Honda Civic 1.6 SE Executive
by Ross Finlay (14 February 2001)
With a much longer wheelbase than its predecessor, a slightly higher roof, and Honda's first cab-forward design, the latest Civic five-door is built to a quite different architecture from the previous model. The result is a roomier passenger cabin than all its direct rivals, a vast and well-raked windscreen, and a rear-quarter design similar to that of the Renault Clio and the long-gone Singer SM1500, which just doesn't match the front.
Look at a picture of the Civic with everything forward of the C pillar hidden, then reverse the process, and the two sections seem to be from different cars.
But the exterior panel fit and finish are first class, while the new and radical design has given the Civic remarkably good rear passenger space, both in headroom and, particularly, in very generous legroom. A first glance at the car suggests that it can't have much of a boot, but the fact is that the load area is pretty good, although the floor is quite high.
The interior is a bit of a mix, though. It's all well planned and well put together, and the test car had leather upholstery as standard. But did it shout "SE Executive"? No, it didn't. Honda has gone back to pretty dull materials and textures, apart from the dimpled steering wheel rim.
It's a familiar problem of company philosophy. Honda majors on impeccable engineering, and you can't fault the quality control that goes into the building and finishing of the bodywork. However, there's an element in the top management which edges away nervously from anything flamboyant. This is the purist approach, and some other manufacturers would do well to adopt it, but the Civic could certainly do with more pzazz.
Honda decided to mount the gearlever, not on the floor, but on the central console as in an MPV. The idea is partly to clear floor space and allow for a walk-through effect. I can't figure that out. This isn't an MPV, and who's going to walk through? Anyway, there's no central tunnel, because the exhaust system has been re-routed too.
Like some other CARkeys characters, I'm warming to the notion of a console-mounted gearlever. It's never quite as sporting as a good floor shift, but I always fancied the old Citroen Light 15, which had its gearlever coming straight out of the fascia, with a vertical gate. The Civic has a conventional gate, and although stirring the handily placed lever around seems a little clumsy at first, you seen get to appreciate that, out on the open road, it flicks through quickly.
This is one of those cars, incidentally, which does repay precise gearchanging, with no surplus revs as you lift off the clutch - no criticism of the Honda itself, just a remark for drivers.
There's a single cam VTEC engine, so that the Civic goes harder and revs more freely than you might expect from the way it looks. It's certainly not a car for just pootering around, although it's economical on a motorway cruise. And I was struck by how well the test car coped with some of the broken and potholed road surfaces in the CARkeys neck of the woods. It's very thoughtful of our local council to spend our taxes on ignoring minor-road maintenance so that we have suitable test routes. Thank you, chaps.
(Actually, a completely lunatic statistic was published recently, claiming that, under the current budget arrangements, certain roads would be resurfaced on something like a 153-year cycle. So the CARkeys staffers dashing around in mid-22nd century Hondas should still find plenty of potholes around.)
Those rumpled road surfaces also show the firmness of the new Civic's central structure. It scores well in crash test results, and that can't have been easy, given how short the bonnet is. Electric power steering similar to the system on the S2000 is standard, and, although some people don't like the perceived lack of "feel", it's precise while not soaking up any engine power as happens with other systems, and with air-conditioning.
It may not particularly look it, but the SE Executive, in its own understated way, is well kitted-out. It's the third grade up, beyond S and SE, with 15" alloy wheels, pollen-filtered climate control, headlamp washers, outside temperature indicator, leather trim, a stereo CD system and so on.
Altogether, the new Civic is an intriguing car, the best-packaged Japanese five-door in its class, although there was a strong European influence in the design, and the right-hand drive versions are built at Honda's impressive Swindon factory. They come with a three-year/90,000-mile manufacturer's warranty, which also applies to all the officially listed accessories and up-grades.