Civic Revolution: Honda Civic (2001)
Tearing down a mountain hairpin at close to insane speeds, with the engine growling contentedly and the tires humming but not complaining. A twist of the wheel to repoint the car, a prod of the throttle and away we went, fast and sure. Can’t wait for the next curve. Yes, we are talking about the Honda Civic here. This wasn’t at all the Civic road test that I expected. I thought we’d be driving along some straight, open roads with perhaps some bumpy surfaces thrown in to prove the car’s ride, and so on. Instead, we followed a 38 km route, wrapped around Lake Caliraya and Laguna de Bay in Cavinti. All twists and turns. So much the better.
Not that you’d expect this, looking at the car. From the outside, you’d think that the old Civic was merely facelifted instead of changed for an all-new model. Make no mistake, though: this 2001 model is all-new. Almost everything that you can see, and indeed most parts that you can’t, have been rethought, repositioned, or outright replaced with something better. Starting with that little device that’s the heart of all Hondas—the engine. The lineup begins with an upgrade to the 1.5 sohc, still without a VTEC head, apparently for marketing reasons. Horsepower was bumped up slightly to 110 ps/5800 rpm, from 105 ps/6400 rpm and torque to 138 Nm, from 136 Nm.
The second unit is an all-new 1.6 sohc VTEC, featuring 3 cam settings instead of the previous 2. This 3-stage VTEC uses different cam settings for the two intake valves per cylinder, for low, medium and high revs. At low revs, one valve is opened with medium lift while the other is barely cracked open. This promotes swirl in the combustion chamber, which generates higher torque. At medium revs, both valves are made to follow the medium lift for good midrange response. At high revs, the engine computer engages a third cam lobe that opens the valves sooner and for a longer duration. This engine is good for 130 ps and 149 Nm, 5 ps and 1 Nm more than the old 1.6.
We don’t get the US’ 1.7 unit, or Japan’s 1.8, which comes in a juicy DOHC flavor. Or the new Type R’s 200-bhp 2 liter. For now, that is; we can only hope that Honda just might decide to stoke our desires one or two years down the road.
Well, the 1.6 engine and its accessories seem to have shrunk about half a size. This is apparent, even as the engine bay itself has been squeezed tighter. Indeed, the front overhang has been reduced by 55 mm; look closely and you’d notice this difference from the previous Civic. The famous double wishbone front suspension, long a distinguishing feature of the Civic, has been changed to McPherson struts. Double wishbones are usually superior to McPhersons in steering feel and handling, and this seeming sacrilege had Civic fans up in arms when the change was announced. We would soon find out if were right to be concerned, or just making a mountain out of an A-arm molehill.
The Civic’s trademark large headlights follow generally the same shape as before, but are more triangular now, and have a different reflector design. Pity that the face of the hatchback (again, Europe and Japan only), which is more sharply raked and aggressive, wasn’t used for the sedan.
The beltline crease going from front to back is still there, but now it’s been aligned with the door handles, just like a certain German marque. Honda engineers and marketers freely admit that the 3-series profile was one of the design targets of the Civic. Ditto the rear window, which is now recessed into the C-pillar—the rear glass and rubber moldings do not protrude into the airflow. The radio antenna is mounted onto the glass, too. Overall, it looks as if the old Civic decided to have its suit pressed; it looks less aggressive, but slicker and neater.
The car itself has been shortened by 15 mm. Wheelbase has remained the same, while the rear overhang was extended by 40 mm to increase trunk volume, by about that of one hand carried luggage.
It’s taller, too, by 50 mm. The space saved in the engine compartment is gained by the front passengers. Along with these, the most significant contributor to passenger space is the flat rear floor. No more center bulge, no more splayed knees and displaced feet. Rear center passengers everywhere will want to plant a kiss, or at least execute a bow, to the Honda engineers who made this possible. Why no other carmaker has bothered to do this before (even the CR-V has a slight bulge in the back) is a mystery to us. It’s no miracle; some exhaust components were mounted transversely to eliminate the bulge. Other details that contribute to the larger interior are cabin and map lights mounted flush with the headliner, and grab handles that roll up when not in use. The door pulls still intrude into the rear space, though, and could have been made narrower.
The dash and center console are still conventional but now look more mature. Soft-feel aircon and ventilation knobs, borrowed from the CR-V but improved in feel, are now mounted in a vertical array near the driver. Beside the vent switches are a 1-din radio and a tray. All are in an area bulged outward to be nearer to the driver. Center console now has a cardholder, two small cubbies and a lidded cup holder. The instruments are the usual four gauges, with slightly enlarged diameters and more easily-read fonts.
