When the first Civic rolled out of the factory in 1973, the muscle car era was just winding down, American luxury car engines were approaching 500 cubic inches of displacement, and small Japanese cars were strange, new, and unrespected. But with an oil crisis right around the corner, Honda's luck in the U.S. market would change quickly.
In the 32 years and seven Civic generations that have passed since 1972, the car has become the standard of the economy car world and one of the bestselling cars in America. We here at Automobile Magazine have been in love with the car's affordable, no-frills offerings since our first test in November 1987. In 1992, the Civic's first year as an Automobile Magazine All-Star, we proclaimed, ". . . the Civic continues to represent the ideal small car . . ." The car would rejoin the circle of All-Stars in 1997, a year after we declared it Automobile of the Year.
Yet when the seventh generation of this royal family was born in 2001, the predictably larger, safer, and more efficient Civic was actually less exciting to drive than the award-winning sixth-generation Civic we enjoyed so much. Three years later, time has continued to move forward while Honda has changed the Civic only slightly. New players have come to the table, and Honda's poker face may no longer be enough to keep the competition from playing a set of aces.
Toyota has been studying Honda's every move for years; its Corolla has been fighting to gain the spotlight from the Civic for decades, and with Toyota's reputation for quality and reliability, annual U.S. Corolla production numbers have reached the mid-200,000's-just a few copies shy of the champ. But is the sporty new XRS a real contender, or just a pretender? Meanwhile, Ford's first major effort to win over the segment, the Focus, vies to keep America in the econo-car game with an update for 2005. Are these tweaks enough to keep it in the hunt? The Mazda 3 shares basic underpinnings with the upcoming new European-market Focus (not to be confused with ours, which is an older design) and seems ready to pick up where the much admired Protege' left off. We are excited to see what's behind the artful new styling and see if it really can outgun its predecessor. Korean automaker Hyundai has gained its own share of attention from the American public with reassuringly long warranty periods. The Elantra GT offers an enticingly low price along with the warranty, but is this a winning combination, or is it true that you only get what you pay for?