COAL: 2000 Honda Civic HX – All VTEC-ed Up

I write today’s meditation as Red Bull claims the 2022 Formula One Constructor’s Championship in support of Max Verstappen’s record-breaking Driver’s Championship season.  Red Bull’s engine supplier is, of course, Honda Motor Company, although the Japanese firm has taken half a step back from full recognition and deeded the family jewels over to an energy drink-sponsored constructor, purportedly to focus on carbon neutral technology.  No one reckons that anyone but Honda has been calling the shots on engine development, but the company has its own convoluted agenda, one which has mandated several grand entrances into the sport followed by subsequent less-grand retreats.  Red Bull’s prowess this season may result in some self-reflection on Honda’s part.  Do they really want to abandon the sport when they’ve grabbed the brass ring again?  Maybe they’re considering that after all that treasure spent and midnight oil burned they should bask in the glory and take credit where credit is due, carbon spewing highly-stressed V6 notwithstanding.  Of course, we are not privy to discussions in the Red Bull and Honda corporate boardrooms, so we will likely never know.

I’m not bringing this matter up as a celebratory gesture given that Scuderia Ferrari is my team and has been since I was a little shaver.  As a long-suffering tifoso my hopes were raised early in the season only to be dashed as the races unfolded and Ferrari suffered a series of disasters, many of them self-inflicted.  Realistically speaking, I’m on the same spiritual plane as a Cubs fan; hope springs eternal and today’s reaction is, ‘just wait’ll next year’, shaken as my faith may be.

Today’s sermon concerns Formula One only tangentially, however.  This is, after all, a COAL contribution, and I’ve never owned or driven a Grand Prix car, although I have been close enough to touch one while its engine was still snap, crackle, and popping during its cooling down period.  Nevertheless, today we are focusing on engineering prowess in general, and Honda Motors’ in particular, whether or not it is directly applicable to Formula One.  But first we must set the stage.

Although they might not be as clean as their predecessors, at least the 2022 cars don’t look like mutant sea creatures from the Black Lagoon.

Honda has now won seven constructor’s championships as an engine manufacturer, with Williams, McLaren, and as of today, Red Bull.  That’s an admirable record any way you look at it, although they have a ways to go before they catch up with Ferrari, Mercedes, and Cosworth.  Only one other Japanese manufacturer has made a serious effort to compete in F1, and Toyota failed miserably.  (If I was feeling generous, I could cite Subaru’s aborted Motori Moderni flat twelve project, but I’m not feeling generous.)

Heart of Darkness.

This Formula One success has burnished Honda’s engineering reputation, and justifiably so as F1 is deemed to be the pinnacle of motor sport and its tech is very high, indeed.  Be that as it may, all of the major Japanese manufacturers have dabbled in various forms of racing over the years, some with significant success:  Mazda, for instance, was the first Japanese company to claim an overall win at the 24 Hours of LeMans with the glorious, ear splitting, rotary-powered 787B.  Toyota, with its much larger resources, accomplished the same feat some 27 years later, but then went on to win five in a row.  Nissan has raced for decades, succeeding in many arenas, but has never won LeMans outright, and the closest it has come to Formula One is when Infiniti slapped a sticker on the Red Bull cars during the era when corporate sibling Renault supplied the team’s engines.  Subaru has won three World Rally Championships, an arena it retreated to when its ill-starred Italian/Japanese F1 bastard child was abandoned and disappeared down the memory-hole.

The point is that Honda has outshone its domestic challengers when it comes to applying engineering skill at the very highest level.  Today’s principal question is:  so what?  Does any of that technology filter down to its mass produced vehicles in a meaningful way?  And, if Honda is such engineering powerhouse, shouldn’t it be driving automotive innovation?  Should the world demand more because, to quote Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility?

I’m not asking these questions in an attempt to deconstruct Honda’s reputation, but to examine where the company came from and where it’s going.  I do this as a long-term Honda owner and enthusiast, one who has been tempered by two or three decades of experience, both positive and negative.  This leads us to the subject of today’s missive, a 2000 Honda Civic HX coupe that we owned from new until its untimely demise just last spring when its overtaxed and over-geared heart finally gave way.

Clean as a whistle.

The setting for today’s story is at the dawn of the millennium, anno domini 2000, as the lease on our 1997 Nissan Sentra expired.  The Sentra is the only car we have ever leased and will likely remain so, not because it was a bust by any stretch of the imagination, but because we remained constantly in a State when driving it due to apprehension over scratching it, denting it, or leaving it in a parking lot where someone might run a shopping cart into it.  We fretted about exceeding the total allowed mileage and every other conceivable mishap that might shine an unfavorable light on us when the car was returned for inspection at the end of term.  In other words, the experience was like driving someone else’s car for three years, which essentially is what it was.

