2001 Honda Civic First Drive

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2001 Honda Civic Coupe

(1.7L 4-cyl. 5-speed Manual w/Side Airbags)

Civic Tradition Takes a Backseat to Honda Improvement

My vacuum cleaner and I have a great relationship. It sucks up dirt and dog hair; I feed it vacuum bags. It's happy and I'm happy. There are no emotional strings attached. When Hoover comes out with a redesign of my U5288900 upright, I'll buy another one, carefree, just like any self-respecting materialistic American should do.

I think Americans have this approach to just about every consumer product except one—cars. We get stupendously finicky when an updated automobile arrives on the scene. In order for it to be successful, a redesigned car needs to strike a perfect balance between newness and tradition. If the car is too radical, the core audience who liked it before won't buy it. If the car isn't "new" enough, automotive journalists bitch and whine about how it's not any different from the old car. If I were a product planner for a car company, I know I wouldn't get it right. The car wouldn't sell, billions of dollars would be lost, I'd get fired, my hair would fall out, my dog would leave me and my house would burn down. And then my vacuum would break. Trust me, I've seen it happen.

I'm just glad to be one of the whiny journalists. Less stress this way. Here at Edmunds.com, all I have to do is make people listen to my ego-inflated opinions about the latest vehicle redesigns. And for this particular article, I get to say whether the 2001 Honda Civic is the reincarnation of Elvis (the skinny Elvis, not the fat one) or an absolute piece of garbage.

Have you been waiting for this car? Plenty of people have. This is, after all, the best-selling economy car in America and Honda's second-most popular car behind the Accord. Its first full sales year was back in 1974, back when gas prices and pollution regs were rising and domestic manufacturers were rather clueless about how to build a decent car. The Civic became the preeminent economy car, and no other vehicle has better represented Honda's corporate philosophy than the Civic.

The previous-generation Civic was available from 1996 to 2000. One of the best economy cars on the market, it was marked by dependability, quality, reliability and efficiency. For many years, the Civic has had a small but loyal following of enthusiasts. These car enthusiasts appreciate the sporty nature of the car. Sure, it wasn't a BMW 328i, but the Civic did have a peppy engine, quick handling and good looks. For young car enthusiasts today, the Civic is by far the most popular car to modify for performance.

But back to reality. We were surprised when the Civic finished eighth out of nine spots in our most recent Economy Sedan Comparison Test. Clearly, other manufacturers had drawn a bead on the Civic and had been able to craft newer, better cars. The 2000 Civic needed an infusion of Red Bull and Gatorade. Quickly.

For the seventh generation of the Civic, Honda says it looked to build on the strengths and customer expectations of previous Civics. But it also wanted to elevate the new car even further in terms of safety, comfort, quality and fuel economy. Of course, this is the exact same hype every automaker trots out when a new vehicle debuts, so the key question here is whether Honda actually pulled it off. And did they? Well, yes. Mostly.

For 2001, there will be only two models available in America: the four-door sedan and the two-door coupe. The sedan comes in three trim levels (DX, LX and EX) and the coupe in four (DX, HX, LX and EX). The 160-horsepower Civic Si is no longer available (no word yet on a return), and the hatchback will be sold only in Europe.

No redesigned car is worth its weight in McDonald's Happy Meal toys these days without being able to claim a stiffer body structure. The Civic obliges, with torsional rigidity up 53 percent and bending rigidity up 19 percent. The benefit should be improved crash-test scores (Honda expects five-star NCAP frontal impact ratings), reduced NVH and a more stable ride. Despite the stiffer body structure, curb weight has increased only 50-70 pounds, depending on the model.

As the ancient Chinese proverb goes, a new body needs new clothes when the grasshopper opens his eyes but cannot see the blade of grass on the mountain (Yes, I just made this up.). You can look at the spiffy photos on the right and decide for yourself whether or not you like the '01 Civic's styling. The body panel gaps are much tighter than before, especially for the front and rear bumpers. This pays dividends in making the Civic look cleaner and more aerodynamic. Honda says it has also designed the front and rear bumpers to be less expensive to fix when damage occurs in low-speed (under 5 mph) collisions.

Styling differentiation between the sedan and coupe was a big priority for 2001. In terms of sheetmetal, the two cars share only 22 percent common parts. The Civic Coupe looks sportier, and its roofline is 1.6 inches lower than the sedan's. Both cars are taller than the previous sedan and coupe. The 2001 sedan has grown 2 inches and the coupe about an inch. The wheelbase is nearly the same, while vehicle width has increased slightly and length has decreased slightly.

