As usual, it comes down to the numbers. Honda says there will be 81.5 million Americans between the ages of 15 and 34 by the end of the decade. That's enough iPod addicts to make Gen Y the largest consumer group ever, topping even the baby boomers.
In order to take advantage of this next "age wave" Honda is taking action now. After selling 7 million Civics over 22 years, the company is shifting the Civic's U.S. market focus from baby boomers to Gen Y-ers. It even says it has designed this all-new eighth generation of the Civic specifically for that 80-plus million who are packing iPods.
This qualifies as radical thinking for Honda, which is often so conservative it makes the 700 Club look like The Howard Stern Show. But here's the cool part: this shift in the Civic's desired buyer demographic has put a priority on design and performance. You know, the things the kids like. And the resulting 2006 Honda Civic is sleeker, more powerful and better performing than any Civic before it. Fact is, the new iteration is undeniably the best and most interesting Civic Honda has ever produced.
More Style, Less Room
Available in two body styles — coupe and sedan — the new 2006 Civic is offered as four distinct models: the Civic Coupe, Civic Sedan, Civic Hybrid (sedan only), and the racy Si (coupe only). The hatchback body style, which was exclusive to the previous Si, is a goner.
For the first time, the coupe and sedan don't share a wheelbase. Honda's engineers felt the sedan's new 106.3-inch wheelbase was just too long for the coupe to feel as sporty and responsive as they desired. So while the new sedan's wheelbase has grown 3.2 inches over last year's, the coupe's is only 1.2 inches longer.
Even with the longer wheelbase, somehow the coupe has lost 2.5 inches of rear-seat legroom. Meanwhile, in the name of styling, Honda's designers sacrificed some rear headroom. The new coupe's roofline is several inches lower than its predecessor's. Combine that with the car's radically fast backlight, and those with large craniums should ride in the front.
"True coupe buyers will sacrifice a little rear-seat room for better performance and sexier styling," says Greg Thomas from Honda's product planning division. "But you can still sit full-size adults back there very comfortably."
He's right, you can.
The sedan's rear-seat room is about the same as before, and both body styles gained 1.4 inches of additional width, so sticking a third in the backseat of either no longer qualifies as bad karma.
Due to the shorter rear overhang, trunk space also took a hit. It's now 12 cubic feet in the sedan and 11.5 in the coupe (both used to be 12.9). But Honda points out that the trunk sides are now flatter so the space is more useful. And the rear seat in every model but the hybrid folds flat to increase cargo space.
Let's face it: The last Civic's look was the automotive equivalent of a Lunesta. Whether you like the new style or not, the shape of either body will never be compared to a sleep aid.
Honda says the new Civic has a one-motion profile and calls the car's design expressive and futuristic. We think the sedan looks a little too much like a Toyota Prius, but its laid-back windshield, minimal front and rear overhangs and tight 50mm tire-to-fender gap (Honda says that's tighter than the gap on a BMW 5 Series) do make it look more upscale.
Honda also points out that the coupe, which was designed in Ohio, and the sedan, which was drawn in Japan, don't share a single body panel. The two body styles don't even share the same windshield rake; the sedan's is laid-back at 23.9 degrees, while the 21.9-degree rake of the coupe's glass is the most radical in Honda's history. Yes, sharper than even the NSX's.
Beam Me Up, Scotty
The new interior design mixes elements from previous Civics, Toyota's Prius and the Starship Enterprise. The result is a comfortable and pleasantly ergonomic environment with one of the strangest gauge layouts ever conceived.
It seems the radically slopped windshield forced Honda to oversize the dashboard. The Civic's dash is so big it's rumored to be the location for Diddy's next bash. To camouflage all that space, Honda divided up the instruments, keeping the analog tachometer in the traditional location and placing a digital speedometer and gas gauge up at the base of the windshield. Honda calls it a two-tier design. We call it questionable. A space-saving Z-shaped parking brake handle opened up real estate for larger cupholders and a center console that can hold 25 CDs.
More Money, More Stuff
As usual, the coupe and sedan are available in DX, LX and EX trim levels. The hybrid sedan is equipped very much like a sedan LX, while the Si coupe sort of does its own thing.
