Our review of the redesigned 2022 Honda Civic sedan is coming on 6/16, until then we decided to look back at the Civic’s greatest hits and how Honda’s iconic compact car has evolved over the years.
From the February 1980 issue of Car and Driver.
The ultimate urban guerrilla has split for the suburbs. Honda’s city-car nonpareil has just grown longer in wheelbase, wider, heavier, and more expensive. The original Civic butted up to half-size parking slots better than a fireplug; the new one looks just right next to a split-level in the country. But before you assume middle age, falling arches, and a fade in feistiness have set in, consider this: the new Civic is flat wonderful, better in every way than its rather remarkable predecessor.
The original Civic, if you remember, was Honda’s first real car for America. There were a few sports cars from this firm in the early Sixties and a run of four-wheeled motorcycles known as Honda 600s later on, but it was the Civic that permanently shifted the image from bikes to cars. This thoroughly modern mini came to America in 1973 and promptly started a front-wheel-drive movement, particularly among rat-racers, who loved its raw-boned aggressiveness. The rest of America found out about Honda’s tiny toy when King Faisal twisted the oil tap shut (the first time). Thirty-mpg cars—the Civic included—were hotter than gas cans in Energy Crises I and II. Now that next-fill-up concerns seem to be a normal, natural part of modern life, the Civic has won a permanent niche. It’s been the ideal minicar for basic-transportation buyers who don’t mind having a little fun while they’re saving fuel.
Of course, even the Beetle couldn’t play that game forever. Tooling wears out, tastes change, and engineering departments occasionally come up with a new thing or two. So after six and a half years building the same Civic, Honda threw out the old dear and started over. The goal: one car line to stretch all the way from the bottom of the price scale to the top of the gas-mileage ratings.
All hail the new Civic, now known as the 1300 or 1500 depending on which of two engines you choose. (The 1300 isn’t sold in California or in high-altitude areas.) It doesn’t look much different—the two-box architecture is intact and both ends are still tightly clipped—but there’s a more solid look to the Civic now. A few Mercedesesque creases here and there have erased the aura of tin-bin, replacing it with the coachwork equivalent of the blush of success.
The first glance beyond the sheetmetal seconds this notion. Inside, the Civic is a miniaturized Accord. The instrument panel is molded into a shape that quietly says function without funny business. There’s a single-piece front panel that holds four vents, two speaker grilles, one huge glove box, and a centralized console for the heater and radio. On top of that, there’s an information center aligned with the steering wheel. Two round and two rectangular dials look back at you with BMW clarity (if you buy the high-zoot GL model we tested; the plain Civic, the Civic DX, and the wagon have only two large dials, and no tach). A wide band of indicator lights and a pair of column stalks (headlights on the left, wipers on the right) are common to all Civics.
Gimmicks are noticeably absent. Coin bins, electric mirrors, remote window closers, deck-lid releases, and hydraulic whoopee cushions have all been left on the shelf. Even so, you need not look far to find proof of Honda’s dedication to detail, particularly in the top-cabin 1500GL we tested. There’s a nifty electronic clock straight from the Prelude, cryptically marked “Push Display.” What that instruction means is that a tap of the lid will light the time-of-day array if you happen to be in the car and don’t feel like twisting the ignition key. Once you’re under way, the display appears all by itself.
The GL also boasts tinted glass, steel-belted radials, and a rear wiper-washer system as standard equipment. This last appliance is controlled by a single turn/push switch mounted sidesaddle on the right flank of the instrumentation binnacle. All Hondas have gone the colorkey route for interiors, so when you select silver exterior paint (metallic, like all Civic paint except white), you get an interior that’s red all over—seat cloth, door trim, carpeting, and the instrument panel all match. At least the steering wheel’s been spared. It’s a lovely black four-spoker that’s better made and more finely detailed than your average Mercedes wheel.
Two areas deserve special mention for their niceness. The carpeting is all one piece and clings to the floor as if it were sprayed on, and the seats—both front and back—are delightful. The GL upholstery is low-rib corduroy cloth. Backrest angles are adjustable front and rear. The front buckets have firm bottoms and a pleasing lumbar swell in their backrests, but don’t offer much more than the cloth’s grip to hold you in place laterally. The rear bench has a surprising combination of deep thigh support and generous knee clearance. Headroom is fine as long as you’re not more than 70 inches in height.
Honda has bucked the econobox trend toward split-back rear seats, going its own way with a rather innovative twist on the age-old people-versus-cargo dilemma. The backrest folds flat, of course, as in virtually all hatchbacks since the dawn of time, but this one will also latch upright in your choice of three additional positions. There’s “genuinely uncomfortable,” with the seatback vertical for maximum-cargo/minimum-people utility. Then there’s the intermediate, or “tolerable,” slot, with a little more room for small-to-medium people and somewhat less space for boxes. The last position is “suitable for adults.” Two can ride without complaint at this setting, and there’s still nine cubic feet available for cargo.
Trunk space is remarkable in its accessibility; Honda has run the hatch opening the full width of the body and almost all the way down lo bumper level. The actual floor area inside is more modest, about the size of an average two-suiter. Oddly enough, a security panel to seal the load off visually is not part of the deal, even in the most expensive version.
By the EPA’s measuring stick, what we’re talking about is 13 percent more interior room than the old Civic (26 percent in the wagon) with only a two-inch stretch of the wheelbase, and no increase in overall length! Actually, most of the newfound elbow clearance comes from an extra three inches of width. The chassis layout is largely carry-over, but all parts have been helped here and there (a few are Prelude pieces) in a general upgrading. The weight gain is a paltry 50 pounds.
