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 July 1993 issue of Car and Driver.
Conventional wisdom has it that to qualify as a champion of fuel economy, a car must be featherweight, have a body of sardine-can construction, and be powered—a most generous description—by an engine at least strong enough to purée tomatoes. Expect it to be as much fun as a nosebleed.
Then, two Christmases ago, Santa favored us with a bright-red Honda Civic VX. The sticker on its window promised 48 mpg city/55 mpg highway and a bottom-line hit of $12,228. We feigned the same delight one does when opening Auntie Em’s brightly packaged fruitcake.
Looking closer, however, we found the little car to be quite substantial. It offered 33 cubic feet of back-seat space, an airbag, an air conditioner, and a 92-hp gasoline engine that does not require rope-pulling. Could it be true that collected here in one package was the automotive hat trick: reasonable performance, a useful interior setup, and superb fuel economy? Something smelled fishy.
And something was fishy—a weird smell inside the car that endured for 12,000 miles and then finally faded away. Its source remains a mystery, but the economy and performance combination is more easily explained: Stripped of all power and convenience options, the car weighs only 2124 pounds. It rides on Dunlop SP23-J tires, which translate into ultra-low rolling resistance (or, more simply: hard and skinny). The transaxle is geared very tall, with a final-drive ratio of 3.25:1. Most other Civics have ratios of 4.06:1 or greater. Finally, there is the VX’s 1.5-liter engine, which comes with Honda’s sophisticated gas-saving VTEC-E variable-valve-timing-and-lift system (see tech sidebar below).
VTEC-E: How It Works
Here’s how the Civic VX’s VTEC-E engine saves gas: it puts less of it, and more air, in the cylinders than do other conventional engines. That’s called “lean burn.”
Under low load conditions below 2500 rpm, the engine burns an air-to-fuel mixture of up to 24:1 (most engines require a 14.7:1 mix, known as “stoichiometric”).
A uniform mixture that lean would be hard to ignite, so the object is to achieve a rich mixture right near the plug that will ignite easily and propagate through the remainder of the lean mixture. Honda accomplishes that by completely opening only one intake valve per cylinder to induce a swirl, while the other valve opens just enough to allow fuel to dribble into the cylinder and collect near the plug. (For a fuller discussion, see the “Lean-Burn Engines” story in our February 1992 issue.)
Under higher load conditions, and above 2500 rpm, the mixture is richened to stoichiometric for full power. After this transition occurs, between 2400 and 3100 rpm, a hydraulic circuit connect the two intake-valve cam followers so that both valves open to full lift, allowing better breathing and higher power output.
During hard acceleration, and when driving above 2500 rpm, the engine feels like any other small sixteen-valver. Under half-throttle, moderate acceleration, the driver can barely perceive a flat spot in the power band where the lean/stoich transition occurs and a slight ramp-up in acceleration when the extra valves open.
The only unpleasant sensation occurs as the driver begins to accelerate slightly from a constant cruising speed in any gear below 2400 rpm, whereupon a stumble or hesitation can be felt as the fuel mixture changes from lean to stoichiometric. According to Honda, there is a certain point in the transition where combustion becomes unstable, causing a momentary loss of power. Unfortunately, this transition occurs in fifth gear at freeway cruising speeds. Further calibration refinement could soon eliminate this problem. —Frank Markus
In principle, the engine works like a turbo, providing high horsepower on demand and super fuel economy during relaxed driving. At the track, the VX went from zero to 60 mph in 9.5 seconds and ran the quarter-mile in 17.2 seconds. Which means it puts Geo Metros in the weeds and outruns no fewer than eleven of the twelve economy cars in our Econ Majors comparison test (July 1992). Be advised that this kind of performance requires keeping your foot to the floor and shifting only as the redline approaches, which voids those championship EPA fuel numbers. During the city and highway loops, the EPA folks shift the car when the upshift indicator light comes on, between 1600 and 2400 rpm.
In a nutshell, the VTEC-E saves gas like Nicorette gum ends smoking addiction, which is to say: unless the person chewing it is committed heart-and-mind to the idea, it doesn’t work. Over the fifteen months the Civic could claim a Hogback Road address, we averaged 41 miles per gallon. That’s seven mpg below the EPA city figure, and almost all of our long-term test cars meet or exceed their EPA city number, even with the lead-foots around here. We did record highway stints of up to 59 mpg, but the Civic spent most of its time doing commuter, stop-and-go, rev-it-up duty, and obviously the C/D staffers were not sufficiently committed to the fuel-economy crusade to obey the upshift light.
