1992-95 Honda Civic
The Civic Grows Up
Note: This article first appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of Used Cars.
From the moment the diminutive Civic hit these shores in 1972, it sent notice that Honda could build a small car with the best of Europe, and far better than the domestic industry's efforts: the Pinto and Vega. Problem was, small cars were just a minuscule part of the American market, and Honda didn't have much of a sales or service presence. Company reps went knocking on dealers doors seeking representation of Honda's car line. Mostly they'd get a puzzled reaction. "Well yes, you make great motorcycles, but cars? They're too small anyway." And they were small. At 140", a Civic was over six feet shorter than a Chevy Impala. The 600 (with all of two cylinders) was smaller still. Honda resorted to giving franchises away to motorcycle dealers, used car dealers, even service stations.
Small cars would never make it in the United States. Too slow, unsafe, couldn't "hold the road" went the conventional wisdom. Then came The Energy Crises. Small cars flew out of showrooms and the Civic was quickly recognized as one of the best: fun to drive, economical, and a remarkable piece of packaging. And it made a lot of those new dealers rich.
Successive generations of Civics continued raising the bar on small car design, and Honda became the widely admired and respected car company it is today.
In 1992, a new generation of Civic's were introduced: longer, wider, heavier and faster (sound familiar?). They were actually about the size of a late eighties Accord.
The Civic had matured. And for many, had lost a lot of its appeal. The emphasis shifted from nimble, tight, and fun-to-drive to pliant and stable with a smooth ride. Styling went Japanese mainstream (re: technically correct, but devoid of character or originality). Some long-time enthusiasts even insinuated that Honda had sold out.
Regardless of the changes wrought on this Civic, it was still a leader among small cars and remains competitive in most areas even today. It should be on anyone's short list.
Initially, the Civic was offered in two body styles with four engines and five (count 'em) trim levels. A fourth model, the sporty 2-seater Del Sol was added to the lineup in 1993, along with a new 2dr coupe sporting a conventional trunk. Trim levels varied based on body style. The sedan was available in DX, LX and EX trim. The coupe came as a LX or EX model, and the hatchback went from the stripper CX, through mid-level DX and "clean and lean" VX models, up to the fancy Si model. The Del Sol could be had in S, Si and from '94 on, VTEC form.
Engine and transmission availability varied based on model. The bread and butter DX and LX models came equipped with a 1.5 liter, 102 horsepower 4-cylinder powerplant. The stripper CX hatchback made due with a 1.5 liter four making a paltry 70 horsepower. EX and Si models benefited from a 1.6 liter, 125 horsepower four. The VTEC Del Sol introduced in 1994 housed a double-overhead cam, high-output version of the 1.6 liter engine that produced an eye-opening 160 horses.
The VX model and it's lean, low emission design manages 92 horsepower from 1.5 liters.
The DX, LX and EX models were equipped with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. The other models only came with Honda's excellent manual transmission.
Interiors on these Civic's show a measurable upgrade from previous versions. The materials look richer, soft touch surfaces surround you and color harmony is excellent.
The Si model offers a sporty striped upholstery pattern, the EX and LX models an attractive but subdued design. The CX model defines spartan -- stick shift sticking up out of the floor, no trim and basic everything. The other models are closer to the LX than the CX.
Honda's trademark low cowl is there, but not to the degree it once was. It houses Honda's traditionally efficient dashboard. Gauges, though sparse (not even a tachometer on CX and DX models) are well placed and easy to read and all major levers, buttons and knobs are easy to reach and operate smoothly. One annoyance: the Civic uses tiny horn buttons on its steering wheel that are hard to find quickly. Which is usually how you want to find them -- quickly!
The cabin is bright and airy. All models comes with front buckets and a floor mounted transmission.
To us, this version of the Civic vividly illustrates the design crisis Honda (and many others) had experienced in the nineties. The design is certainly clean and contemporary, but also utterly forgettable. The hatchback shows a spark of personality, but forget the rest. Although sort of cute, even the Del Sol manages to look boring.
Both coupe and sedan received a new, sloping rear C pillar and back windows, in slant contrast to the upright roofline of the previous sedan.
Except for a splash of it around the side windows on the sedans, chrome trim is notably absent. The base models are completely devoid of the shiny stuff.
Wheel design on this version of the Civic borders on inexplicable. The base steel wheels are truly ugly, the sporty Si and upmarket EX models get featureless wheel covers while the low-emission VX model gets the alloys. We can't figure it out -- go get a decent set of aftermarket wheels if you're looking for a little pizzazz.
Room & Comfort
For a small sedan, the four door Civic does a remarkable job of transporting four people comfortably. This is entirely in character for the Civic -- its people packaging has been heralded since the first model.
The front seats are supportive and comfortable (although a height adjustment would be nice), with plenty of leg and headroom. A tilt steering wheel came with every model except the CX.
Two rear seat passengers in the sedan don't do too badly either. There's adequate headroom for those under 6', and except for a shortage of toe space under the front seats, legroom is pretty good, too. The conventional coupe naturally loses most of it's rear seat accessibility, and a reduction in headroom and slight decrease in legroom limits the size of the people that will find any comfort back there. The hatchback falls between the two in terms of room.
