With Honda wagon, beauty is in the eye of the beholder

The distinctively styled -- make that ``unusual'' -- Honda Civic 5-door, 4-wheel-drive wagon boasts six forward speeds, including an ``extra low'' gear in the 4-WD mode. The fifth gear is overdrive. The wagon, either standard or 4-wheel-drive -- is practicality itself. It's sensible, unique in shape, and a comfortable vehicle to be in, and you could find it hard to give it up once you've tried it.

Sure, it may be called ``homely'' by some motorists, and maybe it is by their standards. But like beauty, it's in the eye, not necessarily in the metal itself. Remember, the old Volkswagen beetle was sheer ugliness to some buyers, yet more than 20 million have been sold around the world -- and it's still being built in South America and Mexico.

One thing is sure, the Civic wagon is unconventional, whereas earlier wagon versions of the Civic were standard fare. Thus, the Civic wagon stands out in a crowd -- a jammed-tight parking lot, for example -- and that could be an advantage. The 4-wheel-drive version is super-high -- an inch and a half higher than the standard Civic wagon.

It has lots of glass -- ``acres'' of it, it seems. Of course, that lets in more sunlight, which could mean more glare. On a hot day, it could mean a harder-working air conditioner as well.

Visibility is excellent. The front hood is so short and sloped that the driver really can't see it from behind the wheel. The car feels good, and a driver should feel right at home behind the wheel. All the controls are where you'd expect them to be.

Also, the transmission is super for the average-Joe driver. The car maneuvers the curves and sails up the hills with zest, but don't expect to be the first off the mark at a traffic light. The 1.5-liter, 12-valve engine is the same as in the standard Civic wagon.

The 4-WD wagon does well in snow or loose gravel. When not in the 4-WD mode, it's the front wheels that are powered, not the rear -- as in an increasing number of cars these days.

Like the Chrysler minivans, the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, the Civic wagon is designed as a versatile ``family car,'' not a hardworking station wagon or van. With manual transmission, the base price of the 4-WD is $8,649, plus options.

Gas mileage is quite satisfactory, although it won't compete with the HF version of the Honda CRX. The 4-WD wagon should give somewhere in the upper 20s, but for a light-footed driver on a long trip, it ought to get well into the 30s. At less than 2,200 pounds, the car is hundreds of pounds lighter than some of its competition.

It's hard to nit-pick the Civic wagon, with or without 4-WD. The Japanese carmaker has obviously done a good job in selecting the pieces and then putting them all together. There do not appear to be any basic flaws. But whether the Honda Civic 4-WD wagon is for any specific driver, only that driver can decide.

Personally, I liked it a whole lot.

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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