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Second-hand: Honda Civic

Funny. It was a lawnmower maker - and not a diversified aerospace company - that showed the world how to build a good small car.

  • 2002 Honda Civic EX Sedan.

“I had an ’85 Honda Civic,” starts another remarkable yet ordinary Honda testimonial on the Internet.

“I drove it in high school; my brother drove it in high school. All my friends drove it in college, I drove it afterwards. I sold it to a friend. His idea of car repair was to pound the pieces on with a hammer. It died in 1997 with almost 320,000 hard kilometres on it, and never a major repair.” Who would have guessed that the little sardine can that washed up on our shores in 1973 would evolve to become Canada’s favourite auto? With each successive generation, the Civic grew more sophisticated, benefiting from cutting-edge technology few manufacturers put in their most expensive models, never mind entry-level vehicles. Things like control-arm and multilink suspensions, all-aluminum engines and four valves per cylinder.

Funny. It was a lawnmower maker – and not a diversified aerospace company – that showed the world how to build a good small car.

CONFIGURATION:

Honda enthusiasts would largely agree that the 1988-91 Civic line was the most beloved. In addition to the classic three-door hatchback, Honda offered a four-door sedan, a five-door wagon (both front- and four-wheel drive) and the much-coveted CRX two-seater. Hondaphiles still weep when reminded of that hot hatch.

For 1992, the bounty of models was reduced to a traditional sedan, a hatchback and a two-door coupe designed for the North American market.

It was a decidedly conservative move for a company that had been known to zig while others zagged.

While the styling had become less progressive, Honda’s engine technology continued to advance. The EX and Si models got a simplified version of VTEC (variable valve timing and lift) that had trickled down from the NSX supercar.

In the Civic, VTEC only worked on the intake valves, switching from single to dual intake-valve operation when the rpms climbed high enough. The 1.6 L VTEC motor was good for 125 hp, but only 106 lb-ft of torque.

The other models got less exotic engines, starting with a 70-hp eight-valve 1.5 L engine in the lowball CX. With a 16-valve head, the motor produced 102 hp, common in the DX models.

For 1996, the next-generation Civic had grown larger, more structurally sound and more powerful (all engines displaced 1.6 litres and used 16 valves). The hatchback rode on the same wheelbase as the sedan to reduce costs.

Cost-cutting was evident throughout the Civic line. While the company never scrimped on engines, base models were “de-contented” to remain competitively priced.

Power steering was not available with a manual transmission, for example.

Owners complained about the lack of a tachometer, low-fuel warning, cargo lamp and other amenities. The headlight chime was sorely missed: “I’ve needed several daytime jump starts,” griped one owner.

ON THE ROAD:

The Civic is probably responsible for the 30-minute-or-its-free delivery promise that swept the pizza industry.

VTEC-equipped models could pull to highway speed from a standstill in eight seconds flat – performance that set the standard for economy cars. Most Civics, however, were sold with the 102- or 106-hp engine, which meant acceleration was in the 10-second range, entirely acceptable in its class.

The cars were also notable for their composed and capable handling, tracking well at high speed.

The structure was commendably stiff, allowing the suspension bits to do their work without being compromised by torsional forces in the platform. The ride was comfy but controlled.

“I’m very proud that the car went out in a blaze of glory. It managed to outrun 15 police cruisers before the thief smashed it into a guardrail.” While they felt inextricably glued to the pavement, most Civics could only muster 0.75 g of lateral acceleration on a skidpad, hampered by skinny tires.

As any high school kid can attest, the aftermarket has countless tire-and-wheel solutions to address that problem. A 1999 Civic Coupe Si with factory-stock 15-inch wheels and Michelins could pull 0.83 g on the skidpad.

Braking, however, was not the Civic’s forte. Stops from 112 km/h to a standstill consumed at least 61 metres of asphalt.

WHAT OWNERS REPORTED:

As the opening quote suggests, the Civic has earned an enviable reputation for its durability. “I haven’t seen the dealer or their mechanics since the day I picked up the car,” boasted the owner of a 1990 model.

Although the Civic’s quality is legendary, owners have identified a few faults.

Older models equipped with dealer-installed air-conditioning systems have been known to fail prematurely; CV joints and boots are weak links; the distributor and igniter may leave you stranded (the latter was the subject of a recall); and mufflers tend to rot quicker than usual.

In the car’s design, older people disliked the low go-cart seating position, window defrosting was judged inadequate, and there were rattles in the two-piece tailgate used in the 1992-95 hatchback.

If you can get over the few mechanical glitches, the high resale cost, the low-slung seating and lack of amenities in all but the EX/Si models, you’re bound to have an exceptional ownership experience – until the car is stolen.

The last word goes to one owner who had a bad experience: “I’m very proud that the car went out in a blaze of glory. It managed to outrun 15 police cruisers before the thief smashed it into a guardrail.” We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models.

Please note the deadlines: Chevy Astro/GMC Safari by Sept. 11; Mazda RX-7 by Sept. 25. Send your comments to Mark Toljagic, 2060 Queen St. E., P.O. Box 51541, Toronto Ont M4E 1C0. E-mail: toljagic @ ca.inter.net.

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