Friday, August 12, 2011

Thinking About Cars: Honda Civic

The Honda Civic has been around as a discrete model for 38 years.  Nothing else except the Porsche 911, which has had a longer production run, comes close.

You could argue that the Toyota Corolla is in fact older, and as a nameplate it is, but it has undergone larger changes in its basic architecture (formerly a rear driver, for instance) than the Civic ever did.  From one end of its existence to the other, the Honda's evolution has been almost linear, contrasted to the Corolla's watershed transition to front drive.

At its introduction, the Civic was a small car with a small engine driving small front wheels.  It got good mileage.  The engine ran in the opposite direction from almost every other engine on the road.  It was simple and reliable.  I had one.  It weighed 1700lbs with me in it.  I could park it anywhere, it was so small only a motorcycle had more parking choices than I did.
 This is a nicely enhanced 1978 model, probably lots of new 
goodies under the hood.  But the body looked just 
like this.  Image from Honda Tuning Magazine

A few years down the road and the Civic was a tiny bit larger.  To cope with larger Americans in its developing market, it got a somewhat larger engine.  Honda got a handle on the dreadful rusting issues that plagued their little cars.

A few more years down the road and the Civic was updated with angular styling that still evoked the original slightly frowny expression of the predecessors.  Mileage stayed fantastic.  Now the Civic could be had in a decidely sporty flavor, the CRX Si which, with over 90bhp on tap and a feathery 2000lb curb weight, actually lived up to its promise.  In the emissions-strangled 80s when the big 5.0 Mustang delivered all of 210hp and the Camaro's "big" engine was a peculiar anemic 305 from the GM stables, the "Crixie" Civic was economical, an absolute blast to drive both in straight lines and through corners (unlike the Camaro), and even easy to insure.  Roads all over America were riddled with them.
An excellent image from Car and Driver, 1985 CRX Si

Then in the 90s Honda noticed that curves were all the rage.  Not on the roads, on the cars.  What Ford had begun with the Taurus and carried to an outlandish expression with the suppository-shaped third generation of that model, Honda and most other makers picked up on.  The Civic became something of an egg.

Starting about 1996 but achieving full fruition in the current generation in '06, the Civic is a sleek one-box design.  It doesn't even feel right to call it a one-box design, because boxes have corners.  The Civic has none.  It is an ovoid of aerodynamic idealism, carried out with grudging compromises for the realities of wheels and doors and oh yes, human occupants.
A 2012 Civic

The aerodynamic advances, in conjunction with serious engine advances, transmission advances and lord knows what else, are why the new Civic, weighing about 1000lbs more than the old CRX Si and packing about twice the horsepower, still gets better fuel mileage.  It can even be had as a hybrid, which calls into serious question whether you would ever want the Insight, Honda's purpose-built hybrid model.  Unlike the Toyota Prius, the Insight is small and dreadful, an ill-wrought response to what was a seriously well-executed initial effort from Toyota.  The hybrid Civic is, on the other hand, a Civic that in city driving especially sips like a teetotaller, an already thrifty and very useful car made even thriftier while giving up almost none of its original utility.  It's a better choice than the current Insight.

I had a 1978 Civic, with the rare Hondamatic "semi-automatic" transmission.  It didn't shift itself, but it didn't have a clutch pedal, either.  1st took you to about 50mph, and 2nd took your everywhere else.  You could skip first if you wanted.  It was so compact it was ridiculously easy to park.  All four corners were clearly visible from the driver's seat, so planting it anywhere there was room was almost as easy as walking.  Shoot, as compact economy cars went it was even quick, the torque converter allowing the engine to leap up to its torque peak and hold there as the car gathered speed with impressive rapidity.

Like your first girlfriend, your first night away from home and your first day in a college classroom, there are things you remember, and that old Civic was my first car.  I would give rather a lot to have it back.  It was a very good little car, and I wish new cars were as simple and unabashedly fun as it was.

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