Curbside Classic: 1980 – 1983 Honda Civic (gen2) – The Best Small Car By Unanimous Consent

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(first posted 12/15/2013)     It’s hard to remember the web V.1, when interactive commenting wasn’t yet a common feature. I’ve learned more about cars from the comments to my (and others) articles in the past seven years than all the years before. Usually there’s at least some dissension, often quite a bit. But two cars really stand out from all the ones I wrote up at the old site, because the response was so uniformly unanimous (and polarized) about them. Those two cars both first appeared here in 1980: This generation of Honda Civic and the Chevrolet Citation. Need I say more?

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The Civic’s spectacular rise to the top of the American sales charts in its class is one of the greatest stories in modern automotive history. We covered the first chapter here recently. It was the spiritual successor to the VW Beetle, and like a little cherry bomb lobbed into a Weight-Watcher’s convention. Tiny, tinny, rude and crude as it was, the first Civic already embodied the unique qualities, if in somewhat embryonic form, that would revolutionize the American small car market and establish Honda’s meteoric rise.

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And the gen2 Civic was big step forward; now instead of wearing a Civic like a badge of honor, one could now actually step into it and think of it as a legitimate car. How civil and civic-minded. But the best was yet to come.

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In 1983, Stephanie developed carpal tunnel syndrome, and she blamed it on the Peugeot 404 wagon I put together for her for $100. It was an awesome car, but it obviously lacked power steering. But in my new job, I had access to perks including a trade-out with a long-term rental outfit in LA. So the Pug sadly went away to good home, and Stephanie found herself behind the wheel of a blue Civic wagon exactly like this one, which still manages to look like new thirty years later. It didn’t have power steering either, but it must have felt like it to her.

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Just goes to show you how times change: we had two small kids then; if it was today, it would undoubtedly have been a Pilot or Odyssey. But in 1983, this was the biggest and only wagon Honda made, all 1900 lbs of it, 40% of what an Odyssey weighs. So what do I remember about it? Since it was replaced with a brand new 1984 Civic Wagon (Wagovan/Shuttle) within a couple of months, my impressions are rather overshadowed by its much more memorable and fun to drive gen3 successor.

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OK; I’ve transported myself back behind the wheel of the gen2 Civic wagon: it’s adequately big enough even for me, but then I’ve always done fairly well in small cars despite my height. The unassisted steering is surprisingly light and accurate, and the whole car has that distinctive old-time Honda feel: delicate yet robust. It’s the remarkable synthesis of these two opposing forces that were the brand’s hallmark.

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The gen2 Civic was not an overtly sporty car, especially the longer sedan and wagon, yet it wasn’t un-sporty either. There’s that Honda juxtaposition again. Honda certainly knew what it took to make wild and screaming motorcycles and sports cars  back then, but chose to export relatively mild-mannered cars, at least for the first some years.

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The gen2 1500cc Civic CVCC engine generated 67 hp at a modest 5,000 rpm. But it was smoother than any inline four (of similar size) at the time, and had a decent torque curve to keep Americans from having to exercise their right arms too much, since the overwhelming majority back then were sticks. Honda was out to capture the mainstream buyer before it could be troubled to introduce new variations, as that kept production simplified.

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The specs of Honda motors explains their torque curve and low redline: these were massively undersquare motors; their 2.91″ bores much smaller than their 3.41″ stroke (almost the same as a 5.7 L Chevy V8). Actually, all Honda fours except the S2000 engine were and still are significantly undersquare, which makes the later DOHC, 16 valve and VTEC engines all the more remarkable for their high revving ability. Some of these fours have strokes close to 4″. That’s getting impressively close to one of the all-time long-stroke champs, the 4.2 L Jag XK engine, which I remember off the top off my head to have a 4.2″ stroke.

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The point of that digression departure was the Civic’s lack of overt sportiness. Yet it was always fun to drive, especially given the alternatives of the times. Finding a Civic driver of this era who didn’t have fun with it is about as easy as a 1980 Citiation owner who will rave about its reliability and quality. It’s unanimous.

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Before I forget, Honda’s first overtly sporty Civic variant, the S model, arrived for the 1983 MY, the last year of this generation. I haven’t seen one in ages, but here’s one from the web (above). The best I can tell though, is that it didn’t actually have more power (except in some markets), but some external and internal displays of sportiness, a firmer suspension and bigger tires. But it was just the first mild preview of ever hotter coming attractions.

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The other Civic hatch variant was this 1300 FE, which was Honda’s mileage queen with (old) EPA numbers of 41/55.  That probably adjusts to about a 40 mpg average in today’s numbers, not bad for a carbureted motor without any electronic controls.

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This generation Civic was really the breakthrough version in terms of mainstream acceptability, at least on the coasts anyway. In LA, these Civics were massively popular, practically the default car to buy if in the market for a compact economical car with stellar reliability to boot. These were the days when if you wanted one, you put $500 down and awaited a call from the dealer when your car came in. There were probably half a dozen in the parking lot outside my office window. The younger women went for the hatch, but what really sent Civic sale skyrocketing was the sedan, which arrived one year later in 1981.

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Quite the smart move by Honda, especially since it arrived in the heart of the second energy crisis. I assure you that a whole lot of fat Cougars and T-Birds were being traded in on these cute baby sedans during that massive run-up in gas prices right when this generation arrived. And not all that much interior space was given up in the process of tripling or quadrupling mileage. The rear seat in the Civic was undoubtedly easier to get at and more commodious than the wretchedly cramped back seats of the personal luxury coupes.

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I know if I mention the reliability and durability of these little Hondoos, I’m going to hear it from our rust-belt contingent: “they all succumbed to the tin worm twenty years ago”. So be it. But there’s plenty of these now thirty-year old Civics running around of the streets in daily front-line service here, and as is all too obvious, if kept on a low-sodium diet, they hold up very well indeed, as all these hale and hearty daily drivers show.

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Ironically, that does not seem to apply to the thin velvety mouse fur upholstery Honda used in the sedans. The vinyl used in the wagons and most hatches seems to survive ok. But the rest of these Civics were doing their best to cultivate the rep for longevity that Hondas quickly developed.

But Honda was just getting their mojo warmed up with this generation; what followed in the subsequent two generations was perhaps the pinnacle of the Civic, in relation to the their competition and the standards of the times, if not forever. How does one improve on unanimity? Only Honda seemed to know that.

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