CC Driving Impression: 1998 Honda Civic LX – My Two Weeks With A Curbside Classic

My daughter is working out of town this summer and only gets home every couple of weeks.  When her car needed some service work done recently, she took my Honda Fit and left me with her car, this lovely little 1998 Civic.  After spending a couple of weeks getting better acquainted with it, I thought I would share the experience.

My used car buying habits have been remarkably stable over the years.  I have tended to buy the cars of grandparents.  Usually they were other peoples’ grandparents, but sometimes they have been grandparents within my own extended family.  My three children have continued this trend, and have bought an ’89 Grand Marquis, an ’06 Buick LaCrosse and this Civic.

I have had a passing familiarity with this car for its entire life.  I had written about my mother in law’s Chevy Spectrum (Isuzu I-Mark), which served as decent transportation but which was a really awful little car.  This is the car that replaced it, and it could not have been more different.  The Anti-Spectrum?  After Helen’s passing, her son kept the car until about a year and a half ago, mainly using it as a go-to-work vehicle to protect his pristine Toyota Avalon from the hard life of commuting and parking downtown.  But when he decided to upgrade to a new Honda Pilot, he cut a deal with my daughter and she found herself the owner of this little Civic, with all of about 65,000 miles on it.

In 1979 I bought a twenty year old Plymouth Fury.  Although it drove in a relatively modern way, the car was a rolling anachronism.  Every control was different from what one might expect on a typical mid ’70s counterpart.  I pushed buttons to shift gears, pulled on a refrigerator handle to open doors and had to plan way ahead for oil changes to be sure that I would be able to get the cartridge-style oil filter element from my local parts store.

This is not my actual car. Mine was a sedan and lacked fender skirts. Otherwise, it is representative of my car’s color and condition.

 

I did the same thing all over again in 1987 when I bought a ’66 Plymouth Fury III.  By this time the driving experience was way out of sync with the typicical 1980’s car, not to mention that it was of a size that had become completely obsolete outside of the world of big American pickups and vans.  I started it with a key on the dashboard, blew the horn by pushing a chrome ring with the palm of my hand and parked it with a single index finger as I spun the big turquoise plastic steering wheel boosted by the (in)famous Chrysler “Full Time” power steering.  Both of those cars got attention wherever they went and were of styles that stood out in any parking lot.

This Honda?  It is hard to imagine a more normal car, even in 2017.  This thing is within rounding error of 20 years old but with a couple of exceptions it is very hard to tell.  A small silver four cylinder sedan with air conditioning, power windows and cloth seats.  You could go into a Kia or Hyundai dealer tomorrow and buy something very much like this car, a nice little silver sedan that will take you where you need to go for a very long time.

But let’s talk about those exceptions.  First, it has been a long time since I have driven a car without a remote control for the door locks.  To get in, put the delightfully thin little key into the lock cylinder and turn it.  No, the other way.  Do you have a passenger?  Unlock the other doors from the switch inside.  Do you have something to put in the back seat?  Unlock the other doors.  When you get out, put the key in the lock cylinder in the door and turn it to lock all the doors.  No, the other way.  After you get twenty feet from the car and wonder if you locked it – turn around, walk back and try the handle.  Life in 2017 without a clicker is hard!

The other problem is more common and affects cars a lot newer than this, and that is the lack of any connectivity between the radio and your phone or other music devices.  One of those little adapters that beams a radio frequency to the antenna takes care of this one, but it is (again) not a perfect solution.

Beyond these things, there is not a lot to note.  OK, other than that I am driving one of the classic Hondas of all time.  This is the car that so many remember fondly, but I am experiencing it afresh.  And let me tell you about it.  First, this car is very low, significantly lower than my ’07 Fit.  It is a bit of a fall to get into it and a bit of a climb to get out.  In fact, I exit by my Miata-Method, which is to swivel and get both feet on the pavement before standing up.  You put the thin key into that wonderfully precise-feeling Honda ignition, turn it two distinct “clacks” and get that sound.  The “Du-whir dwir dwir dwir” always reminded me just a bit of the old Chrysler reduction gear starters of my youth, only without the metallic edge.

The little four fires right up and settles down to a smooth idle, albeit one that you can feel in your hands just a bit as you hold the steering wheel.  Shift into drive and your are off.  I expected the car to be very similar to my Fit, but I was wrong.  The Civic is much more of a cruiser than a zippy little sportster.  I understand that this generation of Civic moved the needle away from boy racer, though the car was still equipped with Honda’s signature double wishbone suspension.  The steering is significantly slower than that of my Fit and the ride is significantly smoother.  In fact all of the inputs seem a little slow and, dare I say, old fashioned.  As are the cute little windshield wipers.

The other big difference is that Honda 4 speed automatic.  My ’07 Fit with its 5 speed automatic was the first automatic mated to a four I ever drove that did not constantly shout in my ear how much better life would be with a stick shift.  This car takes me back to the old days.  With a 5-speed and a clutch pedal, this would be a fun car.  With the automatic, it is a droning little four that never gets to the happy spot in its rev range until perhaps you are at 75 mph on the highway.  There, its 3,000 rpm cruising speed works, and nicely.  Another gear in the autobox or a third pedal would improve the experience a lot.  What would also help a lot is replacing the shifter cable which seems to be sticking when shifting into or out of Park.  I improved things with a little lubrication, but this seems to be a problem as these cars age and a job that will no doubt be done before too much longer.  So to summarize, the little 1.6L four will really scream if you stand on the gas pedal and hold it there so that it gets into the 4,000-6,000 rpm sweet spot where all the magic happens.  But for all other driving it is just sluggish in a way that every high-revving four used to be when mated to an autobox.

Speaking of highway driving, this car tops my Fit in several ways.  There is a lot more leg room in the Civic, although the raw numbers don’t make this very clear.  The driver of the fit sits higher, thus increasing the volume calculation.  In the Civic the driver’s legs have more room to stretch out forward which I find more comfortable over long stretches.  The legs-out seating is a huge improvement over my Fit in one particular respect, which is that it is so much more relaxing on the gas pedal ankle which is always at rest rather than pulling up against gravity.  I will add that this car passes the Jason Shafer Console Test (TM) with ease.  As mentioned earlier, the fatter Michelin tires smooth out the bumps a lot better than the low profile numbers on my Fit.  This car can take an entrance or exit ramp at significantly higher than the posted speed, but it isn’t quite as fun as in my Fit.  And finally, I find the seat more comfortable for drives of longer duration.

My daughter had been wanting a “cool old car” and has been a bit let down about this Honda.  She loved the odd purplish burgundy of our old Crown Victoria (Dark Cranberry Metallic in Fordspeak) and finds this little silver sedan to be rather lacking in personality.  After spending a couple of weeks in this car I have to disagree.  This car is a wonderful example of the era when Honda’s small sedan was morphing from a curious Japanese subcompact to the big time mainstream.  So many people my age recall Honda’s golden age, and this car was right smack in the middle of it.  It may lack some of the driving dynamics of earlier Civics, but it also lost the tendency to rust to powder in five years.  If driving a twenty year old car is about impressing others, this is not the twenty year old car for you.  But if you are willing to be content with soaking up the good (and the little bit of bad that comes with it) of Honda’s peak years, this is the way to do it.