Curbside Classic: 1991 Honda Civic Hatchback – Citizen Of The World

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There are people who don’t feel any particular allegiance to their given nationality, but rather, claim a more global identity.  Likewise, while many cars undeniably reflect their national origin, there are others whose unique character makes their identity much more difficult to pin down.  Honda’s fourth generation (EF) Civic was one of the best ambassadors of this concept, bringing the company’s cosmopolitan ethos to buyers all around the world.

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While certainly a success, it never matched the global sales volumes of either of the Golf or Corolla, and whereas those cars typified small German and Japanese family cars, respectively, the EF Civic brought forth its own unique virtues in a lean package.  And while earlier iterations were more European in concept, with later models becoming increasingly Americanized, the fourth generation balanced all these values together almost perfectly, as did its predecessor.

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Coming hot on the heels of that car’s success, the new for 1988 Civic continued to capitalize on that car’s reputation for sportiness but with a greater emphasis on solidity and finesse.  In the process of creating their new subcompact, Honda wound up with a chassis whose fundamentals, with periodic changes in size and other refinements, managed to keep the Civic, Integra and CRV at or near the top of their respective classes until 2001, when a more mundane architecture superseded it.

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Design-wise, the new car was a basic rehash of the old model, with rounder edges and an even lower profile.  The four basic bodystyles continued as well, with a range based around a three-door once again distinguished by a long-roof and shallow tailgate design, accompanied by an increasingly popular sedan, a tall-boy five-door wagon, and, of course, the CRX coupe.  This would be the last Civic to take this rather expensive approach to create such a diverse–but aesthetically and mechanically unified–lineup.

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There’s plenty to suggest that this was most over-engineered car to compete in its segment, with no competitor from Japan or Europe approaching the complexity of its chassis design.  Well advanced in its development before a 1985 treaty intentionally devalued the US dollar and exacerbated the Yen’s appreciation, and introduced a few years before the burst of Japan’s bubble, the 1988 Civic was one of the last cars to represent Honda’s traditional approach to new car development before a change in management in the early ’90s reigned in engineers’ zeal.  A lot of Japanese cars from this era showed an ambitious spirit, but the Civic was unique in its comparative aversion to gadgetry.  Adjustable suspensions, turbochargers and digital dashes were not a part of the plan and the most basic Civics had a lot in common with the high-end models, with cylinder heads being most notable area of mechanical divergence.

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If the inclusion of a four-wheel double wishbone suspension was a step above the competition for the Accord, in the Civic, it was an example of sophistication no one else could match at the price point.  Even better, its implementation in the Civic was even more ingenious, with a large pressed steel trailing arm/hub carrier for each rear wheel, with a main lower link used to locate them laterally.  As with the company’s other contemporary designs, a short, upper lateral link kept camber constant throughout the wheel’s travel, but it mounted directly to the trailing arm and linked it to the body inside the wheel, taking up much less space.  The most clever aspect of the design was the use of an additional compensating link which attached to the opposite end of the trailing arms which, unusually, extended forward of their bushings.  This short link moved in the opposite direction of the main lateral links and negated the toe changes which would ordinarily occur under load.

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Engines sold in US were mildly tuned variants of the D-block, with the hottest 1.6 liter versions receiving multi-point fuel injection to make 108 horsepower (initially 105).  More commonly installed was a 1.5 liter engine using dual fuel injectors in a throttle body/multi-point compromise producing 92 horsepower and 89 lb-ft of torque.  The big news at the time was the use of a single cam to drive sixteen valves using rocker arms.  Despite the understated nature of the car, these were the first of Honda’s workaday engines that hinted at high strung power delivery that, for better or worse, came to characterize the company in the ’90s.  Overseas, the ZC (shared with the first gen Integra, using the same block as the standard SOHC D-series engine) was the initial high-end engine offering, but VTEC engines debuted halfway through the EF’s model run.  

