Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Spirit Back in Civic's Eighth Generation Re-Design

Here's one of the big things I love about Hondas. The first time I got behind the wheel of the all-new Civic and grasped the five-speed stick shift's lever, I realized its top offered a perfectly shaped indention in exactly the right spot for my next-to-little finger.

Then I noticed that the overall shape of the lever's top was sculpted to fit the palm of my hand. Sure enough, moving the shift lever seemed natural and easy. A small detail to be sure, but one that is important in making driver and car feel as one.

Somebody at Honda had to spend some time studying the way the human hand holds a shift lever, the angle at which the arm is most comfortable, the right distance from the driver's torso to the shift lever and so forth. That kind of devotion to getting it right down to the smallest detail is at root a major part of the reason for Honda's spectacular success.

There is much else to talk about with this eighth generation of one of Honda's best selling models. The basic platform remains the same, a front-wheel-drive econocar powered by an economical but high revving four cylinder engine, an ergonomically advanced interior to comfortably accommodate four adults, spirited handling and an affordable price.

But new for 2006 is some very sexy sheet metal featuring a marked cab-forward sort of orientation, a very fast windshield and backlight and a stance that suggests a vehicle that is ready for all comers. It just plain looks great on the road and sitting in the driveway, at least in my humble opinion.

There is a new standard engine in the Civic sedan and coupe that displaces 1.8 liter and produces 140 horsepower. Mated to the five-speed stick, the engine feels a little short on torque in the lower and middle rev ranges, but is quite smooth, returns excellent gas mileage and makes a gorgeous sound near redline.

There is also a hot new 197 horsepower 2.0 liter in the Civic Si and the gas/electric Hybrid remains in the lineup as well. I've not yet sampled either the Si or the Hybrid but will do so soon.

Inside, the Civic's main instrumental panel is now a two-tier affair that puts a digital speedometer reading on the top tier and the tach on the lower tier that is also closer to the driver. Again, a small detail that indicates serious thinking.

I found the front seats a little difficult to fix in a comfortable position for longer drives, but outward visibility is superb, the stereo and environmental controls are all easy to use and decipher and there is more room for arms and legs front and back.

At $18,260 base retail for the EX coupe, the Civic is not as affordable as some of its strongest competitors, most notably the Chevy Cobalt and Mazda3. But the Civic is everything good it has always been and more. And that counts for a lot in my book.

This review was originally written for The Washington Examiner newspapers in the Washington, D.C. region and the Patuxent Publications newspapers in the Baltimore suburbs.