Do you remember what you were doing 39 years ago...if you were even born yet? does—it brought its first into the U.S. for the 1973 model year, during the Nixon administration. And here it is in its ninth generation, offered in Coupe, Sedan, Si Coupe, Si Sedan, CNG, Hybrid and HF variants, still an economical, well-built car whose decidedly non-sexy name carries a Pavlovian feel-good aura. How, then, do you improve it?
Shorter Wheelbase, More Space, Greater Efficiency
In the Sedan's case, you make the body-in-white stiffer, 7 percent lighter and with a slightly shorter wheelbase (105.1 in. versus 106.3 for its predecessor), yet increase overall interior volume by 3.7 cu. ft. Shoulder room is up by 2.9 in., and rear leg room is increased by 1.6 in. The Coupe has fractionally less interior volume than before, but with similar increases in shoulder- and rear leg room. You also make it more fuel-efficient, with the 1.8-liter i-VTEC 4-cylinder having nearly the same output as before (140 bhp, 128 lb.-ft. of torque) but improved mileage: 28 mpg city/39 mpg hwy. That's done with higher-efficiency catalysts, friction-reducing coatings and altered valve timing on the 2-stage VTEC, but the Civic still uses a 5-speed automatic and port fuel injection. Honda says that going to a 6-speed and direct injection could vault it into the 40-mpg range, but deemed it not worth the extra cost. For the hypermiling frugalista, there's the HF model whose coefficient of drag is lowered by 4.4 percent through flush wheels, aero underbody/gas tank covers and a rear lip spoiler. These changes, a tire choice that yields a 20-percent reduction in rolling resistance, give the HF a rating of 29 mpg city/41 mpg hwy.
Civic Hybrid, CNG Models
Want higher mileage still? The Civic Hybrid now achieves 44 mpg city/44 mpg hwy, thanks to reduced friction in its 1.5-liter gasoline engine, a switch from nickel/metal-hydride batteries to lithium-ion with nearly three times the capacity, and a lighter (yet more powerful) motor that runs cooler and with less internal resistance. In a mileage competition at the car's introduction, one journalist achieved just over 60 mpg over a 10-mile loop. But going 40 mph on the expressway with, er, "gesturing" truckers streaming past on either side is not recommended for the daily commute. The CNG model continues too, with compressed natural gas filling stations preprogrammed in the optional navigation system.
You've heard of active headrests that use the force of a rearward-moving body to pivot forward, to better cradle the head in a rear-end impact? Well, Honda achieves the same anti-whiplash effect by carefully slitting the seat foam and arranging its support springs so that the occupant sinks into the seat more and meets the headrest, rather than the headrest moving forward. The Civic's electric-assist power steering, working in conjunction with the yaw-control system, will gently tug the steering wheel in the direction needed to counter a slide. And inside the interior—a cleanly modernized version of its former self—what Honda calls its i-MID (Intelligent Multi-Information Display) is standard on all but the base Civic DX model. Its 5-in. color LCD display can toggle through music, nav, trip meter and hands-free phone displays via buttons on the steering wheel.
Civic Si: Más Macho Performance
For 2012, Honda gives the 2.0-liter i-VTEC the heave-ho and puts a 2.4-liter i-VETC engine in its place. With 201 bhp and 170 lb.-ft. of torque (the latter figure a quantum leap from the 2.0's 139 lb.-ft.), the new engine lacks a bit of its predecessor's high-end yelp, but more than compensates with its super-strong midrange twist. Superimpose the old/new torque curves on a graph, and it's foothills versus mountains. And the sounds are glorious—growl, rasp and shriek can be had in a single sweep of the tach needle.
True to the Civic Si Concept that bowed at the Detroit Auto Show earlier this year, the new production Si evolves the "one-motion" design theme of its forebear, with a more angular nose, a mesh grille, chiseled no-flab body sides and a rear spoiler with two vents near its center. The concept's 19-in. wheels do give way to 17-in. alloys with the same basic styling, shod with Michelin Pilot Exalto tires, size 215/45-17. The overall look is ripped, leaner and angrier, and the greenhouse gets fixed panes ahead of the side-door glass, and thinner A-pillars for improved forward visibility. As with the last Si, both 2-door coupe and 4-door sedan body styles are offered, and the interior carries forward with the controversial double-tier instrument panel. The tachometer looks a little lonely, swimming around in the large lower recess, but the addition of sequential shift lights backs up the sportiness of the grippy, amply bolstered seats and red-stitched steering wheel leather.
We predict 6-second 0-60 times, and quarter-mile clockings in the high 14s. Honda is also claiming improved highway mileage, estimated at 31 mpg. And it's a hoot to drive, as we found on an autocross course that Honda set up for us. Handling is crisp, with flatter cornering and a firmer ride than I remember from the last Si. Steering weights up nicely as the corner tightens and torque steer is almost a non-issue—impressive as there's so much more torque. And the 6-speed's shifter is simply one of the best on the planet.
Civics are nothing if not affordable, and the ninth-gen cars continue the legacy. The Civic Sedan—$15,805 to $23,905; the Civic Coupe—$15,605 to $23,455; the Civic Si Sedan—$22,405 to $23,905; the Civic Si Coupe—$22,205 to $23,905; the Civic HF—$19,455; the Civic Hybrid Sedan—$24,050 to $26,750. The CNG version's price has yet to be announced.