2003 Honda Civic Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Sporty handling, miserly fuel economy.Just add gas and go.And go.And go.
Honda Civic is an icon. Honda sells more than 325,000 Civics a year in the U.S., making it one of America's best-selling compacts. They are notable for offering excellent fuel economy and sporty handling.
But the Civic can't be described that easily because the lineup is composed of a family of diverse models: a practical four-door sedan, a slick two-door coupe, and a hot hatchback.
Honda completely redesigned the entire Civic line for 2001. Refinements for 2002 included improved handling and reduced noise and vibration, though we think there is still room for improvement in that area.
For 2003, sedans and coupes come with improved seat fabrics and the outboard rear headrests are now adjustable. There's a sporty new four-spoke steering wheel on most versions, and a new center console and armrest on LX and EX. Civic LX and HX models now come with a standard CD player, and the driver's seat on the LX is now height-adjustable, as it has been on the EX. Aluminum wheels are now standard on the EX coupe. Hybrid gas-electric cars have recently been in the news as the government threatens to increase fuel economy standards. Major manufacturers are busy talking about producing hybrid SUVs to help improve their economy. However, just two companies, Honda and Toyota, have actually brought hybrid cars to market.
Honda has gone one better than anyone with the world's first mass-produced hybrid. What's more it's used to power the most popular subcompact car in America, the Honda Civic.
Many people mistakenly think a hybrid car needs charging like an electric car. Far from it, a hybrid runs on gasoline just like a regular car. What makes the car special is that there is an auxiliary electric motor that works to assist the small gasoline engine when extra power is needed. Honda calls this the Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system.
In 1999 Honda introduced the first ever hybrid, the Insight, as a specialized hand-built high-tech two-seater car that is still on the market. But it had limited appeal because of its small size.
This should change with the Civic Hybrid with its increased practicality. It is a car that makes sense for owners interested in great fuel economy and low emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the Civic Hybrid at 48/47 mpg on its City/Highway test. The most remarkable thing about this car is that it seems unremarkable: For the most part, driving this gas-electric Civic is just like driving a regular gas-powered Civic.
Honda Civics come in three body styles: four-door sedan, two-door coupe, and three-door hatchback. Sedans and coupes are available in three primary trim levels: DX, LX, and EX.
Civic DX and LX are powered by a 1.7-liter four-cylinder engine rated 115 horsepower. LX adds air conditioning, power-operated controls and luxury features.
EX models get a 127-horsepower engine, body-colored power mirrors, a remote entry system, and a tilt-and-slide glass sunroof. The EX engine displaces the same 1.7 liters as the DX and LX engine, but gets a boost from Honda's excellent VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Electronic Control) system. Larger wheels and tires help put the power to the road.
A four-speed automatic transmission ($800) is optional for DX, LX, and EX models, all of which come standard with a five-speed manual transmission.
Civic Si is only available as a hatchback, and the hatchback is only available as an Si. Civic Si comes with a high-output 2.0-liter i-VTEC (for variable valve timing with intelligence) engine rated 160 horsepower. Si comes with a five-speed manual and is not available with an automatic transmission.
Prices range from about $13,000 for a DX to about $15,000 for an LX to about $17,000 for an EX to about $19,000 for the Si.
Specialty Civics are available as well. Coupe HX ($14,170) comes with a fuel-efficient lean-burn engine teamed to the standard five-speed manual transmission. Capable of 44 mpg, it achieves an impressive 117 horsepower. Optional on HX is a continuously variable automatic transmission, or CVT, for $1,000. There's also a Coupe GX with a natural gas-powered engine that Honda claims is the cleanest internal combustion engine in the world. For their part, the DX, LX, and EX four-cylinder aluminum engines earn the government's ultra low emission vehicle, or ULEV, certification. A Civic Hybrid is available that uses a small gas engine and a big electric motor to achieve 50 mpg, which New Car Test Drive reviewed separately. We think hybrids are the best short-term solution to reducing air pollution and fuel consumption, and the Civic Hybrid is the best example of one of these.
Options are limited for the many trim levels. Side-impact air bags add $250. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) are standard on EX and Si, optional on GX. The Civic Hybrid part of the 2003 Civic lineup. (See review covering the rest of the Civic line at www.nctd.com.)
The Hybrid is only available in two versions, one with a manual transmission that retails for $20,010 and the other with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) for $1,000 more.
Both models are based on the upscale EX Civic sedan and come loaded with features. Consequently, there are no factory-installed options available.
The Honda Civic sedan and coupe are conservative in appearance, but contemporary in design. They present a wedge-shaped profile with a high, curt tail and low, abbreviated prow. The hood sits an amazing 2.6 inches lower than the hood of the previous-generation Civic.