Throughout the logbook were admissions of gas-guzzling guilt, to wit: “You really have to rev her up a bit in each gear before upshifting to avoid powerless, bog.” And this: “Tall first gear requires lots of clutch slip to launch.” Others admitted to the bizarre practice of remaining in third gear on highways, either to provide power for grades or because they mistakenly thought the car was in fifth.
Honda’s goal to minimize weight and power drain from the engine in return for those big fuel-economy numbers caused compromises in alternator and air-conditioning compressor size and performance. Many logbook entries lamented the long time required to cool the interior or clear the windshield and backlight.
The little Civic earned high marks for its spacious and versatile interior, and there were raves for its surprisingly roomy back seat. The novelty of the tailgate and flip-up rear window didn’t last long, given the window’s lack of a handle and the gate’s tiny dimensions and beer-spilling curved surface, which seriously limited its pregame tailgate-party ability.
Some staffers complained about the rough ride and road noise generated by the miserly Dunlop tires. They weren’t great on wet surfaces either, as our production editor discovered while sliding through Washtenaw County’s busiest intersection (happily, without accident—save for the one in his pants). Toward the end of our 35,000-mile test, we installed Eagle GAs, which reduced the noise and improved wet grip remarkably. Dry skidpad grip performance improved from 0. 76 to 0.82 g on the Eagles, but the higher rolling resistance of the cushy tires dropped fuel economy 2 mpg to 39 (our official reported test mileage and performance were measured on the Dunlops).
On the maintenance and repair front, the VX was every ounce a Honda. Nothing broke, came loose, fell off, or began to rattle over the 35,000 miles. The Civic had four scheduled maintenance stops, which ran up a total tab of $492. That’s well above the average for our recent long-termers, because Honda has a longer maintenance checklist than most automakers—services like adjusting valve clearances and disassembling the brakes for inspection are required every 15,000 miles.
We’d noticed early on that the engine required more cranking to start than most, but the dealer could find nothing defective. Likewise, the washer nozzles occasionally drooled in cold weather, but this was blamed on temporary icing. The only unscheduled maintenance cost was $8 for a new set of wiper blades.
In the exciting realm of costs inflicted by acts of God and God’s children, we had to cough up $139 to replace a rear-quarter window. Someone put a bullet through it on New Year’s Eve in utterly proper, thoroughly pinstriped Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Remember: guns don’t blast windows, people do. Then there was the $399 to smooth and paint a dented left front fender and all of $25 for an aluminum wheel-center cap.
We can heartily recommend this sturdy, versatile, well-built economy car. It’s a vehicle for the committed conservationist who will reserve its snorting 92 horses for emergencies only and appreciate its fabulous fuel economy at all other mellower, earth-friendly times.
Anyone else may as well save $2400 and get the Civic CX with the no-tech eight-valve engine. Or spend about the same on a 102-horse DX that has bigger tires and a few more options. Or blow another $1400 on the fun-fun Si model, with its 125-hp VTEC engine (the E for economy has been deleted) that comes with a moonroof and sundry other amenities.
Rants and Raves
Some like viscous-coupling-auto-4wd or manually locking hubs, but the best car for driving through blizzards is one that weighs 2100 pounds and has real skinny tires. I nominate this car as 1992’s best snowmobile (even though it smells like Santoucci’s deli). —Phil Berg
There is a stumble, or stutter, in the throttle. Back off to coast for a bit, then ease back on, and the thing falls into a hole. Also the ultra-tall gearing means you have to row it up grades with the gear lever. Never saw second so often on an Interstate. —Kevin Smith
Fish smell gone, but living atop a steep grade in the Bay area, the VX’s lack of consistent poke is occasionally infuriating. Also, the seat made my hip joints scream in agony after three hours, and the headlamps are worthless in San Francisco fog. —Steven Thompson
This car has a dreadful defroster: fifteen minutes to clear the windshield is not acceptable in 1992. —Csaba Csere
My neighbor had to go pick up some lumber for shelving. He had a 944 and a 535i. I had a Park Avenue and this Honda. We measured and we flipped seats down, and this cheap little econobox was the only car that could haul the goods. —Kevin Smith
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