Our review of the redesigned 2022 Honda Civic sedan is coming on 6/16, until then we decided to look back at the Civic’s greatest hits and how Honda’s iconic compact car has evolved over the years.
From the November 1988 issue of Car and Driver.
If you are the kind of person who thinks a small car is a small car is a small car, you may be excused from reading this review. Probably nothing we can say will alter your belief that the Honda Civic LX is as interchangeable with other small travel appliances as one toaster oven is with another.
If, however, your automotive palate is sophisticated enough to savor cars as if they were fine wine, you will find that the Civic LX four-door sedan is a budget-priced treat. The 1988 vintage offers nuance, integrity, and full-bodied flavor. Its dynamics are robust, and its personality is buoyant.
We are not prepared to pronounce the Civic LX the best small car in the world, but it is arguably the best small sedan you can buy for $11,930—or anything close. Other small cars go faster or corner better, and most of the Civic’s competitors deliver approximately the same amount of people-and-cargo room. The Civic LX, like other Honda products, is rarely at the head of its class in any category. Its leadership derives from its being near the top in almost every category.
The Civic has been winning small-car taste-offs for most of this decade, and the reason why is anything but a secret. Most car companies leave their cars in production for at least five years and as much as ten. Honda, however, insists on keeping its designs fresher than anyone else’s; new models have only three years to thrive—four years at the outside—before giving way to replacements.
The 1988 Civic is the third all-new small Honda of the eighties, and each one has improved on its predecessor in virtually every area. For 1988, just about everything between the front and rear license-plate brackets was once again reformulated. Honda quite literally expanded on the Civic theme by making its new car longer, lower, and wider. It is also roomier, more powerful, better equipped, and more refined.
About the only things unchanged are the model lineup and the factories where the various versions are assembled. The Civic family unit is populated by a three-door hatchback, a four-door sedan, a five-door wagon—with either front- or four-wheel drive—and the three-door, two-seat CRX sportster. More than three-quarters of all Civic four-doors sold in America will be screwed together at Honda’s U.S. plant in Marysville, Ohio; the rest will be shipped from the land of the rising yen.
The LX four-door is the little Accord of the lineup, the most thoroughly equipped Civic ever. The LX’s standard-equipment labor-saving devices include power steering, power windows, power door locks, power brakes, power mirrors, and remote releases for the trunk and the fuel-filler door. In addition, the steering-column angle is adjustable, the seats and doors are covered in a thick woven fabric, the instrumentation includes a tach, and the outboard rear-seat riders are protected by three-point harnesses. The rear seat flips down for extra carrying capacity and can be locked in the up position for added security. (If heaping luxo gear on a penny-pincher sedan upsets your sensibilities or taxes your cash flow, Honda offers the base four-door DX model with less adornment.)
Honda engineers would be the first to agree that gluing a truckload of extras on to an aging machine does not a new car make. That’s why everything mechanical about the new Civic is freshly pressed as well. The LX is built on an all-new floorpan, is powered by an all-new engine, and rides on an all-new suspension. The new car’s wheelbase is 1.9 inches longer than before, and its body is two inches wider. Both changes stretch the passenger cell. Overall length is up by 3.3 inches—some of it added to the trunk, which is roomier by almost a cubic foot.
The Civic’s new engine, like the old, displaces 1.5 liters, is cast entirely in aluminum alloy, and is topped by a single overhead cam. Now, however, the camshaft opens sixteen valves instead of twelve, which allows freer breathing and produces more power. A twin-throttlebody fuel-injection system feeds the hungry cylinders, which say “thank you” to the tune of 92 horsepower at 6000 rpm, a 21-percent improvement. The transmission choices are a new four-speed automatic and a do-it-yourself five-speed manual.
Honda did not scrimp on suspension design, either. The new Civic uses unequal-length control arms in front, the same layout that works so well on the Prelude. In back, the Civic rides on the latest in multilink setups, consisting of a single trailing arm, two lateral links, and one toe-control link per side.
The Civic LX, we’re happy to report, does more than sit there and bristle with up-to-date technology. It puts it all to work in a way that’s downright friendly. It looks good, feels good, and demonstrates careful attention to the fine points of carbuilding.
Settling into the firm driver’s bucket elicits the first “aha.” Honda designers labor to lower the cowl height of each new model as if their success ensured divine salvation. On the new Civic, the top of the cowl is lower by more than an inch, and so is the top of the dash. The window line starts so close to belt-buckle height that looking out through the tall windshield makes you think you’re perched behind the wheel of a kiddie car.
The toy-car sensation is enhanced by a shrunken instrument pod, delicate roof pillars, expansive side glass, and a stubby shifter barely larger than a video-game joystick. Before you so much as turn the key you find yourself thinking, “Hey, this is fun.”
There’s no letdown when you put the machinery into motion. Driving the Civic makes you wonder why other carmakers have been so slow to learn that simpler is better, that function beats flash every time, that refinement is as important as performance.
