The Honda Civic isn't just the car that turned one of the largest motorcycle companies into a big-time automaker. It's also the car that lit up the small-car performance movement.
Before the Civic, things like going fast, being reliable, front-wheel drive, and not sucking just didn't coexist with one another. It's the Civic that helped introduce the idea that "Japanese-made" didn't just mean inexpensive and fuel-efficient, and it did so for a whole new generation of import-based, car-modifying pioneers starting as far back as the '70s.
The Civic has changed just as much as the sort of people who buy, drive, and modify them have. Ten generations and more than 22 million of them have led to another 1,500 pounds' worth of heft; the rise, fall, and rise again of a North American Si and; even if you're not considering Type R models that the U.S. still isn't privy to, horsepower that's dang near quadrupled.
Today, the Civic's heritage runs deep, remaining one of the longest-running nameplates in automotive history, second only to Toyota's Corolla, yet with a fan base a whole lot larger and a whole lot more passionate.
The '73 Civic wasn't Honda's first car. It was, however, Honda's first car with something bigger than the two-cylinder, 600cc engine that the N600 came with and that more than two full-size Americans would have no trouble piling into for doing exactly what Honda's slogan implied: "It will get you where you're going." For the first time ever, consumers were exposed to a car that had the fit and finish of something out of Germany but with the reliability and flawless performance that, today, Japanese cars like the Civic are known for. And it did all of this for about $2,200. Midway through the first-generation Civic's production cycle, Honda introduced its CVCC (Controlled Vortex Combustion Chamber) engine technology, which is arguably what that first Civic is most known for and, even more so than what VTEC would later accomplish, is what characterized Honda as one of the world's leading engine manufacturers.
It's the oil embargo of the '70s that helped make cars like the first-generation Civic so popular, but Honda didn't need a national crisis to keep its momentum. Honda's second stab at the Civic was bigger in every way, resulted in as much as 67 hp, and featured CVCC technology across the board. The first glimpse of a performance-based Civic came in '83 with the introduction of the S trim. The Civic S was based on a chassis with a stiffer suspension, a rear antisway bar, more capable Michelin tires, and its emblem accented with what would become Honda's signature color of speed: red. By now, North Americans had also grown accustomed to the Civic's front-engine, front-wheel-drive layout, which, until now, was something of an anomaly. In addition to '73's hatchback, the Civic was now available in four-door and station wagon configurations.
It's the '84 Civic that you really care about—specifically, the CRX—which ushered in an era of sport-compact performance now three decades strong. The CRX Si, which was introduced for the '85 model year with a 91hp, 1.5L engine and weight-reduction characteristics like plastic fenders, made the Si the quickest Civic yet. Honda also introduced an HF model that featured a fuel-efficient, 1.3L, eight-valve engine that yielded 58 hp, more torque than the Si, and—at 57 miles per gallon on the highway—delivered the sort of fuel efficiency that even today's hybrids have a tough time beating. For the '87 model year, Honda outfitted station wagon models with its Real Time 4WD, which automatically directed torque to whichever wheels had the best grip; no longer would drivers have to figure all of this out on their own and then go fumbling for a lever to flip.
If the third-generation Civic and CRX didn't make you believe Honda was able to produce something with more than two wheels that was fun to drive, '88 would prove you wrong. It's also this Civic in particular—often wrongly referred to as the EF, which was never available in the U.S.—that's set more records and better cemented the Honda brand as a formidable racing entity than just about any other model. Aside from the CRX, Honda's fourth-generation Civic was offered in hatchback, sedan, and wagon body styles in trims ranging from the stripped-down and lightweight base model to the now-16-valve Si engine that was good for 105 hp out of 1.6L. Fuel injection was now standard on every Civic as was one of the most widely lauded, double-wishbone suspensions that was a result of Honda's involvement in Formula One and, for the first time ever, available four-wheel disc brakes.
No Civic better embodies the small-car performance movement than Honda's fifth-generation model. It's the first chassis that welcomed bolt-in engine swaps with parts borrowed from Integras and twin-cam-outfitted del Sols and featured one of the most capable double-wishbone suspension layouts of any FWD car to date. It's the '92-'95 Civic's timeless, rounded lines, mechanical simplicity, and cross-platform interchangeability with more expensive models that make the car popular some two and a half decades later. Curiously, Honda only fitted the seldom talked about Civic del Sol with one of history's most popular engines—the twin-cam B16A3—but it didn't take fifth-gen Civic coupe, sedan, and hatchback owners long at all to realize the similarities between the chassis (as well as the '94-'01 Integra's) and set off an engine swap movement that'd continue to grow for decades to come.
Honda's introduction of the sixth-generation Civic sans an Si model was but a foreshadowing of what was to become of the brand nearly a decade later. From '96-'98, the Civic was offered only in four-door formats that appealed little to Honda's performance base as well as a variety of coupes and CX and DX variations of the hatchback. Honda's innate ability of listening to consumers and then implementing changes midway through production cycles is, in part, what draws fans so closely to the brand and was demonstrated when the brand introduced, in limited numbers, the first-ever Si coupe for the '99 and '00 model years that featured a B16A2 engine similar to the del Sol's and performance more on par with the more expensive Integra GS-R. A seldom talked about CVT transmission was also implemented as far back as '96 on select HX coupes that featured the fuel-conscious, 115hp VTEC-E engine and, with little fanfare, the CRX-replacing del Sol was discontinued halfway through the sixth-generation Civic's production cycle.
It's the Civic Honda fans love to hate but for no real good reason. It's true that Honda's famed double-wishbone suspension was ditched here for MacPherson struts that allowed for more interior space and a smoother ride. It's also true that the Si wasn't given the more powerful K20A2 that it deserved. But that doesn't take away from the seventh-generation Civic Si having the most torque of any Si to date, even if it would be outperformed in almost every way by its predecessor. Aside from the Si, for '03, a hybrid model was also introduced, all the while performance-minded enthusiasts began to skip past the brand altogether or wait it out for the forthcoming model.
Honda says goodbye to the hatchback for model years '06-'11 and brings back the Si in coupe form along with an unprecedented Si sedan. Here, one of the best iterations of i-VTEC is unveiled in the form of the Si's K20Z3, making it the most powerful North American-bound Civic to date and with the sort of options previous Si buyers could only hope for, like a six-speed manual transmission with a standard limited-slip differential. Nanny controls like stability control are standard across the lineup now as are a slew of airbags and a curb weight that'll make even a '90s Accord sedan blush.
The ninth-generation Civic Si did to the car's image what the seventh-generation model accomplished. The absence of VTEC on the intake side as well as a new integrated exhaust manifold meant generating more power was going to be a whole new experience. An all-new, 2.4L engine replaced the 2.0L, making it the biggest Civic engine in history, but with a negligible power difference. The all-new Civic was also much more refined than older models, but not necessarily in a good way, isolating drivers from the road and instead appointing the entry-level Honda with luxuries once expected only from the Acura brand.
Nothing speaks to Honda recognizing its performance base than talk of a first-ever North American Civic Type R and, after an 11-year hiatus, a Civic Si hatchback, both of which are yet to be released. In the meantime, the tenth-generation Civic is available with either a 2.0L, 158hp twin-cam engine or the first-ever turbocharged powerplant that's good for 174 hp, both with available CVT transmissions. It's still a little too soon to tell just how well received either powertrain will be, or the coupe and sedan bodies that they're placed inside of, but what Honda enthusiasts are really holding out for isn't that 1.5L turbo engine but that red badge Americans haven't seen since '01.