Tested: 2001 Honda Civic EX Coupe Grows Up
From the Archive: Honda's new seventh-generation Civic gets closer to its real customers, and perhaps a step away from the die-hard sports-compact enthusiasts.
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 2000 issue of Car and Driver.
So, what should one expect at the introduction of Honda's seventh-generation Civic? A completely different car? No, of course not. The Civic evolves, it does not reinvent itself. Predictably, then, the claims for the new Civic range are mainly unsurprising.
After intense research into the needs of existing Civic owners, the car's interior space has been enlarged. The Civic moves from the EPA subcompact-category borderline safely into the compact category, with 2.6 extra cubic feet of interior volume and almost two extra inches of rear legroom. There are improvements in efficiency (all models are Ultra Low-Emission Vehicle certified), and improvements in performance (the new engine is up from 1.6 to 1.7 liters in size, thanks to a 4.4mm stroke increase, yet weighs less and takes up less space).
In DX and LX models, power increases from 106 to 115 horsepower, while torque increases from 103 pound-feet at 4600 rpm to 110 at 4500 rpm. In EX models (like the coupe you see here), which use Honda's VTEC-E engine, power remains unchanged at 127 horsepower at 6300 rpm, but the torque improves from 107 pound-feet at 5500 rpm to 114 at a more usable 4800 rpm.
Of the various changes made to the Civic range, the most surprising is Honda's adoption of a strut-type front suspension. The engineers say it helped them shorten the nose (by enabling them to raise the steering gearbox) and also improve impact-absorption performance. Good reasons both, yet we feel slightly disappointed at the disappearance of Honda's elegant and nimble double-control-arm setup. The 2001 Civic's trailing-arm, multilink rear suspension remains unaltered in principle, but its shortened trailing arms do without their forward-mounted locating links in the interest of space, making possible a flat, tunnel-less floor.
A more clearly differentiated Civic coupe debuts as a 2001 model alongside the sedan, sharing only the sedan's front clip, powertrain, and suspension. Despite its unique windshield, doors, and fastback bodywork, the coupe retains identical wheelbase and track dimensions (which tells you the floor pans are common). The coupe is, in fact, 0.1 inch longer overall than the sedan.
Even with a roofline 1.6 inches lower than the four-door's (the previous fastback stood just 0.6 inch shorter), the two-door's interior space is slightly better than in the preceding model. Unfortunately, the headroom in our EX test car was actually fractionally worse than in last year's car, due, we're told, to a raised seat hip point (intended to ease access) and not the sunroof that comes standard on EX models.
But since the car fulfills the needs of a hypothetical buyer named Jennifer (according to Honda's marketing types, who should know), there ought to be enough room unless this particular Jennifer is atypically tall for a woman.
But vast interior space isn't what coupes are about, and here the decision to better differentiate the Civic models will probably pay off. With the longer door and lower roofline, the fastback has a more steeply raked A-pillar, a more wedge-shaped glasshouse, and a shorter roof. Its grille has a single crossbar instead of two and a body-color top-grille garnish rather than the four-door's chrome strip.
At the rear, a lower taillight position and an angular cut-line set two-doors apart from the other Civics. Inside, you find the same new, large instrument panel and rationalized center-console design utilized across the model line. The moldings are attractively designed, with contrasting textures and titanium-colored trim highlights to help deny the car's low-budget origins.
As can be expected from a new Civic, the structure is stiffer in both torsion and bending, and a lot of attention was paid to silencing and smoothing the car's roadgoing dynamics, as well as to improving its crash resistance. The use of high-strength steel in parts of the body, along with some clever techniques for transferring impact forces into the floor, have resulted in expectations for excellent crash ratings, including a four-star SINCAP rating (for side impacts), a five-star NCAP rating (for frontal impacts), and a "good" Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rating (for offset frontal collisions).
