COAL: We Managed To Buy The One Unreliable Honda Civic

Honda Civic Hatchback

After we sold the reasonably unreliable Bronco II, we drove my classic Z28 for a few months. This included moving all our belongings between cities (minus a couch) in said Z28. If anyone has any familiarity with the second generation F-body, you know that trunk is miniscule, and while the doors are huge the passenger compartment isn’t. I’d also found my self in a 70+ km per day commute, so clearly another vehicle was needed. As we were getting married, we decided we needed a reliable and fuel efficient car to start this new chapter of our lives. What could possibly be more fuel efficient and reliable than a Honda Civic? Turns out quite a few things.


We both wanted something with a manual transmission that was reasonably fun to drive. After years of hearing how wonderful Hondas were and that they never broke down, it sounded awfully tempting after owning a few old clunkers. With what seemed like everyone talking about Honda like the second coming, we drank the Kool-Aid and decided on a Civic. I suppose it is worth noting that, for better or worse, this was the one and only time I’ve ever taken other folks car buying advice. If we were going to do this, then it would be done right: new or almost new.

1998 Honda Civic DX

After test driving a few, I found them quite fun to to drive in manual form. While the stick-shift equipped cars felt eager and lively, the automatics felt slow and lifeless by comparison. We found a year-old DX hatchback on a local Honda lot; it came with two options that I can remember; wheel covers and A/C. The same dealer had a handful of ex-courier vehicles for a bit less but they lacked A/C and came in only white. I have a thing against buying a white car;  I’d much rather have an expressive color. The Civic we picked out was a dark shade of purple which looked dark blue from some angles. It had some small but tasteful graphics on it as well. Above is the one and only photo I have of it taken after some of our wedding guests decided to decorate it at the gift opening. Those darned foil pompoms should be banned as it took days to get all the sticky glue residue off they left behind.

Civic interior

Shall we start with what I liked about the car? The interior was very logically laid out with all the controls easily accessible. Initially the gearshift was beautifully smooth; miles better than the workman-like shifter on my parents old Ford Tempo. The seats felt comfortable for the first half hour but any drive longer than that had me shifting and fidgeting like ten year old who has missed his ADD meds. My shorter wife didn’t have any comfort issue, so this one was likely just a quirk with my body proportions.

Honda Civic engine

After having driven only low revving engines before, the Honda four cylinder was a bit of a revelation. You can take the needle on the tach further than half way and the engine actually seemed to relish it. While no ball of fire, the Civic’s 1.6L engine put out 106hp @ 6200 rpm and 103 lb-ft or torque @ 4600 rpm. I actually quite enjoyed driving the car, which made its poor quality so much more frustrating.

transmission trouble

After only a few short months we had the gearbox replaced (thankfully) under warranty. It isn’t unusual to hear of an automatic gearbox failing, but even then it was quite uncommon to hear of a manual gearbox having to be replaced on a less than two year old car. Sadly that isn’t where it ended. There was a long list of annoying little complaints; a rattling dash here, a broken door handle there, etc., etc. Worst of all, the fuel economy was quite poor. In the city the fuel economy was merely disappointing but on the highway it was truly awful, only a little better than my V8 powered Z28. Clearly something was very wrong with it, but the dealer could never figure it out. Before long the replacement transmission showed tell tale signs of failing again.

Civic rear

It was a strange experience owning a sub-par Honda at the time. People would eagerly ask you how you liked your Honda, and when you said the car drove nice enough but was a bit of a lemon, they would express disbelief. I had more than one person flat out tell me that I was lying about an issue I had (I guess I imagined that transmission replacement!). I’d even show them the gyrating dash and some even suggested I’d sabotaged it. Like I’d want to wreck my own almost new car just to sully the reputation of a brand I had no personal stake in.

The Honda Cult thinking was very strong in the early 2000s, which actually worked to our advantage when we traded straight across for a more exciting car after less than a year with the Honda. While it wasn’t the worst car I’ve owned by a long stretch, it was the most disappointing.