The Civic’s interior seems inspired by those found in the big-name European brands; it is stylish and uncluttered, and its ergonomics are almost flawless. The switches and controls are simple, low-key, flat-black devices perfectly situated for convenient use. The light switch is on the turn-signal lever. The wiper switch is on an opposing stalk. The radio has—hallelujah—an old-fashioned on-off/volume knob, and the power-window switches are arranged vertically and canted toward the driver, so they fall readily to finger tip.
The small things are by no means everything that Honda has gotten right. Your hands, your ears, and the seat of your pants will report more good news as you roll down the road. The Civic feels like quality. The engine sings the high notes like Aretha Franklin; no matter how hard you push, it never sounds hoarse. The clutch takeup is gentle. The gearbox snicks into each gear with Formula 1 precision. The vibrations and shudders once associated with small four-cylinder sedans have been damped and deadened until all that remains is a mellifluous hum.
The Civic hums beautifully, all right, but it doesn’t hum quickly. Any thoughts of the LX qualifying as a sports sedan evaporate with the first hard sprint. It takes a full 11.0 seconds to reach 60 mph. From 70 mph on up, the wait for more speed is a long one. Top speed is a pedestrian 103 mph.
That’s too bad, because the Civic otherwise cries out for enthusiastic driving. The suspension is taut, the cornering is flat, and the steering is sharp—maybe too sharp at times, but unfailingly accurate. There is enough grip (0.77 g) to make chasing the asphalt serpent entertaining, but all the fun happens going into the corners; exiting them with your right foot buried in the carpet can’t quite coax the grin meter off the peg.
Where the Civic really shines, aside from everyday civic duties, is on the open road. You can drive this car cross-country and not feel you’ve been banished to a penalty box for bad behavior. The suspension takes the thud out of the bad pavement, but keeps you connected to the road surface. The steering has strong lane discipline. The engine is relaxed enough and the wind noise is low enough that cruising in the 80-to-85-mph range is quite comfortable.
Only two improvements are needed to elevate the long-haul comfort rating from very good to excellent. First, the rear-seat passengers deserve a more supportive lower cushion—raising it another inch off the floor would be a fine start. Second, the front buckets need to be modified so the upper cushions can be tilted forward more. The steering-wheel rim is too long a reach for many drivers.
Those few negatives prove only that the perfect car remains to be built. Imperfections and all, the Civic is still one smooth operator. It goes about its business as if its every part were coated with Teflon. It’s fun to drive in the daily rush and a fine machine for making long-distance getaways.
Honda can leave the Civic alone for the next three years and the car will continue to cast a large shadow. Squeeze another twenty horses under the low hood, however, and the Civic LX could become much more than the best small sedan for the money. It could become one of the best small sedans of all time.
Once, just once, I’d like to drive a Honda of some description and come away with the conviction that the company isn’t so damn competent after all. That other companies are just as good. That there are plenty of other cars around that deliver such exceptional value for the money.
Well, the Honda Civic LX isn’t that Honda. Not even close.
When I got into the Civic LX the other day, it took about two minutes under way before I found myself ready to recommend the car to anyone who had twelve grand to spend and a burning need for four-person transportation that’s not boring.
Actually, the Honda is boring, but in the way you like basic transportation to be: it doesn’t break, it doesn’t look funny, and it’s absolutely predictable.
I made my daily 100-mile commute in comfort, humming along at speeds of up to 75 or 80 mph. The seats seemed a bit small, and they are covered in a fabric that would be right at home on a recliner in a double-width mobile-home, but, otherwise, you just won’t get much more automotive synergism for your money.
What can I say? Honda is damn competent. —William Jeanes
A surprising number of carmakers make no bones about their admiration for Hondas and their desire to imitate them. After driving this Civic LX, you can why.
It performs with uniform superiority, while most of its competitors offer a few peaks of excellence surrounded by valleys of mediocrity. Take the Civic’s chassis, for instance. Though it sets no record for cornering grip, it sticks tenaciously and responds precisely when hammered hard. It also provides a supple, well-controlled ride that would do credit to many larger, more expensive cars. The same goes for the Civic’s driveline.
Examine this car, from the finish of its trunk to the tactile feedback of its defroster switch, and you’ll find nothing but excellence. The Civic may not be inexpensive, but it’s still the gold standard of economy sedans, for consumers and competitors alike. —Csaba Csere
What am I going to tell you that you don’t already know? Surprises? There aren’t any. New insights? Nope. Anything that you haven’t heard before? No way. Let’s just say it and get it over with: the Honda Civic is one of the best-value subcompact sedans/fun-to-drive bargains on the road. And it has been that for a long time.
The Civic does nearly everything uncannily well. Try to find a better-built car in this price class. You won’t. Try to think of a better way to lay out the dashboard and the controls. Try to imagine a budget-minded car that goes down the road with more smoothness, precision, and gemlike feel than Honda’s wonder. Good luck. They don’t come any better than this.
The Civic is not without competitors—and there are some good ones. But none of them matches the Civic’s all-around excellence. As a matter of fact, the Civic can…hey, wait a minute. This is getting boring.
You know the routine here. The Civic LX is a great car, okay? I’m late for my vacation. —Arthur St. Antoine
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