1996 Honda Civic
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
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
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
(The four-door sedans are the first of the sixth-generation
Civics to be launched; the coupe and hatchback will follow
Are these prices the automotive equivalent of a free lunch?
Well, no. There are some signs of cost-cutting, but you have to
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The suspension fulfills both promises of quieter and smoother
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
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
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
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.
MODELS AND PRICES
Fourdoor sedan: LX $14,895; EX $16,195
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
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
Standard: 5speed manual; frontwheel drive. Option: 4speed
electronic automatic overdrive
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
PRICE, AS TESTED
EX model: $16,195 (excluding extra charges and taxes)
OPTIONS ON TEST CAR
Freight and predelivery inspection varies by dealer; fuel
conservation tax nil
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
Cost of commonly needed parts, excluding installation: muffler
$216; front fender $125; taillight assembly: $156
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
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
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?