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First Drive

A Brand-New Civic Prepares to Strut Its Stuff

September 13, 2000|LARRY SAAVEDRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If I may borrow from a famous passage: The meek shall inherit the earth. Witness the unassuming Honda Civic, which since 1973 has sold more than 10 million units in 140 countries by appealing to the intelligent, sensible side of everyday drivers.

With the worldwide unveiling today of the 2001 Civic, the perennial bestseller undergoes the biggest change to its architecture since 1988 and first redesign since model year 1996.

But even with a new look and feel, it's not going to win blue ribbons for styling at any Concours d'Elegance, and it certainly isn't going to make our top 10 list of performance cars after we hit the SuperLotto.

What this completely re-engineered 2001 model does do quite handsomely, though, is prove that an automobile doesn't have to be idolized--like so many sports cars are--to attract a legion of supporters.

In this case, the seventh-generation Civic simply has to uphold its reputation as a dependable, no-nonsense workhorse at a reasonable price.

Although the manufacturer's sticker prices and federal fuel economy numbers won't be available until Thursday--and would-be buyers won't be able to see for themselves until Friday's official on-sale date--company sources suggest that the numbers will be in line with those of the 2000 Civic. That means the top-level 2001 EX model will cost a relative-bargain $15,000 to $18,000 and get something like 35 miles per gallon on the highway.

In other words, this Honda remains just the kind of runabout that tens of thousands of commuters fall silly in love with each year--and in its new configuration, a spacious car on the inside with subtle, eye-pleasing body refinements outside.

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Our test drives in both the coupe and sedan versions of the DX, LX and EX trim lines took us through the wilds of San Diego County, to the urban freeway interchanges downtown and then onto the picturesque mountain roads that make up the area's diverse landscape. Whatever the setting, the newly revamped platform proved to be just as driver-friendly as past versions--at least on the surface.

Indeed, the Civic has moved up from the subcompact class to win an overall Environmental Protection Agency classification as a compact. That new rating, based on an increase in interior volume, belies a 2.6-inch decrease in overall body length, which results from what American Honda calls its "Man Maximum/Machine Minimum" design philosophy.

From the cockpit of the top-trim Civic EX, in which we spent the most time, one of the first things that became apparent was the better visibility made possible by repositioned dash and front seating, which raises the hip point about an inch.

The seats are larger and offer a tad more side bolstering. The instrument panel on both the coupe and sedan offers larger meters and gauges; the gauges on the coupe feature silver highlights and special amber night illumination.

There are also plenty of nooks and crannies for CDs, pens and whatever else you choose to stockpile. Even the entry-level DX's interior offers a more luxurious feel than before. And the commuter will enjoy cup holders that can accommodate up to a 20-ounce plastic bottle.

Such improvements aside, the redesign may prove unpopular in some camps because the Civic has lost its trademark double-wishbone suspension system upfront in favor of more space-efficient MacPherson struts.

Before enthusiasts get teary-eyed, though, they should note that most of today's compacts ride on MacPherson strut-type suspensions. Even the Porsche 911 benefits by them.

That said, those familiar with the earlier platforms will realize that something is amiss with the Civic's road manners at speed. Some of the previous sportiness is gone, and the Civic is simply not as responsive as before. In hard-cornering situations, for example, the car experiences some under-steer, albeit not enough for concern.

But once we reached downtown San Diego, we came to a much different impression: In constant stop-and-go traffic, the Civic snaked its way to our destination with confidence and determination. No need for big power bursts here; the smooth shifting of our five-speed manual model and the roomier interior served its driver and passenger well.

The EX's 16-valve, 1.7-liter inline-4 uses Honda's vaunted variable-timing and electronic control system, or VTEC, to put out 127 horsepower (same as with the 2000) and 114 foot-pounds of torque at 4,800 rpm (or 7 more than that of the current Civic).

The 1.7 engine--tuned to put out a lesser 115 horses in the DX and LX--is also 7% smaller and 7% lighter than its predecessor. And this Civic is "greener" to boot, with a 50-state rating as an ultra-low-emissions vehicle.

The ULEV rating results from new, higher-density catalytic converters that reduce hydrocarbons by as much as 40%. Clean-car enthusiasts can choose among two other Civics as well: a high-mileage, lean-burn-exhaust HX and a GX model that runs on compressed natural gas.

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