On the sedan and coupe, the rear seat folds forward to allow for long items to be loaded in the trunk. Unfortunately, the seat is one piece, not split.
The trunk itself is flat and spacious and the lid incorporates small gas struts that allow it to be opened all the way to the back window - greatly reduces the possibility of bumping your head on it when opened and eliminating that dreaded "hinge intrusion" caused by convention setups.
The hatchback incorporates a rather novel two-piece "clamshell" rear hatch design. The window hinges up and the tiny tailgate folds down. Kind of like an old station wagon. We like it. Again, the rear seat folds forward to maximize cargo space, and here it is a split-back design, allowing both extra cargo space and a rear seat passenger.
Like most small cars, the Civic is rather noisy. Road noise is always there and plenty of wind noise forced its way into the cabin at highway speeds in the examples we drove. Mechanical noise intrudes as well.
There's a noticeable softening of this Civic compared to previous versions. The ride is smoother, but at the expense of the taut, crisp handling that made older versions so much fun to drive. A major reason why the previously mentioned cowl was raised somewhat was to allow for greater suspension travel and a corresponding softening of the ride. Die hard Civic fans didn't like it, but the rest of the public didn't even notice.
Handling is still relatively firm and well controlled, but even on the Si and EX models there's a fair amount of body roll when cornered aggressively. Despite the roll, body movements remain controlled. Poor roads can still bottom out the suspension, a common trait in all Honda's and one that the raised cowl was supposed to address. In every day driving environments however, from the base models on up the Civic ride is quite comfortable--even refined--for a small car.
Power steering was not available on the CX and manual transmission equipped DX models, but was standard everywhere else.
Put a couple people and their stuff into the lower grade CX model and its 70hp engine shows signs of strain. You have to constantly work the gears (not all that unpleasant a task due to Honda's typically superb manual transmission) and keep the revs up to get any appreciable amount of forward motion.
The mid-range 102hp engine in the DX and LX models are much better suited to commuting and everyday usage. The excellent automatic transmission saps some power, and downshifts are a frequent occurrence under load. The engine moans and thrashes under hard acceleration, but not unpleasantly so.
Moving to the EX and Si models with their 1.6 liter, 125hp engine is a revelation. With the five speed, the Civic darts about with authority. Blip the gas and away you go. It's no barn burner, but it's enough. It's peppy enough to make you think twice about how much gas you give it in first gear--you'll be leaving rubber all over town if you're not careful. Some kind of limited slip differential would've been nice here.
All engines are smooth and relatively quiet, but no more so than many other four-bangers. Honda's (and Toyota's) smooth, quiet and refined four cylinder engines are no longer an exclusive selling point. They do, however, still make the best sounding noises. Mechanical precision comes to mind.
Braking is handled via front discs/rear drums on all models except the EX and Si models where four-wheel discs are standard. Strangely, anti-lock braking was available only on the LX sedan and the EX coupe. EX sedans carried it as standard equipment. Both setups stop the Civic quickly. We suspect the big difference would be that the disc/disc combo will be more resistant to fade under repeated hard use.
As you would expect, fuel economy is excellent on all, with particular recognition going to the VX model and it's 47/56 mpg score in EPA tests.
Initially, all Civics were equipped with a driver-side airbag, adjustable three point seatbelts in the front and simple lap belts in the rear. In 1994, a passenger airbag was added to the standard equipment list.
As mentioned above, ABS brakes were not available on all models. That's not particularly unusual on small cars of that period.
Crash tests by the government on a 1993 Civic sedan netted a good rating for the driver and a very good rating for the front passenger. The adoption of a passenger airbag in 1994 did not improve the 1995 model's performance.
Long-lived and reliable have become well-known Honda traits. All major components of the Civic appear to be holding up quite well. As in all late eighties/early nineties Hondas, there are the typical electronic ignition system worries (especially the distributor). Honda is fully aware of these failures, and we know they have paid all or part of the repair if made an issue.
Maintenance and service needs to be aware of include a timing belt replacement at 90,000 miles. Honda's are unique in the industry in that their engines turn counter-clockwise. Everyone else's turns clockwise. These are also interference type engines, meaning that if a timing belt breaks, you're in for major engine repairs. Don't skip this service!
Honda has the finicky distributor listed on it's service schedule at 60,000 miles. Other manufacturers either don't list it or require a check of the inexpensive cap. This problem is also referenced in the technical service bulletin listings for the Civic. These are clear indications that Honda knows it is a weak point.
Valve checks are recommended every 15,000 miles, adding significantly to scheduled service costs.
Finally, '92 and '93 model were equipped with air conditioning systems that used R12 refrigerant. '94 models moved to the new, ozone friendly R134. R12 is still available but expensive ($100-plus for a refresh). Converting to R134 is possible, but should be done by a knowledgeable and reputable shop. It should run you from $250 to $300.
There's a Civic for different needs, and all of them come highly recommended. Although we commented on the loss of some of its fun factor, this Civic is well suited to American tastes, and will serve your transportation needs well.
Our favorites, predictably, are the EX and Si models. The extra ooomph from their more powerful engine is noticeable and usable.
After all, growing up doesn't mean you have to give up all your fun.