As it transpired, not much harm occurred during those years, at least not enough to impact the bottom line.  We paid a few bucks for exceeding by a few hundred miles the limit of 36,000 (at $.15 a mile, as I recall). I tossed the keys to the dealer rep, signed the paperwork, and the deed was done.  The drawback was that it seemed like a cold and heartless farewell to a car that had been part of the family, even though it might have been a distant cousin, twice removed due its leased status; I’d grown unaccustomed to such a short term relationship with a car.

All sentiment aside, the next problem to surmount would be finding a replacement.  The latest Sentra wasn’t my cup of tea, as I related last week my experience driving the next generation a few years down the road only to find that the car had lost any luster it may have once had while at the same time showing every indication of returning to the embrace of Mother Earth much sooner than anticipated.  So, with the Nissan stricken from the list, what were the other candidates?  The Corolla still didn’t necessarily appeal. I checked out a Hyundai Elantra that was very well-equipped, but Hyundai and Kia’s reputation as bottom feeders persisted at that juncture and even with a 10 year, 100,000 mile warranty, I didn’t trust its longevity factor.  The same went for the Dodge Neon, especially because it didn’t have the safety net of a decade-long warranty.  I found the Ford Focus appealing, but that choice was vetoed by Linda, who cited the once burned, twice shy maxim inspired by our faithless Aerostar.

So basically what remained on my short list was the Honda Civic.  Previous generations of Civics had at times seemed downright inspiring, all the way up until the current one, the sixth generation.  To my eyes, it seemed a bit stodgy, certainly not up to level of its ancestors, particularly the sleek and sophisticated fourth and fifth generations.  The exception was the coupe, which was still close enough in design to its immediate predecessor to warm the cockles of my cold, cold heart.  Consulting the weekend newspaper ads one more time, I found a new HX listed at a nearby dealer for a reasonable price. At that juncture I didn’t have much of a clue as to what the HX actually was or what its distinguishing features might be, so I headed off to the local library, which, given the glacial dial-up internet of the era, remained the fastest and easiest way to conduct research.

As it transpired, the HX proved to be the gas-sipper of the range.  It actually had a bespoke engine, the 1.6 liter SOHC 16 valve VTEC-E.  Note that while the standard DX and LX 1.6 arrived without VTEC, the HX was bequeathed with its very own version of Variable Valve Timing & Lift Electronic Control (thus the more easily memorable acronym) with an added ‘E’ for ‘economy’.  The science behind that mouthful was the presence of two camshaft profiles that provided better performance at high RPM’s and better gas mileage at lower RPM’s, at least on paper, in addition to the more common variable valve timing provided by many of Honda’s competitors,   This technology became highly vaunted, although the truth was that the benefits were only available for the intake valves on the SOHC engines because of design restrictions of the head, and the VTEC-E edition may have had other foibles, as well, but that would only become apparent later on.  The most noticeable difference between the VTEC-E and the normal VTEC installed in the Civic EX was the E produced 115 horsepower versus the non-E’s 127.

V-Tech, sort of.

The HX differed from its DX, LX, and EX brethren in minor details:  included in the specs were a set of 14 inch alloy wheels while the interior included power windows and mirrors together with a tachometer, plus its own dedicated upholstery fabric.  As such, it sat between the DX and LX on the lower end and the EX on the high end.  The HX lacked the EX’s sunroof and standard A/C.  It also had a different set of gear ratios for its manual transmission.  With its role as the fuel economy leader in mind, it was geared rather high which meant you were frequently shifting while running relatively low RPM’s throughout the range.  In layman’s terms, you were constantly lugging the engine, intentionally or not.

Clean design now passé.

All this tech information would become apparent by degrees in the years to come as Google came into play. . . it certainly wasn’t nestled in amongst the glossy photos of the dealer brochure.  Nevertheless with the minimal information at hand unveiled by my sleuthing skills, I checked out a silver HX in stock at the local Honda store and found it, as advertised, an appealingly low and sleek car, especially with its new for 2000 red and silver taillights.  Twenty years down the road the lowness seemed more vice than virtue as we struggled to climb in and out with aging knees and backs, but twenty-two years ago it awakened the Walter Mitty racer in me.  However, a test drive at city street speed seemed inconclusive.  Its lower center of gravity and wider wheels and tires (plus double wishbone suspension front and back), meant that its handling was sharper than the Nissan’s, but the five speed’s shift linkage called to mind the old spoon-in-a-bucket-of-oatmeal comparison.  Visibility was good with slim pillars and an expansive greenhouse for such a low-to-the-ground sportster.  On the other hand, acceleration was nothing to write home about.  On paper, the HX produced exactly the same 115 horsepower as the 1.6 Sentra, but the little coupe didn’t feel as quick, largely due to the gearing.  I seemed to spend a lot of time in second gear to avoid the deadly sin of ‘lugging the engine’.

