JOLIET, Ill. -- On a trek out from Chicago's Loop to a curvy new car track at Joliet, we play a numbers game with freeways -- south on the 90 and further with the 94, then west on the 80 -- all the while checking off different kinds of numbers that register as first impressions while steering a new rendition of Honda's small car stable, the Civic.
A four-door notchback sedan is one of four variations for the new treatment of Civic, which amounts to the eighth generation of designs for this best-selling series. In the course of a long day, we steer multiple trim variations of this latest Civic on freeways and back roads expanding out from metro Chicago and discover in the process that this champ of the small cars exhibits nimble road manners, comfortable accommodations and downright thrifty fuel economy scores. Put a ruler to the new 2006 Civic and its 2005 predecessor, and the numbers reveal a longer and wider package with the wheelbase expanding by 1.5 inches.
The expansive passenger compartment features a new arrangement in seats for five with more comfort for passengers and more on-board safety systems to protect them. Civic's engine also grows in size (to 1.8 liters) and output (to 140 hp), yet the four-cylinder plant earns ULEV-2 certification as an ultra low emission vehicle and can run as high as 40 miles for every gallon of gasoline burned. The new package design looks sleek and futuristic. Note the slick aerodynamic style with that ultra-fast windshield rake, curt and sporty overhangs front and rear, and minimal gaps between tires and fenders.
Civic as a sedan features a one-motion profile which varies from the three-box mold of previous editions. And check the clean line of Civic's narrow front grille with a flashy streak of chrome tying together the corner-mounted headlamp clusters. Civic's keen package design is a significant departure for the series -- and a remote concept from the original version, Honda's first Civic in America, the CVCC hatchback of 1973 which topped the EPA miserly fuel list.
Subsequent designs in 1980 and 1984 expanded the pint-size CVCC concept, and by 1989, when some production shifted to the United States, the Civic was gaining in content and sophistication. Beginning with the sixth generation of 1996, all Civics for domestic consumption were being produced in North America, with sedans and coupes flowing from Honda's engine and assembly plants in Ohio. Then for the seventh generation of 2001, Honda greatly increased the size of Civic's passenger compartment, which elevated Civic from subcompact to compact status.
For the eighth treatment for Civic of 2006, cabin volume actually retreats but only by modest bits -- half an inch less headroom for front-seat riders and an inch or so less legroom for rear-seat riders. Yet there's more breadth to the structure and, seemingly, more elbow room or wiggle room, so the impression from passengers inside is one of non-cramped quarters despite the compact-car classification. Also, that sharp cant to the windshield on the inside carves out a deep dash and adds inches of space.
Honda's cockpit stylists took advantage of the extra dashboard room by designing a twin-deck instrument panel. Immediately ahead of the steering wheel is the near section containing a big analog tachometer, plus an odometer with trip meter. The color scheme is a cool blue with white backlit buttons. Further ahead of the steering wheel -- and within a driver's line-of-sight -- is the second section for the instrument panel. This area in the shape of a crescent houses the vivid digital speedometer, plus gauges for fuel level and engine temperature.
Seat layout for Civic's cabin is conventional, with dual buckets up front and a bench for three in back. The height-adjustable front seats are separated by a floor-mounted console with space for the transmission's gear stick and stow spaces for several cups, a collection of CDs and pocket change for toll booths and parking meters. A center stack forward of the console tilts toward the windshield and houses audio and climate gear.
Air bags are poised around the passenger compartment. The standard issue includes frontal air bags for front seats plus front torso side air bags, and there are curtain-style air bags tucked into roof rails above side windows for front and back seats. All new sedans in the Civic series employ a four-cylinder aluminum engine that increases in displacement from 1.7 to 1.8 liters and still achieves that ULEV-2 score.
The aluminum 1.8-liter in-line-four plant is fitted with Honda's special i-VTEC (variable value timing and lift electronic control) valvetrain to precisely manage engine breathing and combustion in order to maximize horsepower and disperse torque across a broad band. The plant generates 140 hp at 6300 rpm plus torque of 128 lb-ft at 4300 rpm. Transmission choices for manual or automatic shifting draw from five-gear systems.
The five-speed manual is a lightweight new unit with higher torque capacity and a shorter and firmer shifter. The computer-controlled electronic automatic -- first five-speed automatic in Civic's line -- enhances acceleration in the first four gears and boosts fuel economy in the overdrive fifth gear. Civic's stiff new structural system supports a new suspension with MacPherson struts mounted in front and a compact multi-link double wishbone design for the back. The ride quality feels smooth and comfortable, and even rumpled pavement fails to upset the Civics in our tests.
We also note a quality of quietness in this series. A stronger structure, in conjunction with new engine mounts plus special noise and vibration-damping insulation stuffed into Civic's body cavities, work together to tone down sound and vibration, while wind noise has been negated by streamlining Civic's shell.
Net effect: At speed, riders may converse in regular voices without noise distractions. That's not a trait found in the typical compact. Honda casts the new Civic sedan in three trim designations -- entry-level DX, uplevel LX and loaded EX. The price chart dips as low as $14,560 for Civic DX with a manual shifter.