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The white car featured here is easily distinguished as a 1991 because this was the only year DX hatchbacks were given wheel covers and body colored bumpers.  If you wanted an automatic transmission or power steering in your hatchback, they came together, and only in this trim level, which came with the 92 horsepower 1.5.  Base trim level hatchbacks got a detuned version of the same engine making seventy horsepower (how the engine was detuned so much while maintaining the same sixteen valve design, fuel-injection system and compression ratio would be interesting to know), a four speed gearbox and vinyl seats.  If you wanted a sunroof, the hatchback was again your go-to, in Si trim, which only came with a close ratio five-speed and a variable ratio manual steering rack.  Finding a clean EF hatchback these days isn’t easy, especially if you have your heart set on an Si, and isn’t cheap.

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There’s an old school American influence to the design, in that the Civic hatch is a rare small car with low, inefficient proportions, almost like a Vega or Pinto.  That, along with its ‘tweener dimensions, limited its appeal against the likes of the Peugeot 205 or VW Golf in Europe, as well as in Japan, where the Corolla’s mini-Crown vibe kept it a best seller for years.  But in the United States, where the extent of the car’s capacities would be tested by single owners or very small families, the hatch was a strong seller.  This automatic-equipped example with dealer-installed A/C would’ve run about $11,000, making it no more expensive than most of the Japanese competition.

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Unlike the competition, Japanese or otherwise, the Civic stood out with an effervescent spirit that brought to mind a sporting Italian or British hatch.  Even without blistering performance, these cars were a lot of fun to abuse in daily driving, and took well to aggressive treatment, with a hard-edged engine note.  It’s no wonder that these cars are popular with the same crowd which loves the Miata (which turned twenty-five this year).  Performance characteristics of the two cars aren’t entirely dissimilar, and in DX trim with a manual transmission, the Civic reached sixty in about 9.5 seconds and went on to a top speed of about 110 miles per hour.  35 to 40 miles to the gallon was easily achieved in most driving, though all these figures undoubtedly suffered with the automatic.  The only other car which could compare was the Golf, in 1.8 liter Digifant form, though it was a comparatively supple, mature car, with a tippy-but-grippy feel and more low-end punch.  Not that any such comparison held much weight in the US, where VW sales were in the toilet at the time.

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Also like the Miata, the Civic brought a degree of serenity and ergonomic sanity to go along with the taut ride motions and sharp throttle response that made the cars stand out dynamically.  But even when driven sedately, there were unique characteristics helped define the Civic as different from its more clinical Japanese brethren.  One could point to the virtually silent idle, on the positive side, and more controversially, the low driving position and the dramatic view out the windows, which could be likened to sitting on a sled, or the loud, chirpy sound of the starter and the clatter of solid valve lifters.  Like all Hondas back then, it was a car you could identify blindfolded.

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As the Japanese and global economy changed, so did Honda’s corporate structure.  The EF would be one of the last Civics to remain true to the spirit of the 1973 model, and while its character and basic architecture were strong enough last up until 2000, a larger body and reoriented marketing trajectory morphed the car into a more American, family friendly proposition, with its shaper edges literally and figuratively filed off.  This was reflected in a more upmarket approach for the sedan and, by 1996, a much less prominent role for hatchback versions in North America.  With the Yen’s steady appreciation versus the dollar, lower production costs were pursued, leading to a process of decontenting and, eventually, longer development intervals, though the cars still remained satisfying through their fifth and sixth generations.

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With Toyota content to turn the Corolla into an anonymous droner sold in basic trim levels with extra value packages, and consumers giving secondary consideration to the excellent Protege and 1991 Sentra, the Civic remained largely unchallenged in the US market.  GM, of course, treated Saturn like a housing project (good intentions rapidly giving way to neglect) and the exciting Neon was rapidly abandoned by consumers due to its half-baked development, so Honda never again had little pressure in its largest market to commit to the sort of innovative approach which made the EF and its predecessors so unique among its competition.  The much larger, well equipped and fashionably styled fifth generation car cemented the Civic as the car for the import tuner crowd, but other than some trick cylinder heads, there wasn’t much to write home about.

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By the time any serious rivals came around, Honda was no longer the same company and subsequent Civics sometimes didn’t even achieve parity with the best of the competition.  Today, the Civic isn’t even sold in Japan and the car marketed in Europe is very different from the one sold in North America.  How ironic that in a hyper-globalized economy, the profits margins needed to make a world beater are that much harder to come by.

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