Now they've done it. Honda's gone off and messed with their monster-selling Civic subcompact, and now the J-(ennifer) Lo(pez) Generation is all chapped about it.
"God, it's ugly," admitted a J-Lo hot-rodder recently to a reporter for Automotive News, adding, "it's not as performance-oriented as it used to be.... And the horsepower gain is negligible because it's a heavier car."
Reporter Mark Rechtin's opinion of reactions like this one is unvarnished: "By their ripcord impact on trends and culture, the young enthusiast buyers have a nationwide impact on Honda's image in general—and on Civic's marketability specifically." And this, he says, is true despite the relatively small number of Civics actually purchased by twentysomething loudmouths.
Honda has defensible reasons for making its styling changes, but these explanations aren't likely to win much respect from the bare-midriff-and-droopy-drawers crowd. What do gearheads care if the Civic is roomier and safer for families? For the last five years, Civics have been the car platform of choice for "slamming" (i.e., lowering suspensions to asphalt-scraping levels) and "jamming" (i.e., cramming trunks, back seats and door panels with humongo stereos of earwax-melting power potential).
Speed junkies have been stuffing Civics with all manner of turbo- and superchargers, with or without afterburner-style nitrous oxide (NOS) injection systems, all for the sake of ratcheting up top speeds to insane levels and cranking down quarter-mile street-racing times to the lowest limits that physics allows.
Bragging rights and wrongs
So when Honda brags about the cabin space it has saved by trading out last year's sophisticated double-wishbone front suspension with 2001's more rudimentary MacPherson struts, Gen J-Lo doesn't wanna hear about it. All they know is that you can't easily "drop" the front end of the car with a short set of coil springs anymore. And so what if the rear footwell is now roomier because it's perfectly flat, thanks to a rear suspension redesigned without trailing arms? Back seats are for subwoofers and speaker cabinets, man; and anyway, the chicks in the back like to sit on their feet.
2001 Honda Civic Coupe
Honda, to its debatable credit, doesn't like sitting on its laurels, however. The new Civic sedan and coupe models represent a remarkable gamble that is predicated upon twin ideals of vehicle safety and environmental responsibility. What's the problem if the performance aftermarket (i.e., the collection of small companies who produce all those hot-rod parts) has more than quadrupled since 1997, from $295 million to $1.2 billion, thanks mostly to the proliferation of Civics. That's not money for Honda's pocket.
Honda is understandably more interested in padding its own bottom line, so it's betting on market research that shows increasing consumer demand for better mileage, lower emissions, and greater survivability in a crash. That's why both EX models (a sedan and a coupe) that I recently tested rate 31 miles per gallon city, 38 highway; meet worldwide Ultra Low-Emission Vehicle (ULEV) tailpipe standards; and feature standard anti-lock brakes and available side airbags for front-seat occupants. The other, less expensive Civic versions (designated DX, LX, and HX) deliver similar mileage and emissions, and also make side airbags available, but the ABS brakes remain an EX exclusive.
So what's a hot-rod has-been from the B-squared (i.e., baby boomer) generation supposed to think of the neo-Civic in this brave, new J-Lo world? Frankly, my back-to-back rides in both the EX Sedan and the EX Coupe have yielded some startling reactions. Both cars featured the 1.7-liter, 127-horsepower four-cylinder with VTEC variable valve train—another EX exclusive. The two-door coupe is sleek and, I must say, pretty; the sedan is, by contrast, an inconspicuous lump of commuter clay. But my sedan's powertrain included Honda's near-magical five-speed manual transmission, and the car was an absolute blast to drive. Gearshifts were razor sharp, every corner was an exuberant toss, and heel-and-toe braking/downshifting was smooth and progressive. Shoppers in this vehicle category, even enthusiast shoppers, will overlook the five-speed Civic EX at their peril, even if the sedan is homely.
2001 Honda Civic Coupe
I cannot say the same about the Civic's auto-transmission version; and, alas, luck dictated that my sporty-looking EX Coupe was equipped precisely thus. The auto-tranny Civic caused my mind to wander, due, I think, to a decided lack of snappy acceleration. I thereby found myself fixating upon a variety of kvetches.
Despite having the same suspension as the sedan, the coupe seemed to mope through corners. Handling, in other words, felt vague and spongy. The speaker deck under the rear window is one large piece of hard plastic in the coupe; it squawked and squeaked incessantly for what became a very long week. And I found myself not caring at all how flat and roomy the rear floor of the coupe has become: I could barely squeeze my five-foot, six-inch self into the rear seat to begin with. Moreover both cars, inexplicably, suffered transitory hot-flashes of the dashboard warning light for the side airbags. Were they, or were they not, working? I never attempted a crash to find out.
Honda can't be relishing the publicity that elevates a vocal minority like Gen J-Lo hot-rodders to the level of Official Civic Critics. Company spokesmen rightfully point to high sales levels for the car that continue more or less unruffled. Just the same, the company seems to have picked a puzzling time to tinker with its winning Civic formula. A fire-breathing rival, the Ford Focus, managed in 2000 to achieve almost 90 percent of Civic's sales in only its first full year in the U.S. Although it's hard to say what this omen bodes for Civic's future, I can suggest this much: there is a lesson here for Honda, but whether the company will be teaching it or learning it remains to be seen.
2001 Honda Civic EX Coupe
Price (as tested): $17,600
Engine: 1.7-liter in-line four, 127 hp
Transmission: four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 174.7 x 66.7 x 55.1 in
Wheelbase: 103.1 in
Curb weight: 2590 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 31/38 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: Moonroof, AM/FM/CD, power windows/doors/mirrors w/ keyless entry, cruise control
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles