1999 Honda Civic
1999 Honda Civic Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Restyled, it remains America's favorite small car.
For the past two years, the Honda Civic has dominated the small-car sales charts. That makes it not only a prime candidate for new customers, but also a well-defined target for every carmaker playing in the same league. For Honda, the Civic is a trademark car with a successful track record extending back more than 30 years. And the latest line of Civics seem poised to continue the winning streak.
How can this phenomenon be explained? For starters, clever engineering, good assembly quality and a comprehensive menu of standard and optional features create an entry-level car that provides more than basic transportation. The expected virtues -- primarily fuel economy and small exterior dimensions -- are there, but good looks, comfort and better-than-average driving pleasure are also integral parts of the Civic driving experience. Better yet, these attributes apply to all Civics, regardless of equipment level.
But there is another element that keeps the Civic on top. The small Honda is not one car, but several. In sedan form, it is a family hauler. But in hatchback or coupe trim it's a sporty runabout. It can be the stingiest of gas-sippers or deliver more performance than you might expect, depending on which engine is installed.
Against members of its class, the Civic has been the pick of the litter for several years. It still is.
Honda is not a company to make changes arbitrarily. The Civic's exterior design was fresh and attractive four years ago and it remains so in 1999. A minor freshening of front and rear shapes this year gives Honda salespeople something to talk about, but makes no significant difference to the overall appearance.
Three body styles are offered. A three-door hatchback is the entry-level version, followed on the size and price scales by a two-door coupe and a four-door sedan. All three use identical sheet metal from front bumper to windshield. All adhere to popular styling themes, having a distinct wedge profile rising from front to rear with large headlights and taillights. Careful detailing lends character to what is overall a simple form.
Some of the details that make the Civic appealing are also functional. The low cowl and hood line combine with generous glass area to provide exceptional visibility for driver and passengers. All three Civics have large doors, and offer handy access to well-shaped stowage spaces in back.
The least expensive member of the family is the plain CX hatchback. Even a basic radio costs extra here, though a split/folding rear seat, tinted glass and a rear-window defroster are included. Regardless of body style, the basic DX trim level includes dual outside mirrors, an AM/FM radio and adjustable steering column. All sedans and automatic transmission-equipped coupes and hatchbacks come with power steering.
Mid-grade LX sedans add air conditioning, power windows and door locks and cruise control. EX sedans and coupes come with just about everything, including a more powerful engine, a power moonroof and antilock brakes.
Civic interiors are well-designed, neatly executed and more functional than ostentatious. Interior materials seem to have been selected with durability rather than maximum eye appeal in mind. Monochrome interiors -- available in gray, dark gray or beige -- border on the monotonous and could benefit from more contrast.
Four adults can ride comfortably in the Civic; it will also accommodate two adults with three children. Civics offer 12 cubic feet of luggage space and that can be augmented by folding down the rear seats. Pockets and bins provide storage for small items.
Instruments and controls are simple in layout and function. A base Civic has but three gauges--speedometer, fuel level and coolant temperature--while up-level models add a tachometer. The switch layout is generally good; the radio buttons are somewhat small and fussy, but new-for-1999 electronic controls for heating/ventilation/air conditioning are easy to operate.
We spent the bulk of our test time with the EX sedan, but shorter runs in other versions served to reinforce our enthusiasm for the versatility and quality of the whole Civic line. Comments made here can be applied generally to hatchbacks and coupes in all trim levels.
Performance makes the strongest initial impression. These are lightweight cars, so even the base 106-bhp engine is more than sufficient. The uplevel choices are rated at 115 and 127 horsepower. All Civic engines use 4-valve-per-cylinder technology (16v) for maximum efficiency. In fact, all are mechanically identical with the exception of those used in EX sedans and coupes and HX coupes. These add a variable valve timing system (called VTEC by Honda) that makes them extraordinarily responsive at any speed. Regardless of output, Civic powerplants are exceptionally smooth and economical.
A 5-speed manual transmission -- one of the easiest-shifting gearboxes on the market -- is standard for all Civics. The optional 4-speed automatic uses electronic controls to minimize unnecessary shifting when driving up or down hills. Both transmissions are excellent and suit the high-revving characteristics of all three engines.
Worth mentioning is the HX coupe's optional continuously variable belt-drive transmission (CVT). It is a fascinating device controlled by what looks like a normal automatic shift lever with three forward ranges, though only Drive is necessary in everyday use. Pull away from a stop and the engine revs faster than the car accelerates. In less time than you might expect, engine and car speed synchronize, without the usual pauses for gear-changing. The CVT seems a novelty at first, but after a few miles one begins to wonder why it hasn't replaced the automatic option in all Civics.
There's nothing lacking in the remainder of the Civic's mechanical hardware either. The four-wheel double-wishbone suspension is more expensive and complex than the conventional struts found in many of the cars in this class, but it pays off with superior ride and handling qualities.
We found no driving situations where the Civic didn't excel. It was comfortable at cruising speeds, boasting a ride that was smooth yet well enough controlled to fend off most pavement irregularities. Road and engine noise are always present, but only become obtrusive during hard acceleration.
The driving pleasure really begins when the Civic is urged through corners. Especially noteworthy is the power steering. Unlike some systems, the Civic's steering does not isolate the driver from the road. At the same time, it offers enough power assist to keep 50 miles of twists and turns from being a chore and it's stable on long straight stretches. Body roll is held to a minimum (the front stabilizer bar fitted to uplevel coupes and sedans really does help). Even when driven more slowly, the Civic's road manners add significantly to the driving experience.
Most of us are forced to spend part of our lives in congested city driving. The Civic shines in these conditions. All Civics are compact, with the largest sedan being just over 14 feet long. Add superb visibility and its easy steering, and the result is a car that is ideal for taking advantage of small openings in traffic and 'compact only' parking slots.
Somewhere within the wide range of Civics available is a car certain to please almost any compact car buyer. If economy is the primary motivator, any will do, with top honors going to the base coupe. Our test sedan is rated thirstiest of the bunch, and we still managed a 32-mpg average. Luxury, in a relative sense, is available as well, though the price for a full load of amenities puts the Civic up against base versions of larger, more substantial cars.
The easy part is deciding to make the Civic a primary candidate while small-car shopping. The complexities begin when deciding which of the 17 available body style/powerplant/transmission packages best suits your needs.
East Liberty, Ohio.
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