2004 Honda Civic
2004 Honda Civic Expert Review: New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Economy without sacrifice.
Honda's highly practical Civic rolls into 2004 with a subtly but significantly new look. Bumpers, hood, headlights and grille are all new on the coupe and the sedan, emphasizing a baby-brother resemblance to the slick and smooth Accord. The sporty Si hatchback gets new headlamps and taillamps that update its sleek look.
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. Civics are notable for their excellent fuel economy and sporty handling. Front-seat comfort is superb by any measure.
The Honda Civic line is composed of a family of diverse models. Coupes and sedans are available. Up-level Civics come with powerful VTEC engines that provide brisk acceleration. The Si hatchback is the flagship performance model.
All Civics are fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly, but a couple of models take these benefits to the extreme. The Civic HX coupe gets 44 mpg on regular unleaded. More extreme is the Civic Hybrid, which gets up to 51 mpg on regular unleaded. The Hybrid's gas engine is assisted by an electric motor. Unlike an electric car, the Hybrid never needs to be plugged in. Owning and driving a Civic Hybrid is just like life with a regular Civic. Well, almost. There's also a Civic GX sedan that burns natural gas; Honda claims it's the cleanest internal combustion engine in the world.
Honda Civics come in three body styles: four-door sedan, two-door coupe, and the Si three-door hatchback. Sedans and coupes are available in DX, LX, and EX trim. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on all models. A four-speed automatic transmission ($800) is optional on the LX and EX models.
Civic DX and LX are powered by a 1.7-liter four-cylinder engine rated 115 horsepower. The DX has wind-up windows and manual locks; it lacks air conditioning and comes only as a four-door sedan. A new Value Package (VP) for the DX adds air conditioning, CD player, power locks, and center console. LX adds air conditioning, 15-inch (rather than 14-inch) steel wheels, anti-roll bars front and rear, power-operated controls, a height-adjustable driver's seat, remote keyless entry, a CD player, and other luxury features.
Civic EX models get more power from a 127-horsepower VTEC version of the 1.7-liter engine. EX also gets 15-inch aluminum wheels, body-colored power mirrors, upgraded audio with six speakers, and a tilt-and-slide glass sunroof.
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 engine with i-VTEC (for variable valve timing with intelligence) rated 160 horsepower. Si comes with a five-speed manual and is not available with an automatic.
Prices range from $13,010 for a DX sedan to $15,160 for an LX coupe to $17,260 for an EX sedan to $19,000 for the Si.
Specialty Civics are available as well. The HX coupe ($13,710) comes with highly fuel-efficient lean-burn engine that gets up to 44 mpg and achieves an impressive 117 horsepower. Civic HX comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission, but a continuously variable automatic transmission, or CVT, is optional ($1,000).
The Civic Hybrid represents the ultimate in environmental responsibility, using a small gas engine and a big electric motor to achieve up to 51 mpg. The Hybrid ($19,650) is equipped comparably to the EX sedan with a five-speed manual transmission. It's also available with a CVT automatic ($20,650).
The Civic GX sedan comes with natural gas-powered engine, which the government rates as a SULEV, or super ultra low-emissions vehicle. It produces 100 horsepower.
Options are limited. Side-impact air bags ($250) are optional on all models and standard on the Hybrid. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) are standard on EX, Si, and Hybrid, optional on GX, and unavailable on other models.
The Honda Civic sedan and coupe get subtle styling revisions for 2004 that give them a bolder look. Up front, the bumper, grille, engine hood, and headlights are all new. Most immediately noticeable is the new grille: The horizontal bar is gone, leaving just a blacked-out opening, framed by a character line that flows smoothly into the new hood. The opening under the grille has been re-shaped into a shark-like smile and now incorporates two downward-slashing struts. The headlights are still triangular, but stretch out more diagonally as they flow around the car's front corners. These changes are small, really, but subtly suggestive of the total re-style received last year by big brother Accord. The Civic's rear bumper is reshaped as well, a little crisper now than before.
Unchanged is the Civic's wedge-shaped profile, with a high, curt tail and low, abbreviated prow. The hood sits amazingly low. Relatively flat flanks are interrupted only by a single crease that dashes from the front wheel opening to the taillight; there are no body-side moldings. Windshield pillars arch into the rolled roof to meet the narrow C-pillars. Bold tail lamps dominate the blunt rear panel. Overall, both the sedan and the coupe remain conservative in appearance, but contemporary in design.
While they look like they're from the same family, 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 inner structure.
The appearance of the Civic Hybrid sedan is also subtly different, with a deeper spoiler under the front bumper, a small spoiler on the lip of the trunk lid, and unique, lightweight aluminum-alloy wheels.
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 which, like those of the coupe and sedan, have been updated for 2004. New taillights lend a custom appearance, with oval amber turn-signal lenses behind a contoured clear cover. The Si is slab-sided, without any sculpture in the sheet metal. In the past, critics have suggested the wheels and tires do not look big enough for the bodywork, but Honda has taken care of that for 2004 with new and better-proportioned 16-inch alloy wheels, and a new sill molding that suggests a slimmer profile. The Si features a subtle roof spoiler and 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 we find harder to operate than the kind you stick your hands through.