As in all Hondas, there’s MacPherson-strut suspension at all four corners. The engine and transmission are transversely mounted in front. The new base engine is the old 1237 cc four-banger punched out to 1335 cc and refitted with a CVCC-type cylinder head. Last year’s CVCC engine is the same size as it was (1488 cc) and still breathes through two intake valves (one delivering a rich mixture to start combustion, the other very lean for fuel economy), but the four-letter CVCC code has been dropped in celebration of a new catalytic converter in the exhaust system. Which works wonders. Fuel economy is up by 3 mpg over last year’s 33-mpg rating. Horsepower is healthier by 4 ponies, on top of 1979’s 63-hp output. And when you figure in the reduced emissions factor with only a moderate ($100) boost in price, it all seems rather amazing.
But not half as amazing as the way the new-tech overwhelms the Civic’s rambunctiousness: More power. More torque. More kick-in-the-rump acceleration. And therefore more fun. The engine is strong a thousand revs past the six-grand redline. The Civic hereby becomes the screamer of its class, blasting from rest to 60 mph in 10.9 seconds (Mustang Cobras, watch out!), whipping up 75 mph in the quarter-mile in 17.8 seconds. (Last year’s Civic took 13.2 seconds to 60 and 18.9 seconds for the quarter-mile.) With two overdrives in its five-speed transaxle, it peaks out at a heady 92 mph in fourth, and 90 off-the-cam mph in fifth.
Straight-line blitzes are a thrill. The new Civic rushes about town as if its tail were afire, but even so, the real joys come from massive doses of throttle and cornering/braking. Through the Grand Prix de Housing Development, in and out parking-lot chicanes, around entrance-ramp carrousels, and all the backwoods way home, the Civic goes like bonkers. It’s hungry for apexes, anxious for another gear, and generally hot to hurry. The steering is quick and informative, the roadholding remarkable. The front brakes lock first when you use all the center pedal there is—just the way it should be for turning-and-braking well beyond reasonable limits. With stickier tires and a bit more roll stiffness, the new Civic could convert Starsky and Hutch from power-oversteerers to front-wheel-drive faithful.
Of course, there are times when it’s nice to leave the mad dash behind in the city and escape to a little suburban peace and quiet. This is the extra dimension that comes with the new Civic. With taller gearing and advanced aerodynamic refinement, it’s quieter by 5 decibels at 70 mph than last year’s five-speed CVCC. The longer wheelbase and the more livable interior also help make the Civic way more than just a commuter. Now it’s plenty versatile enough to be an excellent only-car.
Watch, and you’ll see a whole transportation class develop around this Civic. Today it’s tiny, but tomorrow it will lie at the big end of the small-car range, once all the electrics and pure commuters now on the drawing boards shuffle into place. There will be hordes of inexpensive transportation pieces striving to be as good as today’s base, $3699 Civic. Even more will take aim at the jewel-like 1500GL in this test. They will be cars with very strict size limits and efficiency obligations, with no upper boundary on comfort, convenience, or quality. All because Japanese innovation has founded a new category of cars that people will enjoy, and wasted no time starting to fill it.
I was prepared to dislike the new Civic. Word had filtered out that the update on one of my personal favorites had concentrated on “refinement.” That usually means the manufacturer, Japanese or European, has taken a perfectly good piece and screwed it up with landau vinyl roofs, Cream of Wheat shock absorbers, and other nice “American” touches” to broaden its market appeal.” Imagine my pleasant surprise in finding the new Civic “refined” for the better: more interior space, a much more handsome instrument panel (if a bit trendy in the new Honda mode), more power, and improved fuel economy. The only thing missing from the old version is that slightly rasty, rough-edged personality that said kick me, beat me, even over-rev me, but be sure to drive me hard. The spirit of the Mini Cooper that lived in the old Civic fell victim to that inevitable refinement. But mourn not, at least not too much, because the new Civic still says drive me hard. It’s just that now it would prefer you in coat and tie. —Mike Knepper
I haven’t been able to spend much time in the Civic. The keys are always missing. But I’m diligent, I want you to know that. I’ve spent hours peering out of the coat closet, waiting for those keys to appear. Not much luck. And when somebody does show up, I have to pry his fingers open. They think they’ve died and gone to heaven, but their hearts are as cold as their fingers.
They always devise some story about having to drop off a manuscript in Seattle or some negatives in Fort Worth. All I know is they’ll get there fast. This little thing really flies. The old Civics never spent much time in gas stations, either, and this one’s just as good on mileage. Or I think it is. I’ve never been able to find out if the gas gauge moves.
It looks nice, too, but still like a Civic. That’s good. And the insides suggest that Honda has figured out the wants of the median man (or well-rounded person?), but I’d be happier if the pedals were further away from the seats.
It doesn’t matter. I never have time enough to get comfortable. I’m going to hide the keys in my shoe. —Larry Griffin
If Honda were a baseball player, it would be Babe Ruth. Each time Honda steps up to bat, it points out another market segment and wham!—out of the ballpark.
Honda has obviously learned from its few small mistakes, attending to almost every flaw of the old Civic while leaving all its inherent goodness intact. In fact, even the inherent goodness is better this year.
I’m especially taken with the redecorating job worked on the cabin. The term “econobox” no longer applies here. The handsome cloth upholstery, cleanly sculptured dash, and perfect color coordination make the new Civic’s interior one of the cheeriest in any small car—which does nice things for your state of mind every time you slip behind the wheel.
Accouterments aside, the best thing about the new Civic is that it still scampers like a crazed cockroach, while delivering better fuel mileage than ever. Calling this car a mere home run would be to slight it. It’s a grand slam. —Rich Ceppos
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