. Round white-on-black analog instruments include an oversized speedometer and tachometer in a central position flanked by smaller fuel and coolant gauges. In the coupe, gauges show silver highlights and glow with amber light at night. The Si features black numbers on white gauges, giving it a sporty appearance; a bright red Si badge adds color.
HVAC controls are wonderfully designed with large rotary dials for heating, ventilation, and fan speed stacked just to the left of the audio system controls. Separate buttons for air conditioning, recirculate, and rear-window defrost are arrayed just below the audio system. It's a clean design that's very easy to operate.
We wish we could say the same for audio system, which suffers from small buttons and knobs. Also, the stereo sounded only mediocre.
Safety equipment includes front seatbelt pretensioners for lap and shoulder, two-stage frontal airbags, three-point safety belts for five seat positions, child seat anchor brackets for the back seat and an emergency trunk release lever inside the trunk. Optional side-impact airbags are available, along with anti-lock brakes.
Beneath the new styling, the Civic rides on a stiff new structure. All the Civics offer competent pavement manners, feeling more substantial, more upscale than we've come to expect from a Civic.
Civic ES with a manual transmission offers a sporty driving experience. With its more powerful engine, the ES produces lively acceleration, while the manual gearbox affords more driver control. This engine produces 127 horsepower and its torque extends across a broad rpm band, so the driver gets good throttle response at any speed. Shifting is smooth and precise, due to the revised feel of the stick with notched stop points added between gears. A four-speed automatic also works well with quiet and refined shifts, although the automatic dampens any pretensions of a sporty attitude.
Civic DX and LX models have less power available to them from the base engine and that translates to flat and tepid acceleration performance. This is most noticeable with the automatic transmission; a little more time is needed in the passing lane when trying to pass another vehicle at speed.
These are smooth, quiet cars. When driving at highway speed, riders may converse in a normal voice without distractions from mechanical or wind noises. Indeed, the quietness of the Civic rivals far more expensive cars. Ride quality is smooth and easy with the Civic's new suspension. (All models use MacPherson struts up front and a double wishbone in the rear.) Noise, vibration and harshness are low, largely due to improvements in structural rigidity, along with liquid-filled engine mounts plus noise- and vibration-damping materials added throughout the Civic's body. Wind noise is diminished through aerodynamic streamlining.
Most fun to drive is the Civic Si. Civic Si's engine uses Honda's latest i-VTEC technology (intelligent variable-valve and electronic timing). It's tuned for torque. Around town it's very tractable and very pleasant. You can short-shift through the gears: snick, waahh, snick, whaah, snick. Downshifting short is fun, too. Barely pushing in the clutch pedal, it's easy to go quickly but casually through the gears. The engine pulls from a fairly wide rev range. Out on the highway, the Civic Si's engine is very responsive, giving it good performance for passing. It accelerates from legal highway speeds to super-legal speeds fairly quickly. Stand on it and it does not deliver the rush of power nor does it make the exciting sounds that we loved from the old Prelude VTEC engine. The Civic Si can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 8 seconds, which is a tick slower than the Ford SVT Focus.
Civic Si's transmission ratios seem perfectly matched to the engine. The ratios are close together, allowing the driver to keep the engine in the power band.
The Civic Si's ride quality is very nice. It feels more upscale, more substantial than what we've come to expect from Civics. This is a very pleasant car around town, out on the open highway, and on winding roads. When pushed hard, it understeers a bit and transient response is a little squishy. An ultra high-performance set of tires may improve this. At high speeds, 80 or 90, the Si feels very stable. The Civic Si features firmer dampers and springs than other Civic models. It comes with front and rear stabilizer bars and firmer dampers and springs.
The Civic Si comes with larger disc brakes in front than the other Civic models, along with new rear disc brakes. Braking is well controlled. Stopping performance is about average for the class.
These are great compact cars. Honda's new line of Civic models feature improvements in power and efficiency, cabin space, safety equipment, and noise and vibration. They come with more standard equipment than before. With engines earning high fuel economy figures, all models qualify for ULEV status. Its improvements and positive environmental position moves the Honda Civic ahead of the curve in the compact class.