The front is clean and conservative with a discreet horizontal grille set between large, triangular multi-lens headlamps that curve around the corners. A wide air intake stretches across the body-colored bumper, and a low front spoiler has been added for downforce. Relatively flat flanks are interrupted only by the moldings. Windshield pillars arch into the rolled roof to meet the narrow C-pillars. Bold tail lamps dominate the blunt rear panel, underscored by a body-colored bumper. The sedan's tail lamps have been revised for 2003.
They look like they're from the same family, but the sedan and coupe differ in appearance. In fact, more than three-fourths of their body panels are not interchangeable. The coupe features a more aggressive windshield rake for a sportier look, and its tail lamps light up in a signature pattern. The sedan and coupe do share the same wheelbase and structure.
The styling of the Honda Civic Si hatchback seems to polarize people. Some think it's ugly; others love it and are quick to defend it. It's edgy and wedgy. The huge, flat windshield is steeply raked. The nose slopes radically downward, giving the car excellent aerodynamics and driver visibility. Its unique mesh grille is framed by huge triangular headlamps. The Si is slab-sided, without any sculpture in the sheet metal. Also, the wheels and tires do not look big enough for the bodywork. The Si features a subtle roof spoiler, a dual tipped exhaust, and comes standard with a moonroof.
Honda is known for its space-efficient design, and the Civic packs its engine into a condensed engine bay, leaving more space for the interior. The door handles are the lever kind, which I find harder to operate than the kind you stick your hands through. At a quick glance the Hybrid does not look that different from a regular Civic sedan. Look closer and several subtle differences set it apart and give it a more upscale appearance.
From the front the major difference is a much bigger and deeper spoiler under the front bumper, while at the rear there is a small spoiler along the lip of the trunk. The Hybrid rides on special lightweight alloy wheels. Aside from these three small visual differences the car retains the stylish if conservative lines of the four-door Civic sedan.
If you were to crawl under the car you'd find several differences from the regular car. Namely a cover under the engine as well as under the rear floor. This improves aerodynamics. Honda claims 7 percent of the improvement in fuel economy comes from these aerodynamic changes.
Even when you open the hood the engine does not look that different from other modern cars where the engine is hidden under a molded plastic cover. Technically inclined people might notice the large bright orange electric cable running from the transmission housing behind the transversely mounted engine and down under the car. This cable connects the thin electric motor, which is sandwiched between the transmission and the engine, to the batteries and control module at the back of the car.
Honda's engineers have managed to make the batteries and electronics much more compact than those in the Insight. They are hidden between the back of the rear seat at the front of the trunk. If access is needed it is through a panel in the trunk.
Nearly 3 cubic feet of space is lost in the trunk compared to a regular Civic. This drops it from an above average size trunk for its class to one of the smallest, although it is still reasonably useful. Another disadvantage is that the rear seat backs cannot be folded down for increased storage.
The Honda Civic is ergonomically excellent, making this an easy car to operate. From the driver's seat, the Honda Civic is a comfortable car. From the back seat, it is less so. As in most Hondas, the passenger compartment feels airy and open.
Front-seat accommodations in the Civic are superb. The sedan's front seats provide excellent support, thanks to a rigid structure with aggressive side bolsters. High seat cushions make entry and exit easy. Seat fabrics have been upgraded in the sedan for 2003. The quality of the interior materials and trim is excellent and the interior design is ergonomically superb. Visibility when driving or parking is excellent as the driver is surrounded by glass and looks over a very low hood line.
The coupe's front seatbacks stretch broad and deep, and the headrests are open at the center like a doughnut. Front seatbelts attach to a side anchor bar that slides out of the way when someone climbs into the back seat.
The Si front seats are excellent, comfortable for long drives, and supportive for hard driving. They look and feel upscale. Alcantara-like trim adds richness to the side bolsters while red stitching accents the sporty fabric in the middle. The seating position in the Si is a bit strange with its big dash and sharply raked windshield, and reminds us of the Volkswagen New Beetle.
Rear-seat accommodations are not the best. They are neither roomy nor comfortable by class standards. The Toyota Corolla is better on this score. That said, the Civic sedan offers more rear legroom than pre-2001 models, and the coupe offers some improvement there as well. The flat floor lets rear-seat passengers spread their feet out; there's no center tunnel to get in the way of the center occupant. But three in back is still a crowd. The rear bench is low and hard and does not support the thighs well. The coupe's front seats cooperate for rear entry by sliding forward under power when the seatback tilts forward; a memory function then returns it to its original position. The seat's forward movement creates the largest possible portal for rear-seat entry given the design, but it's still not an easy matter to fold your body into the rear seat of this (or any) coupe, much less haul yourself out. Bottom line: The Civic is happiest with two people, but can haul additional passengers when called upon.
