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 June 1996 issue of Car and Driver
Two things are remarkable about this humble Honda Civic, and neither of them is its styling.
One, its bustle bum features an ever-so-practical hatch opening, a feature that is becoming more and more scarce. Two, its lively engine is the first to meet California’s super-strict Low-Emissions Vehicle (LEV) standards—four years ahead of the deadline.
Neither of these accomplishments makes for a compelling ad jingle or sound bite, but they help maintain this Civic’s status as a high-value technology leader in the economy-car class.
By introducing an all-new Civic hatchback, Honda is swimming upstream against a torrent of manufacturers who are abandoning hatchbacks in favor of conventional trunk lids and notchback styling. In 1992, when the last Civic restyle appeared, there were 17 economy-car hatchbacks to choose from in the U.S., and together their sales totaled nearly 487,000 cars. In 1996 that total will likely dwindle to less than half that number, and the Civic will face only six econo-hatch rivals: the Ford Aspire, the Ford Escort (which goes hatchless as you read this), the Geo Metro, the Hyundai Accent, the Suzuki Swift, and the Volkswagen Golf.
The new Civic is arguably the strongest offering in this narrowing segment, but Honda expects to sell only about 35,000 of them this year (all of which will be built in Alliston, Ontario, with 92-percent North American content). The last new Civic hatch, which started out selling about 60,000 copies per year, rode on its own unique wheelbase in the Civic lineup and featured two engines that were not shared with the sedan or coupe. Such luxuries can no longer be afforded this niche player, and this adds up to good news for the hatchback faithful. The expensive two-piece tailgate/hatch of the previous model was axed in favor of a conventional one-piece, swing-up door that works much better. Sharing the sedan’s 103.2-inch wheelbase means the hatch gained 1.9 inches in the middle, for a marked improvement in ride, and five more cubic feet of rear-seat volume. And finally, the wheezing 70-horse eight-valve engine that powered last year’s base CX hatch is replaced by a squeaky-clean 106-horse 16-valver that powers all Civic hatches as well as the DX and LX versions of the sedan and coupe.
Thanks to the increased commonality between models, the price of this bigger, better Civic hatch increased by only $475 (to $10,745) for the base CX model, and by $325 (to $11,895) for the DX we tested. (The DX designation buys a rear wiper, an AM/FM stereo, and a rear cargo cover.)
But the bigger news is the Civic’s first-in-class LEV motor. CARB (California Air Resources Board) has declared that by the year 2000, a vehicle’s emissions of non-methane organic gases (NMOG), which include hydrocarbons (HC) and certain aldehydes measured during the federal test procedure—called FTP-75—must fall below 0.075 gram per mile when averaged (and weighted for sales) over a manufacturer’s entire fleet. Selling just one car, for example, doesn’t get Honda off the hook. Carmakers aren’t allowed to carry forward credits to future years, either.
HIGHS: Improved value, spacious back seat, great verve for a squeaky-clean car.
LOWS: Looks like a nerd’s shoe.
Note the units measured—grams per mile. That’s not a percentage of overall tailpipe emissions; it’s the total of all emissions coming out the back end. This means that small, economical Civics have an easier time meeting the standard than guzzling V-12 Benzes. To fully understand the challenge presented by the LEV regulation, we need to look at the FTP-75 test cycle. It begins by parking the car for 24 hours in a 75-degree room. The “cold” car is then started and “driven” on a dynamometer that simulates a 23-minute loop of combined city and highway driving. Next, the car is switched off for 10 minutes, followed by another eight minutes of driving.
According to Jeff Jetter, a senior Honda chemist in the U.S., modern cars emit anywhere from 70 to 95 percent of their total NMO gases during the first two or three minutes of the test. This is because the catalyst doesn’t begin to function efficiently until it reaches about 400 degrees Celsius (752 degrees Fahrenheit). In addition, until the oxygen sensor heats up, the engine-control computer receives no feedback to help it regulate the air/fuel ratio, and the car’s tailpipe emissions are uncontrolled. So the key to complying with the new standards is cleaning up cold-start emissions.
One way of doing this is to shorten the warm-up time. In an effort to bring the catalytic converter up to its operating temperature quickly, Honda crimps the converter directly onto the exhaust manifold, which is made of a thinner cast-iron (3.2mm versus 4.5mm) to speed its warmup. (Honda notes that its close-coupled catalyst does not require a costly electric preheater, which many larger cars may require to meet LEV standards.) To improve converter performance during warm-up, the substrate is a third finer (400 cells per square inch), and it now includes palladium in a new mixture of precious metals that permit the converter to begin functioning at a somewhat lower temperature.
Steps were also taken to reduce cold-start emissions upstream of the catalyst. The cylinder head was redesigned so that intake air tumbles more when entering the cylinder. This increases mixture turbulence for more reliable combustion, which allows the cold-start mixture to be leaner, thereby reducing HC emissions. The PGM-FI fuel-injection system now features an enhanced cold-start engine map that “remembers” several new operating parameters that were “learned” during the last run cycle, such as the propensity for fuel to condense on the intake-runner walls. The system has also been programmed to respond quicker to abrupt throttle inputs, which can sometimes result in a temporarily lean mixture, causing an increase in NOx and diminished catalyst performance downstream.
Improving overall engine efficiency also helps to reduce emissions, and the 1.6-liter features new pistons with shorter skirts that are both 7.3 percent lighter (to reduce reciprocating mass) and stiffer (to resist piston slap and the friction it causes). A lighter cylinder block with a block stiffener and an air-conditioning compressor bracket made of aluminum instead of steel combine to save 5.3 pounds. And finally, the increased computing power of the OBD II engine controller permits more precise fuel and spark control.
It all works. Chemist Jetter admits that the Civic actually emits less than 0.075 gram of gunk per mile, but we’re happy to report that the smiles on Civic owner faces will reflect not merely their smug satisfaction in hugging Mother Earth, but also the joy of dashing to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds. That’s fully 2.7 seconds faster than the previous 70-horse hatch, and in the current Civic lineup it’s second only to the top-drawer Civic EX coupe at 7.9 seconds. A much taller final-drive ratio (3.72 versus the EX coupe’s 4.25) also helps generate the hatch’s impressive EPA figures—33 mpg city and 38 highway. Select the proper gear, and there’s plenty of punch to propel you into an opening in traffic. The engine never feels overworked. But the Civic’s skinny P175/70R-13 rubber makes for limp 0.73g cornering and longish 193-foot stops from 70 mph (anti-lock brakes are not available on the Civic hatch). Still, given this Honda’s terrific ergonomics and high level of fit and finish, the overall impression is that this is no eat-your-oatmeal penalty box. Yes, a similarly priced Neon is a bit quicker and more stylish, but try to haul that 26-inch TV home in it.
THE VERDICT: Maybe we can live with tomorrow’s toughest emissions regs.
Honda deserves kudos for leading the charge toward clean-running automobiles that are still fun to drive. Its engineers will have earned sainthood if their next LEV is the NSX.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io