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1996 Honda Civic

  • Driver

For the first 20 years of its existence, the Japanese car

industry learned how to build cheap cars.

For the next 20 years, they learned how to build good cars.

Now, with the yen having finally reached a level that reflects

the strength of the Japanese economy, they're trying to learn

how to build good cars cheap.

The 1996 Honda Civic is an indication that they are quick

studies.

The base Civic LX sedan starts at $14,895, just $500 more than

last year, which doesn't begin to cover the additional cost of

the now-standard dual air bags, which were optional on last

year's LX.

The range-topping EX sedan is actually priced $1,000 less than

last year, with similar equipment levels: dual air bags, power

windows and locks, AM/FM four-speaker cassette stereo, cruise

control.

(The four-door sedans are the first of the sixth-generation

Civics to be launched; the coupe and hatchback will follow

shortly.)

Are these prices the automotive equivalent of a free lunch?

Well, no. There are some signs of cost-cutting, but you have to

look carefully.

The rear brakes are now drums, instead of discs. The optional

anti-lock brakes are made by an outside supplier, rather than

internally, at a cost-and-weight-saving of some 50 per cent. The

articulated trunk lid hinge has been dumped in favor of a

simpler old-style (and cheaper) design. Rearseat upholstery has

30 per cent fewer threads.

Bumpers from a North American supplier may be built within 2

mm of spec, rather than 1 mm from the previous Japanese source.

Who's going to notice, or care, when they're one-third cheaper?

Honda says research and development costs on the new Civic

were less than half those of the previous generation, launched

in 1992. And one industry analyst estimates manufacturing costs

are down over CDN$1,000 per car. That's real progress.

Yet more money has been put into things the consumer can see,

to improve perceived value. The two most notable items: the

aforementioned dual air bags, now standard across the board, and

a 1.6 litre 106 horsepower engine versus last year's 1.5 litres

and 102 ponies under the hood.

The lower R & D number suggests the 1996 model is

evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. That's a fair

assessment. Stylingwise, the profile looks very similar,

although a couple of body creases give the flanks some

definition.

The major point of difference lies in front, where huge

reflector-style headlamps frame a bulging Acura-like proboscis.

Odd, that for years, headlights have been getting smaller and

smaller. Now they're getting bigger and bigger.

One fear: how much are these things going to cost to replace

when the inevitable stone flies off the inevitable gravel truck?

The 1996 sedan is fractionally longer, wider and less tall

than before; wheelbase is identical. Yet interior room is

increased, primarily in the rear, where a relocated seat

improves legroom by 30 mm.

Consistent with worldwide trends, the new body is stiffer,

providing a better platform for the suspension to do its work.

Honda's excellent doublewishbone concept is retained, with

several modifications aimed at improved ride quality and reduced

suspension noise, both of which were issues on the previous

model.

Handling, always a Honda strength, has not been sacrificed.

Indeed, increased front caster and revised front and rear

geometry contribute to improved stability in highway cruising

and cornering respectively.

The Civic's engine, while similar in layout to before, has a

stiffer yet lighter block, revised intake and exhaust manifolds

and new hydraulic engine mounts, all in aid of quieter

operation.

The 6.5 per cent increase in displacement yields

proportionally lower upticks in both power and peak torque, but

the torque does come in at lower revs. While curb weight is also

up, the powertoweight ratio is too, so ontheroad performance

improves marginally.

While Civic has traditionally been a leader in fuel economy,

and Transport Canada numbers of 7.6 litres per 100 kilometres on

the city cycle and 5.8 on the highway are nothing to sneeze at,

they're considerably worse than the 6.6/5.0 scores of last

year's car. More weight; more power increased fuel usage is

the inevitable downside.

Two things struck me on initial exposure to the new Civic.

First, despite the economizing, the interior looks richer than

before the previous model was positively lowrent in spots.

Notably, the sunvisors are covered in a velour material instead

of the unbornlizardhide plastic many Japanese manufacturers

still use. And I liked the unusual blue "eyeliner" around the

periphery of the instruments.

Second, the car is ever so much quieter. Honda engines are

always mechanically smooth, but intake and exhaust roar are now

markedly reduced.

While eager and entertaining, the engine is down on power,

compared to such domestics as Chrysler's Neon (132 horsepower)

and Chevy's Cavalier (120), or even other Japanese, like Mazda

Protege (122) and Nissan Sentra (110). Toyota Corolla loses

horsepower this year, from 115 to 105 horses, but has 14 per

cent greater peak torque than Civic, and it comes in at much

lower revs. Steep hills will require massaging Civic's

gearstick.

Honda's shift quality is still pretty good, although they've

been overtaken by Nissan for bestinclass. My Civic exhibited

some hangingup on the fivetofour downshift, but not always. I

couldn't determine either a reason or a pattern. Clutch

engagement, however, was excellent: light effort, strong and

smooth grip.