This decrease in length has not come at the expense of interior room. Interior volume is slightly more than last year's model, actually. Given a quick glance, the interior doesn't look that different. The dash layout is similar, with a small center pod containing the audio head unit and the three knobs for the climate control. But there are many detail improvements.

A more compact rear suspension design allows for a larger trunk and a relocated exhaust system. Consequently, the typical exhaust tunnel or hump that runs the length of the interior has been eliminated. This is most noticeable in the backseat area, as is a substantial increase in rear passenger legroom and foot room. Shoulder room and hip room for all passengers have also been expanded.

The quality of materials should be better ("should" because Honda only had pre-production cars to drive at the press event, and material selection wasn't finalized), and coupe models get different fabric inserts, special metallic-looking trim surfaces and silver-faced gauges. All models get larger diameter gauges, additional illuminated switches and a bigger driver's footrest. Major feature changes include a seat-mounted armrest for EX models, expanded audio systems, improved anti-theft measures, a quieter climate fan, dual seatbelt pretensioners for both front seats, dual-stage front airbags and optional side airbags.

You might be asking yourself how Honda managed to make the Civic shorter in length but still larger on the inside. You might also be asking yourself when this story will end so that you can get back to searching for Web sites about monkeys. The answer to the first question lies in new front suspension. All '01 Civics have a MacPherson strut design rather than the previous double-wishbone. Honda engineers were able to further shorten the Civic's front end by relocating the steering box higher up in the engine bay and fitting 43-percent longer tie rods.

While the previous Civic's steering was precise, it often felt like it hadn't had its morning coffee yet. This has been addressed with the new model, as the steering ratio is quicker. It's variable-effort now, too, for easier parking and better feel while driving.

More improvements find their way into the powertrain. For 2001, the Civic's engine has minor mechanical changes and a slight bump in displacement. Now measuring 1.7 liters (from a previous 1.6), the engine's torque has been increased 6 to 13 percent at 4,000 rpm, depending on the model.

DX and LX models benefit most. They now produce 115 horsepower at 6,100 rpm and 110 foot-pounds of torque. EX Coupe and Sedan engines are equipped with Honda's variable-valve-timing system called VTEC. For 2001, the VTEC system on EX models has been retuned for improved fuel efficiency. Horsepower is the same as last year at 127 at 6,300 rpm, but torque rises to 114 foot-pounds at 4,800 rpm. While no EPA mileage figures are available yet, all Civics should gain 2-4 mpg over last year's models, with the high-mileage Civic HX Coupe still topping the list. In addition, all Civics will be certified as ultra-low-emission Vehicles, and Honda says the Civic engine will be the first ULEV engine to be distributed in all 50 states.

Updates are also applied to the transmissions. The five-speed manual has an even better shifter feel thanks to improved first- and second-gear synchros and a new, flexible flywheel that minimizes engine vibration. The four-speed automatic is electronically controlled and features an active lock-up control for better fuel economy. The continuously variable transmission will still be an option on HX Coupes.

Lucky journalists like me were able to mingle with a variety of new Civics at Honda's San Diego press launch. After a day of driving LX and EX Coupes and Sedans, it would seem that Honda's improvements worked as advertised. The increase in torque was hard to detect, but the improved shifting action of both transmissions was noticeable. The new suspension designs and reduced spring and bushing rates have also made the ride smoother and softer than before. Interior NVH seems to have been reduced, as well.

If there is anywhere that Honda seemed to have missed a bit, it's the interior. It looks better, yes, but it still can't match the Volkswagen Jetta in terms of materials or the Ford Focus in terms of layout and design. Honda also snoozed on adding more feature content, as the steering wheel doesn't telescope and there is still only one accessory power point. Honda says it increased the size of the cupholders, but they can't expand or hold a 1-liter water bottle.

Not being able to carry 1-liter bottles probably won't matter much to the legions of young car enthusiasts, but many of them will be disappointed in the '01 Civic. Just when Honda started building momentum with the high-performance Si, it has once again pulled it off the shelf. Combine that with the disappearance of the budget hatchback, the changes in suspension components and tuning, and the smallish horsepower boost, and teens will be tempted to keep their older Civics or cruise over to the local Ford dealership to look at a new Focus ZX3.

For the more mainstream buyer, however, the 2001 Civic can only be viewed as a success. Today's consumers are looking for economy sedans that don't seem like economy sedans. Nissan pulled this off with its 2000 Sentra, which is a big reason why it won the aforementioned comparison test. The Civic's interior room, comfort, and safety have all been improved. It also has cleaner emissions, better fuel economy and an affordable price. It has become even more mainstream, if that is possible. Is the new Civic Elvis reincarnated? No, but will you accept Ed Sullivan?

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