Two-door models get a unique set of body-structure reinforcements intended to provide the car with appropriate ride-and-handling characteristics, and that includes a mid-floor crossmember and floor gussets, center-pillar stiffeners, reinforced front-seat brackets, lower and upper A-pillar stiffeners, an instrument-panel beam, and a rear bulkhead.
As a result, the car has a plush ride and an unflappable poise that belies its compact classification. The interior is reasonably quiet (72 dBA) at 70 mph, with tire roar better controlled than in the old car.
As we've come to expect with every successive new Honda, the levels of refinement are on a higher plateau. The engine note is more muted, and the typical Honda induction sound has been turned down. The lower torque peak also helps keep the distant purr from the 1.7-liter engine from raising its voice, since redlining the engine is not often necessary.
Abetting the newly civilized engine is a light clutch teamed with a fast and fluid five-speed manual transmission. The synchromesh in Hondas has always been very good, and the same is true for this car, where you can snap shifts off as fast as you can coordinate hands and feet. In addition, the excellent throttle response contributes to seamless double-clutch downshifts, for those who still indulge in that arcane practice.
Brake-pedal feel is also good in the new Civic, enabling 70-mph panic stops in just 186 feet, rear drum brakes notwithstanding. As usual in Hondas, all the controls work together in pleasing harmony, yet the Civic still feels, at first, as if its primary mission is to convey young Jennifer to work and play in complete comfort.
The ride feels a tad soft, and the rear shocks allow a little float off undulations, as if the rebound valving had been relaxed. But no, Honda's engineers say it was only the rear bushing durometers that were softened. Sure enough, the Civic's poise does not evaporate as the speed increases. It steers nicely, holds its line, and pushes into progressive understeer that responds in a very linear way to throttle adjustments.
And our EX model is very forgiving. You can dial up some front-tire howl on a curve and then tune the pitch of the sound with changes at the throttle or a caress of the brake pedal. With a front roll center 2.8 inches lower than the rear's, the car's roll motions seem very well arrested from the driver's seat.
One soon realizes what a great compromise has been rendered here. The Civic is a slick, easy-to-drive car that is still rewarding for the sporty driver. It has amazing stability and allows serious corner speed for a modestly shod, softly sprung mass-market car.
Sure, there are some aspects that niggle. That bobbed nose looks overly short from some angles, particularly since the overhang at the back is so large. Also, thanks to the adoption of those struts up front, the cowl is higher than in Civics of yore, and since the windshield has a fairly severe rake, the sightline across the base seems substantially higher than before—a potential disadvantage there for Jennifer if she's short in the torso.
As usual in Civics, the seats feel (to a six-foot-five guy) as though they were scaled for a smaller species, yet the headrest adjusts high enough for even such a long-bodied fellow. Our test car seemed pretty drafty with the side windows down, and the fixed rear side glass prevents you from doing anything about it. The sunroof opening is pretty noisy, too.
Other than the fixed-height seatbelt anchors, another disadvantage for tall drivers, the interior design is utterly practical, with large and legible silver-faced instruments and a tidy center console with big, easy-to-use switches.
Pricing is not yet available, but Honda pledges to hold the line, so figure base DX models will start at about $13,000, and upscale EX versions will just top $17,000. (The hatchback and the high-zoot Si two-door have been euthanized.)
If the sense of mechanical purity usually manifested by Hondas seems somewhat diluted in this new Civic family, the new levels of refinement have compensated handsomely. And whether you like it or not, that is the way of the future.
I am reminded, driving this new Civic, of the first one I drove 25 years ago in Los Angeles. Back then, it was the drivetrain that was the surprise. Zesty performance, and any degree of refinement and handling prowess, were rare in cars we called shoeboxes (and other things, too). Today, the surprise is how big the box has gotten—all roomy up front, the back seats are actually usable, the blocky body all grown up, even svelte. Here's the deal: The Civic is gone—it's been morphed into a kind of Accord. Also gone is that once-great price—it's quadrupled from about three grand to $13K. So, if you want shoeboxes today, you gotta look to Korea. —Steve Spence