The suspension fulfills both promises of quieter and smoother

ride.

The car corners well, within the limitations of its modest

185/65 R14 tires. One thing many competitors should study

closely is how Honda can make the Civic corner near the limit

without the tires howling in protest. It's down to superior

wheel control, which keeps the tires as perpendicular to the

road as possible, thereby maintaining optimal grip.

The steering feels more communicative, too.

The brake pedal on my tester felt a little spongy. I can't

attribute that to the rear drum brakes, since this condition is

more common with discs. I can't really criticize the move to

rear drums; especially on a light car, properly sized rear drums

can provide perfectly adequate braking for normal driving.

The seat cushions are short, as is the norm in Japanese small

cars, but overall comfort levels are high. The front seats have

been raised, but you still sit close to the floor. The tilt

steering column has greater range than before, but the long of

leg may find their knees fiending the bulky steering column

shroud.

The trunk is large, decently shaped, and is augmented by a

lockable, 60/40 splitfolding rear seat back.

Honda's usual good ergonomics are in evidence, although I

still think a wiper stalk that arcs around the wheel, rather

than requiring the knob on the end to be twisted, makes more

sense.

The radio is located high up on the dash for easy access. But

incomprehensibly, the cassette player is not integrated with the

radio. It or the optional singleshot CD player is darn near

on the floor in the centre stack extremely inconvenient. And

the lid for the dual cup holders, or the cups themselves, will

block access to the tape slot. Weird.

An exception to the reduced noise level came to light only

because of the fabulous Indian summer weather we've been

enjoying recently. With the windows down, the shoulder seatbelt

vibrates in the wind, setting up an unpleasant warble. An oddity

of aerodynamics.

The new Civic is both a reflection of the new

costpressurereality of our market, and a better car than its predecessor.

Although it trails the competition in the power derby, Civic's

overall excellence, its strong brand identity and reputation

for reliability will ensure its continued success.

Honda Civic

MODELS AND PRICES

Fourdoor sedan: LX $14,895; EX $16,195

STANDARD EQUIPMENT

LX model: dual air bags; AMFM stereo radio with digital

clock; dual remote sideview mirrors; tilt steering column; dual

cup holders; intermittent wipers; 60/40 splitfolding rear seat

back; dual visor vanity mirrors; childproof rear door locks;

rear seat heater ducts; driver's left foot rest; low fuel

warning light; headlightson warning chime.

EX model: as above, plus AMFM stereo radio with digital clock

and cassette; power windows, mirrors, door locks; cruise

control; tachometer; centre console/armrest with storage

compartment; trunk light

ENGINE

Standard: 1.6 litre 4cylinder, OHC, 16 valve; 106 h.p. at

6200 r.p.m; 103 pound feet torque at 4600 r.p.m. Optional: none

TRANSMISSION

Standard: 5speed manual; frontwheel drive. Option: 4speed

electronic automatic overdrive

DIMENSIONS

Manufacturer's figures: WB 2620 mm; L 4450 mm; W 1705

mm; H 1390 mm; front headroom 1011 mm; rear headroom 955

mm; trunk capacity 363 litres; fuel tank 45 L; weight 1083

kg

PRICE, AS TESTED

EX model: $16,195 (excluding extra charges and taxes)

OPTIONS ON TEST CAR

None

EXTRA CHARGES

Freight and predelivery inspection varies by dealer; fuel

conservation tax nil

SAFETY WATCH

Dual air bags std.; antilock brakes optional in package

with air conditioning ($1,700); meets 1997 U.S. sideimpact

standard yes; theft deterrent system n/a; heightadjustable

shoulder belts std.

TRANSPORT CANADA FUEL ECONOMY

City: 7.6 L/100 km; highway: 5.8 L/100 km; estimated maximum

range (tank capacity x 100 / highway fuel consumption): 776 km

PARTS BASKET

Cost of commonly needed parts, excluding installation: muffler

$216; front fender $125; taillight assembly: $156

WARRANTY

Entire car 3 years, 60,000 km; powertrain and major

mechanical components 5 years, 100,000 km (no deductible, no

transfer fee); rustthrough 5 years, no mileage limit;

roadside assistance option, $90 per year, 1 to 3 years, no

mileage limit

COMPETITION

Chev Cavalier still the value champ in this field; Mazda

Protege excellent balance of attributes, best of import

contenders; Dodge/Plymouth Neon cute, quick, variable build

quality; Toyota Corolla bland but beautifully built; Nissan

Sentra great powertrain, otherwise unremarkable

RATING

Bold face denote's Kenzie's rating: 14: yeah, it's a car;

56: it's got price going for it; 78: good value; 9: great

value; 10: where do I sign?

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