Honda has always managed to keep the spotlight on their charming little Civic, leaving the Corolla backstage like an understudy for 31 years. It has more trophies on the wall and better sales numbers to back those awards up. The older crowd loves the car for its refinement and durability; younger people enjoy the ease with which the Civic can be modified into a screaming street machine. But with newer, fresher competitors gobbling up more market share each year, the heat is on for Honda. Kids are finding new cars to transform into personal expressions, and quality and reliability can be found elsewhere.
Given the greatness we've come to expect from Honda, we have been disappointed that the seventh-generation Civic is not quite the step forward we'd usually expect from such a veteran. Behind the few changes for 2004-larger standard wheels, more standard features, and a few new color options-is the same basic Civic we reviewed back in 2000. We chastised Honda then for some bad decisions made with this Civic; the rear suspension, its trailing arm discarded in the quest for better space efficiency, doesn't feel as well planted as the great setup on the previous car. The steering is also light to the point of precluding much communication of what the tires are doing. In both the 2000 test and this one, we found the car less confident through tight turns than both the previous Civic and, more importantly today's opponents.
The Civic does have its advantages. Having such a strong track record has given the small Honda great resale value. Despite our suspension complaints, the Civic does have a very smooth ride. It won't light the streets on fire, but it will get you from A to B quietly and efficiently. The interior is aging a bit but is inoffensive other than a radio display that could be bigger. But the Civic's cabin needs to borrow from the larger Accord, which has a very clean, modern, and distinct theme; we are confident that will come with the next generation, probably due in a year or two.
One of the main drawbacks of the Civic is simply its size. When parked next to the other cars here, our Civic looked small in a very 1990's sort of way. Economy cars generally have grown taller in recent years, and the Civic's low stance meant it had less head- and legroom inside than most of the other cars in this test.