Well, we could hardly wait to spin those gauges to life, particularly the left hand gauge which turned red at 6800 rpm. We settled into a teal LXi M/T and started her up. As ever, launching the car is intuitively easy, the clutch soft and easily modulated. The gearshift is smooth and clicks into each gear with precision, but not quite up to the Accord’s joy-to-shift manual. The 1.5’s real life begins at 3000 rpm, and the engine is only too happy to rev. Being a non-VTEC, the engine doesn’t change its noise to race-engine sweet, but it’s acceptably smooth. The engine had no problem accelerating the 1103-kg car even on uphill stretches, with four persons on board.
Next we sampled an automatic VTi. The 3-stage VTEC has more brawn at lower rpm than before. Pity that the transition to the high-lift settings doesn’t produce quite the same surge and ripping-air sound anymore, but the wider range of settings does make for a more relaxed engine. A relaxed VTEC?! We can’t wait for the DOHC!
The automatic transmissions are smooth as silk; only the dip in the tach needle will tell you that the gearbox has shifted up. However, the autobox is still not as responsive as the mind-reading Toyota Echo’s, which downshifts at the slightest prod of the throttle or the merest uphill grade. The Civic’s still needs a firm planting of the gas pedal to produce a downshift, and it doesn’t hold gear as much as we’d like it to. As an in-town device, though, it can’t be faulted.
If we had any lingering doubts that the Civic is all-new inside and out, our blasts up and down the mountain roads soon wiped them out. The car is quite a revelation to drive. The steering is excellent, not just tracking precisely, but communicating! If the previous car’s steering was Marcel Marceau, this one was Robin Williams—talking incessantly and entertainingly about the road surface and grip level. Double wishbone fans, have no fear: the retuned steering makes up for whatever feel and handling was lost in the transition to struts.
That steering, by the way, is still the conventional rack-and-pinion, merely relocated within the engine bay. European Honda’s Electric Power Steering, which replaces the power steering pump with an electric motor, was a casualty of cost.
The rear suspension still follows a double wishbone geometry, but the shocks have been shortened and relocated to under the car’s floor itself; this to increase trunk space. The rear suspension is a good partner to the front, tracking obediently. It bottomed out only in the worst kinds of bumps and uneven roads.
Braking is nothing to complain about. The front disc / rear drum setup sloughed off speed well enough, but pedal feel is somewhat soggy and can still be improved.
Handling is still characterized by understeer, but is much closer to neutral than before. Neither does the car roll uncomfortably like its Accord sibling. This one tilts but not excessively, even through the longest hairpins.
Compared the present Corolla, we have to declare no contest in the handling department. Ditto versus the Lynx in the ride department, and the Astra in steering and acceleration response. Each of those cars might trump the Civic in two or three aspects, but overall the Civic is still the best drive among the midsize Japanese (or Japanese-American) cars.
Sadly, Honda chose not to equip the new Civics with catalytic converters, and emissions are only up to Euro Step 1 standards. Other cars like the RAV4 are already up to Euro Step 3, while all new European cars are already at Euro Step 4. We hope that Honda will reconsider its decision not to fit the catalytic converters, and will equip all their cars by year-end at no additional cost.
Speaking of cost, the LXi , with all power features, radio/cassette player, third brake light and cloth trim, goes for PHP 625,000 (MT)/PHP 645,000 (AT). The VTi adds the 1.6 VTEC-3, single CD, map lights and keyless entry. Prices are PHP 678,000 (MT) / PHP 698,000 (AT). The top-of-the-range, auto-only VTi-S is the only one with ABS and EBD and dual airbags, plus an MP3-ready CD player. That goes for a PHP798,000. Our pick would be the VTi manual transmission. We can still remember when these cars topped out at less than 500 thou; that was just four years ago, but might as well be in the ancient past. Compared with its competitors, the Civic is good value, but fewer buyers can afford the whopping price tags.
Helping to ease the high initial price of ownership are the reduced maintenance requirements. As a measure of how confident Honda is in its new baby, they have increased the warranty coverage, to 100,000 km (!) and 3 years, bumper-to-bumper. Engine oil and filter needs to be changed only every 10,000 km/6 months (compared to the previous 5000 km/3 months); brake, power steering and manual transmission fluid changed only every 60,000 km / 36 months (from 40,000 km / 24 months); and engine coolant is good for the life of the car (10 years/200,000 km).
Perhaps the only trait standing between this car and runaway success is its conservative styling. We can only speculate that Honda chose to take the road already traveled for the sedans, because they’re already market leaders in the US and Asia. They’ve left the more radical styling for the hatchback, which needs to attract more European buyers. It’s a make-or-break decision, as on the curved shoulders of the Civic rests the continued independence of Honda as a carmaker.
If you’re the type who can give up flash for substance, then this car should be at the top of your list: under the skin Honda has worked aggressively to make this car significantly better to own and drive. Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi and Ford each have the next move, as they have yet to introduce their new midsize sedans. They better move fast, though—Target Civic is already moving, and quite quickly, too.
By Jason Ang | Photos By Ulysses Ang