The advent of a new – or, revised – Honda Civic for the 2013 model year happens to coincide with the model’s 40th anniversary. You can catch a good overview of the new 2013 Civic by reading our First Look here, but for a brief retrospective, keep reading.
The Civic doesn’t seem like a quantum leap, but at the time, it certainly was for Honda, at least in the United States. Compared with the previous N600 and Z600, the larger, more powerful Civic seemed more like an actual automobile – or, at the very least, one that Americans could easily adapt to. Three years after its initial debut, Honda sold 100,000 Civics – a grand number, considering Honda sold but 20,000 N and Z models combined in 1972. In 1975, Honda’s CVCC stratified-charge technology debuted on a 1.5-liter I-4 offered in the Civic. The engine was able to run clean enough to meet the EPA’s new emission standards without the use of a catalytic converter. Body styles included both a 3- and 5-door hatch (the latter called a sedan), and a station wagon joined the lineup in 1976.
The second-generation Civic looked much like its predecessor, but close inspection revealed the compact grew – its wheelbase gained two inches over the previous model. Both the 1.3- and 1.5-liter I-4s used CVCC technology, and a FE model – added in 1982 – used a five-speed manual gearbox to attain a 41/55 mpg city/highway rating from the EPA. Civics were lightly restyled in 1982, gaining rectangular headlamps and black bumpers; a sport-tuned S model joined the lineup in 1983.
After three years on the market, the second-generation model gave way for a larger, boxier Civic, which bore folded-paper styling that lent it a surprisingly contemporary feel. The sedan now looked like a proper notchback sedan, while wagons gained a tall, funky, minivan-like profile. A two-door, two-passenger fastback model – the CRX – was added to the portfolio. It was originally envisioned as a fuel-sipping commuter car, but a fuel-injected, 91-hp Si model debuted in 1985. The Civic Wagon gained all-wheel-drive in 1985 and automatic all-wheel drive in 1987, essentially paving the way for small “cute-ute” crossovers decades later. The Civic hatchback was given the Si treatment in 1986, and used the same fuel-injected engine as the CRX Si, along with unique color-matched spoilers. Honda also began building some Civics in a new plant in Ontario, Canada, in 1986.
The fourth-generation Civic looked quite similar to its predecessor, but its lines were lower, longer, and sleeker than before. The previous beam rear axle was ditched; Civics now made do with independent suspension – double wishbone setups, actually — at both ends. All Civic engines were now fuel injected, whereas the feature was previously restricted to Si models. Speaking of the Si, the CRX Si gained a 16-valve head, while the Civic Si hatchback skipped the 1988 model year before returning for 1989. Honda also began manufacturing Civics in Ohio starting in 1988. Little changed for either the 1990 or 1991 model years, save for the advent of a top-tier Civic EX sedan that gained the Si’s 16-valve engine.
The Civic’s folded-paper, wedge-shaped body was finally laid abandoned with the introduction of the fifth-generation model. The Civic Wagon model was dropped from the Civic lineup at long last, but a two-door , five-passenger notchback coupe was added in 1993. Also dropped from the lineup was the CRX, but a new two-passenger notchback coupe complete with a removable targa top, known as the del Sol (or the CRX del Sol overseas) was added later that same year. In 1994, the del Sol gained a VTEC trim level that featured a hot 160-hp, 1.6-liter I-4 with VTEC variable valve timing.
The Civic grew yet again; hatchbacks now shared their wheelbase with coupes and sedans, instead of coming in a few inches shorter. A new HX coupe was positioned as a fuel-economy special, and was the only Civic model available with a continuously variable transmission. We enjoyed the new Civic enough to name it our 1996 Automobile of the Year. The del Sol soldiered on with no major change, and was axed after the 1997 model year. The Civic Si hatchback was dropped at the same time. Enthusiasts found some refuge in mid-1999 with the return of the Civic Si model, which gained firmer suspension tuning, sportier bodywork, and a 160-hp, VTEC 1.6-liter four-banger.
The seventh-generation Civic wasn’t much bigger than the sixth-generation car, but it was pretty well worked over. A MacPherson strut front suspension replaced the double wishbone setup in the name of both cost and ride quality, although Civic fans bemoaned the subsequent tradeoff in handling. Si model reappeared in 2002 after a year’s hiatus, but was only available as a hatchback – conversely, the only way to buy a Civic hatchback in North America was as a Civic Si. A new Civic GX model ran on natural gas. Both GX and HX models were available with a CVT. 2003 saw the advent of the Civic Hybrid, which paired a 85-hp, 1.3-liter I-4 with a small, 13-hp electric motor. It wasn’t Honda’s first hybrid (that title goes to the Insight), but it was a far more practical vehicle, complete with seating for five passengers.
Is the future now? We found ourselves asking that when Honda launched the eigth-generation car in 2006, thanks to its odd, cab-forward stature, elongated dashboard, and odd two-tier digital instrument cluster, which placed the tachometer in front of the steering column and the speedometer on an upper bank. Honda no longer sold Civic hatchbacks in the U.S., but Civic Si model returned – as a coupe — in 2006, packing a 197-hp, 2.0-liter I-4. In 2007, the Si trim was applied to a four-door Civic for the first time ever. Mugen, Honda’s performance-tuning division, offered a limited number of hopped-up Si sedans in 2008. All models were lightly facelifted for the 2009 model year.
Anyone expecting radical change over the eighth-generation Civic viewed the new ninth-generation model as something as a disappointment. While the eigth-generation broke new ground in terms of design, the new 2012 Civic did not; its cab-forward stance, double-decker dashboard, and other design cues are merely evolutions of seeds previously sown. On the plus side, the Si models returned, and were blessed with the larger 2.4-liter, DOHC, VTEC I-4 used in the Acura TSX. Honda hoped to answer criticism of bland styling and a banal interior with a restyling, which was rushed to market in time for the 2013 model year.