The interior was a mixed bag; frankly, it wasn’t quite on the same level as the Sentra, but neither was it terrible.  The dash was covered with something that looked like elephant hide–I never really got used to it–and most of the surfaces were a dull industrial gray.  The seats were okay, but very firm with minimal padding and rugged velour upholstery that would wear like iron.  Dash and heater controls were very simple, well designed but maybe too basic in appearance.  All in all, the HX ‘s insides didn’t quite measure up to the Nissan experience, but then the little Sentra had been in a class of its own.  The one outstanding feature of the HX was its dead pedal, which was the real deal, not just a raised, carpeted area for your left foot, but a bolted-on affair with heavy duty tread like an all-season tire. I loved that thing.

Dead pedal just out of sight.

By this stage of the game I’d reached the limit of my patience with the whole car buying process, so making an executive decision, I signed on the dotted line after the usual bout of tense negotiations, although my worst fears of the anticipated Honda dealership shakedown failed to materialize.  The salesperson made only two or three half-hearted treks to the sales manager’s office before caving in to my last, best offer.  Impressed with my negotiating skills, I triumphantly drove the Civic home . . . in second gear.

No elephants were harmed in the making of this dash.

It seems strange that Linda wasn’t part of of the buying process, as the car became hers and she came to be deeply attached to it.  In hindsight, that affection is puzzling as the little Honda proved to be, after the much maligned Lancia and Aerostar, our most flawed vehicle.  The first few years were uneventful, but sometime after 35,000 miles, the Civic acquired quite a taste for motor oil.  Having swallowed the notion that Hondas were as reliable as the day is long together with being abstemious of both fuel and oil, this development came as a shock, but soon I was buying 10/30 in gallon jugs down at Pep Boys along with the rest of the GM and VW oil junkies.

Then, around the same time, the dreaded Check Engine light appeared.

Midway in the journey of our life, during the Geo’s tenure, in fact, we’d found the person we came to think of as our personal mechanic.  Tony runs a Japanese garage down on Greenwood with a photo of the Dalai Lama at the service desk, and if it came down to it I would probably trust him with my life.  Always composed and unruffled, he could even break bad news in a way that didn’t make you want to jump off the Aurora Bridge. I mention this fact only because there were times when the Civic would provoke such a reaction.  One of those occasions was the sight of the CL glowing in the dash once again like the Eye of Sauron.

Tony checked the codes, peered into the engine’s oily bits, and determined the problem:  the combustion chambers were all coked up.  What kind of gasoline were we pumping into the Honda, he asked.  My reply made him shake his head.  Truth is, I’d been filling up the Honda with the same swill I’d been using for nigh on twenty years without any repercussions, but it seems I’d tempted fate one too many times.  He recommended a top tier brand, and I took his advice.  Less than 10,000 miles later, the light was back on.  Tony shook his head in resignation.  It’s an issue with this engine, he said.  I started using top tier mid-grade, which lengthened the check engine episode to 15,000 miles.  After that, we just accepted it as scheduled maintenance.  I can’t give you the root cause of the coking issue, but I always assumed that the gearing, which had been chosen in the search for the grail of high EPA average, had something to do with it.  It seemed like you were always shifting down and the engine was still pulling at 1400 RPM’s.  It couldn’t have been the V-TEC, right? Or the fact that it was using oil at a prodigious rate (although it never failed an emissions test)?

The next major monkey wrench in the works was the ECU, which was replaced under warranty, fortunately, as the computer at the time ran over $700.  By this time I was starting to suffer Aerostar deja vu all over again, but the car was paid for and it got great gas mileage when it ran, plus, Linda loved to drive it, even if she was winding it out like a crazed Geo Metro half the time.

Factor in the two or three quarts of Pennzoil that I added between oil changes and a new exhaust system, plus a rebuilt transmission and new clutch just after the 100,000 mile mark (seriously?  I’d always thought a manual transmission should take you to the moon and back).   Don’t forget new timing belts and water pumps every 65,000 miles, plus occasional new brake pads and tires and the numbers begin to add up for what was ostensibly an economy car.  Amortized over a twenty-two year period, the sum total may not have been staggering, but later experience with another Japanese brand demonstrated how fragile and troubled the HX really was.

Icing on the cake was added when Linda returned to a Bellevue Park and Ride after carpooling to a Cascades hiking trail only to find that the Civic had gone AWOL.  A police report was made, an insurance claim was filed, and three weeks later the police called to inform us that the HX had been located.  I’d been in the process of searching for a replacement by that point, and was duly shocked at the news as we had assumed our Honda was likely in pieces and on its way to Russia or Kyrgyzstan.  We crossed the SR520 bridge in our Chevy Malibu rental to collect the prodigal at a towing yard and assess the damage.  Aside from a broken ignition switch, the damage was minimal, although the thieves won no Good Housekeeping awards.  The Civic cleaned up pretty well, though, after Tony installed a new ignition switch.  Linda’s Bluegrass CD’s had disappeared forever, though, probably into the nearest dumpster as judging by artifacts left behind the miscreants who jacked the HX were more into Death Metal.