In all Civics, the cockpit looks clean and efficient, with the instrument panel tucked beneath a barrel-shaped cowl. Round white-on-black analog instruments include an oversized speedometer and tachometer in the center, flanked by smaller fuel and coolant gauges. In the coupe, gauges show silver highlights and glow with amber light at night. The Si features black numbers on white gauges, for a sporty appearance; while a bright red Si badge adds color.
HVAC controls are wonderfully designed, with large rotary dials for heating, ventilation, and fan speed stacked just to the left of the audio system controls. Separate buttons for air conditioning, recirculation, and rear-window defrost are arrayed just below the audio system. It's a clean design that's very easy to operate. Audio controls are close at hand, but the system suffers from small buttons and knobs. Worse, the sound was only mediocre.
The Si sports a shifter that sprouts at an angle from the upper console, as in a mid-1960s Alfa Romeo or some of the latest rally cars. Though it looks odd at first, the lever turns out to be perfectly located for quick and easy shifting, almost reminiscent of a formula car. Its close proximity to the steering wheel keeps it handy. It works really, really well and we instantly liked it.
The Civic sedan's trunk space is comparable to other compact sedans. The hatchback is very practical with a big cargo compartment that opens up further when the rear seats are folded.
Safety equipment includes pre-tensioners for both lap and shoulder belts in front, two-stage front airbags, three-point safety belts for five. In many ways it is the Hybrid's interior that sets it apart from a regular Civic, thanks to a classy two-tone finish. The dashboard and the upper panels along the doors are in a dark brown while the lower panels and seats are finished in light tan.
As in all Hondas the Hybrid has a low cowl to give the interior an airy feel and provide better forward visibility. Chrome is used for the door handles and the plate surrounding the gear shift lever. The center of the dashboard is finished in a pleasant semi-gloss light gray metallic-colored plastic. The stereo and automatic air conditioning controls are mounted in this panel.
Overall the accommodations are quite a bit more posh than the top-of-the-line EX model. Even the cloth seats (no leather option) have a more luxurious feel to them.
The instrument pod contains three round gauges that provide lots of information. On the left is a tachometer with several warning lights and settings for the automatic transmission. In the center there's a speedometer with a digital readout at the base that includes the miles traveled plus a display of the average fuel consumption for the journey along with a bar graph showing the instantaneous fuel consumption.
None of the above is that different from other cars, but the instruments to the right are very different. There are four quadrants with bar graphs. Two are straightforward fuel and water temperature gauges. Another displays the state of charge of the batteries while the one at the top shows whether the electric motor is being used to assist the gas engine or being used as a generator to charge the batteries.
The Honda Civic is a line of cars that offer terrific handling. Ride quality and noise, vibration and harshness are not the best in the class, but the current models feel more substantial, more upscale than pre-2001 models. All Civics are fun to drive, and EX and Si models increase this aspect with brisk acceleration performance.
Driving the Civic EX sedan with the five-speed manual transmission is a sporty, satisfying experience. With its more powerful engine, the EX delivers lively acceleration, while the manual gearbox affords more driver control. In EX tune the engine produces 127 horsepower. Throttle response is good at any speed because the engine extends its torque across a broad power band. Shifting is smooth and precise, with notched stop points between gears. The four-speed automatic also works well, shifting quietly and smoothly.
DX and LX offer some of the best fuel economy in the class with an EPA-estimated 33/39 mpg City/Highway. Extracting 115 horsepower out of just 1.7 liters represents impressive efficiency, but the DX and LX models offer tepid acceleration performance. This is most noticeable with the automatic transmission, where more time and space are needed to pass another vehicle.
Most fun to drive is the Si. Around town, the Si is tractable and pleasant, pulling strongly from a fairly wide range of rpm. Honda's latest i-VTEC engine is tuned for torque. You can short-shift through the gears: snick, waahh, snick, whaah, snick, whaah. Downshifting short is fun, too. Barely push in the clutch pedal, and casually flick the lever into the next-lower cog. The Civic Si's transmission ratios seem perfectly matched to the engine. The ratios are close together, allowing the driver to keep the engine in the power band. Out on the highway, the Civic Si engine is very responsive, giving it good performance for passing. It accelerates from legal highway speeds to super-legal speeds fairly quickly. Anyone who remembers the 2.2-liter Prelude VTEC engine may be disappointed when they stand on it, because the Civic Si does not deliver the same rush of power, nor does it make the same exciting race-car sounds. But the Si can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 8 seconds, which is only a tick slower than the Ford SVT Focus. If you want better performance from a Civic, you'll have to modify it or wait for Honda to ship us an R model.
Charge too fast into a corner and the Si will understeer. (The front tires will lose grip before the rear tires.) The Civic Si features front and rear stabilizer bars and firmer dampers and springs than other Civic models, yet its ride quality is still pleasant. Transient response (left, right, left) is a little squishy, however. A high-performance set of tires may improve this behavior. At 80 or 90 mph, however, the Si feels very stable.
