It’s easy to forget or understate what an absolute bombshell Honda dropped on us, GM, and the small-car market in the fall of 1983 with its all-new 3rd generation Civics. It arrived in four completely distinct and unique body styles; the two-seater CRX, the relatively conservative four-door sedan, the sporty hatchback, and the Jack-of -all-trades hi-boy wagon. Nobody had ever attempted anything nearly as ambitious as this before; a full family of small cars, each perfectly optimized for its intended mission. Which was, of course, to utterly devastate and demoralize GM, Ford and Chrysler.
It must have been an ugly day on the 14th floor of GM’s headquarters when Roger Smith and his acolytes first realized what just hit them. GM’s new 1982 J-cars, although originally designed to compete against the Accord, stumbled at that right goal out of the starting gate. Now the J-cars were under attack from below, and GM had nothing except its ancient, hoary Chevette. The 1983 Civics were the coffin nails in GM’s small car program. No wonder Roger Smith went off the deep end and decided to launch his ill-fated Saturn moon-shot at about this time. The Civic made me do it!
And given that the Civic had essentially defined the new sub-compact FWD hatchback genre (in the US), this does represent its seminal body style. But the new gen3 version was a huge jump stylistically, and one that would set the basic proportions right until the end of this body style.
As a refresher, here’s the gen2, which was a direct evolution of the original Civic.
The gen 3 was a clean sheet car, and pioneered the low-cowl and Kammback design that came to define Hondas and Civic hatchbacks in particular for quite some time. This black hatch is an Si, which arrived in 1986 for the last two years of this generation, and was the one to really want, and get. Instead of the regular Civic’s 76 hp 1488cc SOHC four (with carburetor), the Si had the same spunky 91 hp fuel injected version of the 12 valve four as the CRX Si.
Here’s what the Si engine looks like; it was the appetizer for what was yet to come; a first taste of so many legendary Honda high performance fours that would come to utterly redefine what a small car engine was capable of. It was an engine that made a GM’s pushrod fours feel utterly obsolete. The whole Civic-tuner cult started right here.
Needless to say, even more powerful versions were available in Japan and other markets, but 91 net hp in such a light and lithe little car made for superb performance at the time, with 0-60 in some 9 seconds or less. And needless to say, these cars were an absolute ball to drive, with their slick-shifting transmissions, highly responsive steering, and superb handling thanks to a low center of gravity and wide track along with a well-sorted suspension of struts in the front and a simple but effective beam rear axle. The way everything worked together was the key; there was simply no weak link.
These 1986-1987 Civics also had a revised front end with aerodynamic composite headlights. And the automatic transmission now had four gears. When was a four-speed automatic available on all Cavalier models? 1996. As in ten years later.
The interiors were every bit as ahead of the pack as the engines: a low dash with unparalleled sight lines and a instrument binnacle containing all the requisite instruments in simple and highly legible form. The tachometer in these was something that got plenty of eyeball time, as the FI Si engine was a happy revver at a time when that was still largely not the case. In just about every way, this generation Civic was a good 5-10 year ahead of much of the competition, at least that much in comparison to the domestic small cars of the time.
This is the interior of the blue DX 1500; it’s an automatic, and the interior is not as nicely trimmed, but it was all done cleanly and with good quality materials.
Am I biased about these Civics? You bet. We briefly had a gen2 wagon, and then a gen3, one of the first ones in Santa Monica at the time. It was a revaluation, on a number of levels, most of all the packaging, which has always bee a big deal for me, given my height and for whatever other reason. Maybe it’s a Teutonic thing. This little tall-boy wagon was amazingly roomy, given its tiny overall length. I used to hop in the huge back seat with our two little kids back there on road trips. I can see myself there now.
And although Stephanie’s wagon had the automatic by necessity, it was still a ball to drive, especially to our regular hikes up at Topanga State Park via Topanga Canyon Road, one the classic drives in the LA area. My kids learned early that experiencing centrifugal forces is a good thing. And you wonder why I drive an xB? It’s the closest thing there is to one of these Civic wagons.
No power and electric steering, just good old mechanical manual steering, which required just a wee bit of effort parking but was not ever a chore, back in the days when folks still had some muscle tone even if they didn’t go to the gym. And once the wheels were rolling, there’s nothing better than the unfiltered feel of the road through a mechanical steering system. Oh well; progress.
In the fall of 1983, this was the face of progress, and the Civic set a standard so far ahead, that none of the competition could ever really hope to match it. And for much of the time ever since, that’s been mostly true. But never as much so as then; the Civic’s finest moment.
CC 1987 Civic Sedan: The Gift That Is Still Giving G Beckenbaugh