BY JONATHAN CROUCH
If you're looking for a small second-hand 3-door hatchback or saloon that offers something a little different, then to be honest, there aren't many really obvious choices. You want your car to look individual; to have hi-tech features; to be safe and to hold its value when trade-in time comes. It's hard to think of a small car that meets all these criteria better than Honda's Civic - which is probably why so many second-hand buyers choose one.
Models Covered: Fourth generation Civic - 1987-1991: (1.3 Hatchback,Saloon [DX,GL]/ 1.5 Hatchback,Coupe [i,CRX]/ 1.5 VTEC Hatchback, Coupe) Fifth generation Civic - 1991-1995: (1.3 Hatchback [DX]/ 1.5i Hatchback, Saloon, Coupe [LSi]/ 1.5VEi Hatchback/ 1.6i Hatchback, Saloon, CRX Convertible [ESi]/ 1.6VTi Hatchback, Saloon, CRX Convertible) Sixth generation Civic - 1996-2001: (1.4i Hatchback/ 1.5i Saloon, Hatchback [LS]/ 1.5i VTEC-E Hatchback 5dr/ 1.6i Hatchback 5dr, Coupe [LS] / 1.6i VTi & SR Hatchback, Hatchback 5dr, Coupe)
Modern Civics start with the fourth generation car, which we examine from 1987 onwards. All in this guise were three-door hatches (though a saloon was added in December 1989). There was a baseline entry-level 1343cc DX hatch version but ignore it. Go for the 1.4-litre hatch or saloon with GL trim. There was also a pretty CRX Coupe model with a 1.6-litre engine (also optional in the hatch from 1990). These variants were also offered with the superb 1.6-litre VTEC engine from 1990. The fifth generation model was launched in 1991. A radical departure for Honda with swoopy, steeply raked lines, a stubby tail and a novel split two-piece tailgate. Again, the hatchback was three-door only, but a saloon was this time offered from the start. There was an entry-level DX hatch, but again, the bulk of the sales were concentrated at mid-range level - 1.5-litre LSi in this case, where there was also a saloon on offer. There was also a fuel economy orientated VEi hatchback version, which claimed to be as economical as a diesel. A pretty Coupe was introduced in 1994, but offered only with the standard 1.5-litre engine. The standard 1.6-litre engine could be found not only in both saloon and hatch but also in an unusual sporty model with lift-out roof panels - the CRX (not to be confused with the previous fourth generation Coupe model) which was launched in June 1992. This car was also offered with the potent VTi engine - also installed in the saloon and the hatchback. The sixth generation Civic was launched early in 1996 as a larger, Escort-sized car (though it didn't look much bigger). A five-door Civic with a dedicated bodyshell had gone on sale the previous summer (June 1995). Now with three and five-door hatchbacks, a saloon and ultimately also a coupe and estate in its armoury, the Civic could attack a wider market. The CRX was discontinued. Buyers could choose 1.4-litre power (three and five-door hatchbacks), 1.5-litre saloons and three-door hatchbacks, a 1.5 with a VTEC-E economy engine (five-door hatch), a 1.6 (Coupe and five-door hatch) and a 1.6 with VTi urge (mildly in the Coupe and five-door hatch, potently in the VTi three-door hatch and saloon). The saloon model was discontinued in the autumn of 1998. Early in 1999, the remaining three-door and Coupe models were mildly restyled, air conditioning added as standard and the VTi engine fitted to the Coupe. The range was phased out in early 2001, paving the way for a 3-door version of the new Civic 5-door scheduled for the Autumn.
What You Get
What many journalists have described as the world's finest small car. The fourth generation models are still worth having and you either love or hate the split-tailgate on the fifth generation post-1991 models. The most recent cars are larger and pricey. I would recommend going for a five-door (M-plate onwards) new generation car if you can afford it. All VTEC cars (even the early 1990 examples) are brilliant - driving enthusiasts queue here. If you can't afford one or want something less frantic but still sporty, try an L or M-plate fifth generation Coupe; it looks superb, particularly with alloy wheels.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Avoid DX models; you don't get power steering. Watch out for high insurance premiums on the VTi variants. Otherwise, there is very little to catch you out.
(approx based on a 1991 Civic 3dr LSi hatch - ex Vat) A clutch assembly is around £135 and an exhaust system about £280. Allow a budget for around £45 for front and rear brake pads. A radiator is about £165, an alternator about £330 and a starter motor around £245. A front headlamp costs from around £107.
On the Road
Like all Japanese hatchbacks, very simple to operate and to drive - though the VTEC sports hatches are still extremely rewarding for the enthusiast. Whether you like the 'slant-eyed' oriental look of the fifth generation post-1991 models is a personal matter; rather curious at first, but it does grow on you. What's far more important however, is the range of engines to be found under the Civic's bonnet. In terms of technology, this is far and away the most advanced second-hand small car you can buy.
If you want a small car and you don't mind the slight price premium for the technology and badge, the Civic should be high on your list. It is on mine.