In summary, it may be that our Civic was born under a bad sign.  Still, it had survived long enough to become a valued if not trusted member of the family and we intended to keep it there as we bequeathed it to our grandson last spring, but at that point its stout, if flawed, heart gave out, leaving us at last but not before setting the record for longest-surviving vehicle in our stable, a record unlikely ever to be broken.

With that homely tale under our belts, we can now briefly examine the Civic’s history in a larger context.  I freely admit that my singular example doesn’t necessarily reflect the aggregate Honda ownership experience; it seems certain that it does not or Honda wouldn’t have established its stellar reputation.  On the other hand, of the several Hondas that have been in my immediate family over the years, none has merited the trouble- free reputation of Honda story and song.  But at the moment we’re not examining the point of product reliability so much as the company’s reputation for engineering innovation and excellence.

Of course that reputation was based on disruption:  Soichuro Honda first changed the world of motorcycle manufacturing and then, undaunted and unfazed, took on the world automotive industry.  Before Tesla, there was Honda.  The bomb that the Civic and Accord set off in the ’70’s was the precursor of Elon Musk’s electric revolution in the sense that Honda was also built largely from scratch with little regard for industry convention.  Motorcycles, of course, had been Soichro’s bread and butter; he took what was essentially a cottage industry, introduced modern production methods and tolerances and conquered the world.  His engines were jewel-like, high-revving, OHC alloy marvels that laid to rest the pre-war technology that still defined post-war motorcycle production into the ’70’s.   Plus, they didn’t leak oil.

Good old days, pt, I.

For Honda, cars came somewhat later and they would cause quite a stir.  The first generations of the Civic and Accord may seem dated and quaint to modern sensibilities, but when introduced they were revolutionary in the American market, distinctly modern in their details, particularly when contrasted to the hidebound convention of Toyota, not to mention the usual Detroit suspects.  At that point, though, Honda was only getting warmed up.  The third and fourth generations of the Civic made most everything else in the automotive universe seem dated.  Admirable points were scored across the board, from the maturing front wheel drive platform to the styling that suddenly made the competitors seem like a decade behind the times.  Honda existed in a class of its own.

Fourth generation that shocked the industry,

The fifth generation may still have been admirable, but it had lost members of the range:  no more wagon, no more CRX.  The sixth, of which our HX was an alumnus,  slipped a bit further, but the seventh took a dive in both design and features.  The eighth made an effort to re-establish the Civic’s credentials with re-thought and repurposed design that looked nothing like the rest of the market, but it’s reception was mixed while its styling and interior alienated some.  The ninth, on the other hand, seemed to run up the white flag and stack its rifles before the dealership walls.  Drawn up during a financial crisis, it seemed a half-hearted attempt, timid in its styling, limited in its features, boring to look at and drive, which for a Honda may be the worst sin.  The company realized its mistake almost instantaneously, but the horse was out of the barn and the following generation seemed to overcompensate with overwrought boy-racer styling that looked like the product of an overstimulated fourteen year old in sixth period study hall.  The current generation seems to exist as a reaction to the the weaknesses of the previous generation, the result being it now looks completely anonymous.

The fact is, Honda is now the establishment, the mainstream, the status quo.  Apparently, they no longer care to innovate, either in styling or engineering, it would seem, but are content to follow and respond to the dictates of the market, rather than shape it.

An ad for the original Accord stresses a memorable point.  “We don’t build what is traditionally called big cars.  And we don’t intend to start.”  That may just be a line whipped up in a Madison Avenue agency, but I tend to think it really was the intention of  the company Soichuro Honda founded and as long as he was alive they held on to that standard.  But today?  In the American market the only thing resembling a ‘small car’ is the HR-V.  The new Civic is the size of the old Accord, which is now virtually indistinguishable from a Chevy Malibu.  Is the best-selling CR-V a small car by any stretch of the imagination?  And if the CR-V is a “traditionally called big car” then what do we make of the Pilot?  It’s not far off the dimensions of a ’76 Cadillac Seville.

Yeah, right . . .

Any automobile company must adapt to the market and the times, I get that.  But shouldn’t a company that  once bestrode the earth like a technological colossus and is currently able to dominate Formula One in its most tech distilled incarnation be able to do something more than be competitive in the market place?  I ask this as a Honda fan with the hope that Soichuro’s spirit may one day return to revive a company that might have lost its way.