The Honda Civic is ergonomically excellent, making this an easy car to operate. From the driver's seat, the 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 for the sedan were upgraded for the 2003 model year, and the quality of the new materials and trim is excellent. Visibility when driving or parking is excellent as the driver is surrounded by glass and looks over a very low hood line.
The interior of the Hybrid is a bit more posh than even that of the EX sedan, with automatic climate control and a classy two-tone finish.
Civic coupes have front seatbacks that stretch broad and deep with headrests that 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 hatchback's 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 center. The seating position in the Si is a bit strange with its big dash and sharply raked windshield, reminding us of the Beetle.
Rear-seat accommodations in all of the Civic models are not the best. They are neither roomy nor comfortable by class standards. The rear bench is low and hard and does not support the thighs well. The Toyota Corolla is better on this score than the Civic sedan. That said, the Civic's flat floor lets rear-seat passengers spread their feet out, as there's no center tunnel to get in the way. Also, the outboard rear-seat head restraints are adjustable. But three in back is a crowd.
Getting into the back seats of the two-door coupe isn't easy. The coupe's front seats cooperate for rear entry by gliding forward when the seatback tilts forward; a memory function then returns the seat 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. A sporty, four-spoke steering wheel provides a comfortable grip. Round analog instruments include an oversized speedometer and tachometer in the center, flanked by smaller fuel and coolant gauges. In the sedan, the gauge graphics are the traditional white-on-black. In the coupe, the gauges show silver highlights and glow with amber light at night. The Hybrid's instruments are blue-lit and include a digital fuel mileage display and other indicators that monitor the automatic functioning of its auxiliary electric motor. 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. Sound quality has been only mediocre in the past, but has been improved for 2004 thanks to redesigned speakers.
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 fir.
Honda Civics offer terrific handling, and that statement applies to all models. Ride quality, noise, vibration and harshness have not the best in the class, however. To address this, Honda added more sound-dampening insulation to the doors to the 2004 models of both the coupe and sedan. If you haven't driven a Civic since the end of the last century, you'll find that the current models feel more substantial, more upscale than the pre-2001 models. 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. All Civics are fun to drive, the EX and Si models are more so thanks to their brisk acceleration. All are environmentally friendly. The government has certified Civic DX, LX, and EX models as ultra low emissions vehicles, or ULEVs.
Civic DX and LX models offer excellent fuel economy with an EPA-estimated 32/38 mpg City/Highway. However, DX and LX models offer tepid acceleration performance. The standard 1.7-liter engine produces just 115 horsepower. This is most pronounced with the automatic transmission, where more time and space are needed to pass another vehicle, and city fuel mileage drops to 29 mpg. In other words, DX and LX models are at their best with a manual transmission and in the hands of a driver who can wring power and efficiency from the engine.
The EX models deliver livelier acceleration because they are equipped with the more powerful VTEC engine. Driving a Honda Civic EX sedan with the five-speed manual transmission is a sporty, satisfying experience. Throttle response is good at any speed because the engine extends its torque across a broad power band. The manual gearbox is smooth and precise, with notched stop points between gears. The four-speed automatic also works well, shifting quietly and smoothly.
Most fun to drive is the Civic 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, however, because the Si does not deliver the same rush of power nor does it make exciting racecar sounds. But the Si can accelerate from 0-60 mph in about 8 seconds, which is only a tick slower than the Ford Focus SVT. 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 Civic Si will understeer. (The front tires will lose grip before the rear tires.) The front and rear stabilizer bars and firmer dampers and springs are designed for sharper handling, yet the Si's ride quality is quite pleasant. At 80-90 mph, the Si feels very stable. Transient response (left, right, left) was a little squishy in the 2003 model; the larger tires that come standard on 2004 models may help address this.
The Civic Hybrid is one of the best vehicles available for drivers interested in great fuel economy and low emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the Civic Hybrid at 46/51 mpg on its City/Highway test. But the most remarkable thing about this car is the unremarkable driving experience. That's our highest complement. If you like driving the regular Honda Civic EX sedan you'll like driving the Civic Hybrid. The Hy.
You can't go wrong buying a Honda Civic, regardless of trim level. All 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 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. Its only real advantage is fuel economy, but compared to the already fuel-stingy conventional Civic, it might save you only about $100 a year. On the other hand, drivers who want to help advance a new technology that can improve the environment in the long run should consider the Civic Hybrid. It is 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.
Honda Civic DX sedan ($13,010); LX sedan ($15,360); EX sedan ($17,260); GX sedan ($TBA); LX coupe ($15,160); EX coupe ($16,860); HX coupe ($13,710); Si hatchback ($19,000); Hybrid sedan ($19,650).
East Liberty, Ohio; Alliston, Ontario; Swindon, U.K.; Japan.
Options As Tested
Honda Civic EX sedan ($17,260).
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