Content and prices are both up in the customer's favor, according to Honda. The least expensive model is the DX coupe which starts at $14,360 with a five-speed manual. The least expensive sedan costs $200 more. Pricing for the hybrid, which will go on sale in October, and the Si, which will hit dealers December first, haven't been set yet, but the Si will start under $20 grand.
New standard features on all models and trim levels are side curtain and front side airbags, ABS, active front-seat head restraints and a tilt and telescoping steering wheel. And for the first time all Civic audio systems have MP3/WMA CD playback capability and a satellite navigation system is available.
Horsepower is up on every model. Now the front wheels of all coupes and sedans, regardless of trim level, are powered by an all-aluminum, single-overhead-cam 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine with 16 valves and Honda's i-VTEC variable valve system. It makes 140 hp at 6,300 rpm and 128 lb-ft of torque at 4,300 rpm.
Honda still makes the world's best four-cylinders. This engine is silky-smooth, fun to rev, and gets better mileage than the two smaller and less powerful engines it's replacing. With the optional five-speed automatic, the Civic is EPA rated at 30 mpg city and 40 mpg highway.
We covered the Si's new hardware, including its 200-hp, 2.0-liter engine, in a dedicated First Drive of that model, so let's move onto the hybrid. It also gets more guts, 23-percent more combined power than the 2005 Civic Hybrid.
The fourth generation of Honda's IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) system still consists of a 1.3-liter, single-overhead-cam four-cylinder gas engine (which is the car's primary power source) connected to an electric motor and a Continuously Variable Transmission. And a Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) battery pack still captures and stores electricity for the motor.
For the first time, however, the gas engine features a high-profile camshaft within its i-VTEC system. It kicks in at high rpm and increases output to a 93-hp peak at 6,000 rpm. That's 9-percent more than before. The electric motor provides up to 20 hp and 76 lb-ft of additional torque.
Mileage is up, too. Honda says it gets 50 mpg in the city or on the highway, which would give it a maximum driving range of over 600 miles. The improved efficiency is largely due to a third stage added to the i-VTEC and Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) system. The additional stage allows the computer to deactivate all four cylinders under deceleration and in steady state cruising situations. When the engine shuts down, the electric motor alone propels the car.
We briefly drove a Civic hybrid through the wide-open expanse of Joliet, Illinois, and found its new technology to be very much transparent and its newfound power welcome. On occasion you would be aware of the gas engine stopping and starting itself, but it's generally unobtrusive.
A new, stronger body structure with 35-percent more torsional rigidity gave Honda's suspension engineers a better place to start. They kept the front MacPherson strut suspension and the rear multilink layout, but all the parts are new and much of the geometry is changed.
In the front they added caster, reangled the struts and moved the steering box lower for more on-center steering feel and more off-center effort. In the back, new longer shocks are mounted closer to the wheels so they perform better throughout the range of suspension travel, and the aluminum rear shaved some unsprung weight.
To make the coupe feel sportier, it gets its own suspension tuning, with higher spring rates, stiffer dampers, and thicker antiroll bars.
Only the Si and the hybrid get Honda's excellent Electric Power Steering. The rest of the lineup uses a proven variable speed-sensitive rack and pinion hydraulic power steering system with a quick 13.73-to-1 ratio.
All Civics but the Si are equipped with 10.3-inch front disc brakes, but the hybrid, LX and DX models use 7.9-inch drums in the rear. EX trim-level cars get 10.2-inch rear discs. Every Civic gets a new four-channel ABS with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, and Honda increased the size of the power brake booster for added pedal feel.
The hybrid and DX examples ride on standard 15-inch wheels and tires, while LX and EX get standard 17-inch rubber.
We sampled a coupe EX and a sedan LX, and both rode beautifully. Each felt tight and responsive and both were noticeably quieter out on the road than their predecessors. The coupe's shifter felt a little flimsy, but its clutch was easy to modulate, as were its brakes.
Still a Civic
It might not look like any Civic we've ever seen, and that funky dash is going to take a while to grow on us, but this is still a Civic. It's a well-made, very comfortable and very affordable car with strong performance and a fun-to-drive attitude.
Honda wants to sell 300,000 a year. That sound you hear is the iPod addicts lining up.