Honda caps innovative Civic with a new 4-door model for US market

By , Automotive editor of The Christian Science Monitor

Honda has gone and done it again. It's built a new Civic --set the auto industry on its tail in 1973. That was when the Japanese carmaker introduced a smaller Civic with a stratified-charge engine that met the environmental demands of the time and ran on regular-grade gasoline.

Once again it shows a superb sense of timing and the determination of the company to stay up front.

The Original Civic eight years ago went a long way in getting the attention of the US car buyer, including what the burgeoning Japanese auto industry was all about. In recent months the churning tidal flow of vehicles from the island nation has washed over Detroit, forcing the US auto industry to commit to changes which, in the long run, will be good for the consumer as well as the domestic industry itself.

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Even before the first Honda automobile reached the US, Honda engineers shook up Detroit by their claims for an engine that would work without a catalytic converter and yet meet the increasingly tough emissions standards being developed by the US Congress.

Starting with last year's models, however, even Honda was forced to bolt on a converter and switch to unleaded fuel.

The new-4-door Civic has widened the appeal of the snappy-performing minicar. Yet "minicar" may not be the right term to described the car even though the dimensions coincide.

In 1980 Honda provided a 13 percent increase in head-and legroom in the Civic , a 2-inch-longer wheelbase, and 4 more inches in width. Now, in the 4-door version of the marque, the wheelbase has been stretched another 2.7 inches, the car is a foot longer, and the weight is up 162 pounds from that of the 3-door hatchback.

The engine is the same -- 1,488 cubic centimeters -- in all three Civics, the hatchback, station wagon, and 4-door sedan. Standard transmission is a 5-speed manual although a 3-speed automatic is available as an option. The 5-speed manual, however, does its job well, easily moving from gear to gear, up or down, as road and speed conditions dictate.

Mileage is impressive, to say the least. The combined Environmental Protection Agency figure is 37 miles per gallon of unleaded fuel -- 32 in the city and a stunning 42 on the highway. I can't argue with any of them.

Handling is predictable all the way as well. In other words, it's not hard for the driver to take charge of the car and retain it, barring irrational movements that would only be permitted by a performance-type car.

Fit and finish -- something that US automakers are just now beginning to talk about -- is up to expectations. The parts fit; of that there is no doubt. Even the paint job is right in step with the high-quality reputation of the Japanese. Instruments are well placed and easy to read when you need to see them.

Visibility is high all around. Simply, glass is abundant --

The turn signals, however, were a little annoying, but that's a small matter, indeed. Instead of simply flashing intermittently at the movement of the control lever up or down, the signal "bounces" before the flash. In other words , there is a rat-a-tat-tat noise before the arrows start to work.

But that's not too serious, is it? With that kind of mileage on the road, even in stop-and-go, city-type situations, the plus side far outweighs the negatives.

Honda is third in size among the Japanese auto manufacturers now in the US, Toyota and Nissan (Datsun) being No. 1 and No. 2.

Last year Honda sold 375,388 cars in the US, including 138,740 Civics, 185, 972 Accords, and 50,676 Prelude sports coupes. Looking to 1981 sales, Honda expects a 6 percent increase in sales "to maintain our momentum and to keep our dealers healthy for the Ohio production which will be starting in less than two years," according to Cliff Schmillen, vice-president of the automobile sales division for American Honda Motor Company.

The Company now is building a new automobile assembly plant in Marysville, Ohio, adjacent to its motorcycle production facility, which went into production in 1980. The company has fewer than 800 car dealers in the US but will expand the total, perhaps to 1,000 or more as cars start to roll out of the factory in mid-1982.

"For seven years," says Mr. Schmillen, "we've been unable to fill the demand for our products."

Meanwhile, Toyota and Nissan (Datsun) plan to reduce their car shipments in 1981 as criticism continues over the high level of Japanese car sales in the United States -- 1.9 million in 1980. Both Toyota and Nissan sell far more cars than Honda but they've been in the Us market a lot longer, too.

It takes a lot more than price to sell the Honda these days. A few years ago a buyer could pick up a 4-door Civic wagon for well under $4,000. But no more. The new 4-door Civic can run up to $8,000-plus for the buyer who doesn't know when to say no in the showroom.

The car I've been driving around town, including AM/FM stereo tape set and air, nudges $7,000, I'm told. Base price is around $6,200. The price of a car these days, import or domestic, has to be rationalized in the light of a severely inflated dollar.

That's a hard job for a lot of potential US buyers. But did you price the cost of an air ticket today?

All Hondas have front-wheel-drive and transverse (cross-mounted) engines.

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