Civics come standard with rear drum brakes and braking is well controlled. We recommend getting ABS, which comes standard on the EX. Stopping performance in the Civic is okay, but not up to the standards of the class. The Si comes with larger disc brakes in front and disc brakes rather than drum brakes in the rear. Stopping performance is about average for the class.
Though not the quietest cars in their class, the Civics are not as noisy as a Ford Focus. When driving at highway speed, riders may converse in a normal voice without distractions from mechanical racket or wind noise. If you like the regular Honda Civic EX sedan you'll like the Civic Hybrid. Despite it having a different drivetrain it drives, for all practical purposes, just like a regular Civic.
In reality there is a bigger difference in the feel caused by the CVT (continuously variable transmission) than by the hybrid engine. The CVT is available as an option on the regular Civic, so it's not an unknown quantity, though few people have experienced it. Essentially the transmission has infinitely variable gear ratios provided by belts running between moveable conical pulley wheels. The advantage is that the transmission is always smooth and results in better fuel economy. A strange sensation occurs when accelerating hard, as the engine speeds up and it seems as if the transmission is lagging, akin to a slipping clutch. Then the engine revs start to slow down as the ratio changes yet the car is moving faster and faster.
As far as the hybrid engine is concerned, most users will not notice much difference during normal driving. The weirdest sensation is when you stop at traffic lights and the engine automatically shuts off to save fuel. As soon as you put the car in gear and touch the gas pedal the engine fires up without any hesitation. A small icon in the left-hand gauge indicates when the engine has shut off.
It's important to remember that this is first and foremost a gasoline-powered car. Under normal driving conditions, the gas engine is the primary source of power. The electric motor only provides power when extra oomph is needed for passing, accelerating or climbing a grade. (This is the opposite of how many people think it operates.)
At other times (when decelerating and under braking) the electric motor turns into a generator to recharge the 144-volt battery pack. The mode of the electric motor is indicated in a bar graph in the right hand gauge in the instrument cluster.
As the primary reason for owning a hybrid is improved fuel efficiency obviously gauges that show the fuel consumption are an integral part of the displays. On a 15-mile drive up a grade through 4,000 feet of elevation change we only managed to obtain 20 mpg on the way up, but averaged 120 mpg on the way down! That probably represents the two extremes. According to the readout, we averaged 40 mpg overall during our test drive. This is somewhat lower than the EPA ratings, but most of it was city driving with a lot of heavy accelerating.
Aside from the slight difference in feel from the engine and transmission, the rest of the car delivers well. It offers a smooth ride and excellent steering thanks to a new electrically operated rack-and-pinion steering system. Those who like to drive fast along twisty roads will find that the body tends to roll, or lean, more than they might like. More conservative drivers will have no complaints.
You can't go wrong buying a Honda Civic, regardless of trim level. They are reliable, practical, and fuel efficient. Civics are fun to drive and all models offer excellent handling. EX models bring a responsive engine to the party and the Si hatchback is a hoot. All of them feature Honda's durability and reliability. Civics are available with anti-lock brakes and side-impact airbags. All models deliver high fuel economy figures, and qualify for ULEV (ultra low emissions) status. The 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid does not make a lot of sense, based purely on economics. It has less power than the regular Civic, a slightly smaller trunk and it costs about $2,500 more. Apart from a slightly more luxurious interior it's only advantage is an EPA City fuel-economy rating of 48 mpg compared to about 35 to 40 mpg for an equivalent Civic EX sedan with a CVT. Sadly, this translates to only about $100 in savings per year, based on 12,000 miles and gasoline prices of $1.50 a gallon. Put another way, the higher initial cost is not recovered until the car reaches over 250,000 miles!
Having said that, anyone who wants to help advance a new technology that can improve the environment in the long run should consider the Civic Hybrid. It happens to be a nice, almost luxurious small car that has a different feel to it without giving up any creature comforts. It's a car for people who don't want to follow the crowd and, instead, prefer to lead it.
DX coupe ($13,270) (EM2123PW); LX coupe ($15,470) (EM2153PW); EX coupe ($17,270) (EM2193MW); HX coupe ($14,170) (EM2173PW); DX sedan ($13,470) (ES1513PW); LX sedan ($15,670) (ES1553PW); EX sedan ($17,520) (ES2573MW); Si hatchback ($19,460) (EP3353EW). Civic Hybrid ($20,010) (ES9563EW); Civic Hybrid CVT ($21,010) (ES9663EW).
East Liberty, Ohio; Alliston, Ontario; Swindon, U.K.; Japan. Suzuka, Japan.
Options As Tested
Civic EX Sedan ($17,270) (EM2193MW). Civic Hybrid CVT ($21,010) (ES9663EW).
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