2003 Honda Civic sedan
2003 Honda Civic sedan. Click image to enlarge

By Jeremy Cato

The best-selling car in Canada since 1998 has been the Honda Civic. What a run of success!
Last year Honda Canada sold 63,898 Civics in this country. Sales of the number two Toyota Corolla were 24 per cent lower (at 48,676). Not bad for a Honda Civic in its fourth year since a 2001 model year renovation.

Obviously the Civic is a good little family runabout. And that shows up in solid resale values and low ownership costs. Not surprisingly, the Civic has been named the IntelliChoice Best Overall Value among cars selling for less than US$24,000. IntelliChoice is a U.S. research firm that tracks the five-year bill you’ll pay to own and operate vehicles.

The point is, the Civic’s repair and maintenance costs have remained low for years and years, and this car doesn’t depreciate as quickly as most others, either.

Now while the Civic did get a bigger cabin and giant trunk for 2001, and while fuel economy remains fantastic and emissions extremely low, this latest version is showing some signs of vulnerability. Civic sales were down 7.3 per cent for 2003 versus 2002. Critics charge that the 2001 change to front suspension is one reason. Honda for 2001 went from a sophisticated double wishbone front layout to a less costly (and more tightly packaged) front strut design. Aftermarket tuners argue that struts are not as sporty and “tunable” as wishbones and their views have hurt the Civic’s image. Some enthusiasts will care deeply about this, but for the most part used car buyers are more interested in reliability and safety. In those areas the Civic is a standout.

All Civics – sedans, coupes, hatchbacks – have earned a five star frontal crash rating from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which conducts even more stringent crash tests, gives the Civic a “Good” rating, its highest.

For the record, this year Honda tweaked the Civic’s styling with minor changes to the sheetmetal in the front and rear, not to mention new headlights and a new grille. Honda Canada is also pushing its new Civic “halo” vehicle, the 127-horsepower Civic Si sedan.

Essentially, though, the Civic in showrooms today is pretty much the same car that arrived as a 2001 model. That’s not a bad thing, by the way. This version of the Civic is certainly true to the car’s motto as articulated by chief engineer Katsunori Mori: “man maximum, machine minimum.” The person side of the equation in the 2001 car was given loads of attention, but perhaps the machine side, what we’ll call the fun-to-drive quotient, might have benefited from a slightly more potent adrenalin injection. I think Honda will address that in the next complete Civic overhaul, scheduled for the 2005 model year.

If you are looking for a nearly new small car, you can hardly go wrong with a Civic. True, the rival Ford Focus is a more entertaining car, both from behind the wheel and in terms of its styling – but until recently it did not enjoy “recommended” status from Consumer Reports. A used Corolla is also a good option.

Finally, a few 2001-2004 Civic facts compared to older versions: bigger engines (1.7 litres at 127 hp and 115 hp) meet ultra-low emissions vehicle or ULEV standards. Both sedan and coupe come with a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.

The Civic is a smooth ride and a good value, even though bargains are hard to find on the used car market.

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