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February 10, 2004

First Drive: 2004 Civic 2.0 i-VTEC

Japanese sedans used to be simple: three sizes with three different strengths: mild (1.3), regular (1.6), and extra strength (2.0).  You could only get the stronger flavor if you ordered the bigger cup.  German brew was much more interesting; they were not averse to serving heady 40-proof in a shot glass.  (Think C43 AMG.)

Now liberated from cumbersome tax laws, the Japanese are picking up the game.  Latest case in point-the Civic 2.0 i-VTEC.  Frankly, we couldn't wait for this new concoction to come along.  Previously, word had spread that Honda was going to bring in the 160-bhp Si or even the 212-bhp Type R.  We nearly prayed for the hottest hatch to make its way here.

The truth was unveiled last month at the appropriately chosen SIR-Subic International Raceway.  We caught a glimpse of a sedan as it was driven away from our prying lenses.  No Type R, then.

Honda Japan's R&D chief for the Civic, Sato-san, was on hand to explain the development of their latest hot sedan.  Words like refined, comfortable, and sophisticated were tossed about.   Good qualities, yes, but not the first things that come to mind when the SiR is mentioned.  Perhaps least encouraging of all was that they fed us a hearty lunch before releasing us onto the racetrack.

Then we saw them on the SIR's back stretch: four Civic sedans, attractively facelifted.  The front has wider headlamps, slanted trapezoids pointing towards the widened grille.  Just as well, too, as the googly-eyed look is starting to wear thin already.  Triangular foglamps adorn the reshaped bumper. The new face is reminiscent of the previous-generation Accord’s—a safe but handsome design, quite friendly and sure to withstand the test of the time.    On the back end, the familiar Civic round lamps within curved lenses, with an all-white lower strip.  Plus the most straightforward badge of any recent car: 2.0 i-VTEC.  The five-spoke alloys look just right for the clean profile, but we wish they had opted for 16-inchers instead.

Poking around the interior, we surmised that this was part of the refined and sophisticated bit.  Thankfully, there’s no wood anywhere in sight.  Just something called “high-metal mesh” trim adorning the doors, center panel and gearshift surround—better and more original than faux carbon fiber.  Some pieces like door panels retained their hard plastic shells, but most of the tactile surfaces are the softer type. Perforated leather covers the seats and door panels.  Switch layout continues to be the best among the compact sedans, with the three aircon controls positioned high up, beside the steering wheel.   The aircon has been upgraded to the climate-control type, with temperature selection in degrees Celsius.  A genuine mark of progress is the Alpine CD-cassette stereo: just a handful of buttons, a clear display and one very large volume knob.  Other Civic virtues like the huge rear seat space and flat floor are of course retained.

We discovered all that later on, actually.  The first place we looked was under the hood.  The engine in question is not just any old 2-liter but the potent i-VTEC that is doing a tour of duty in the Accord and CR-V.  It's been tweaked to produce a bit more power, 153 bhp at 6500 rpm, and 177 Nm at 5000 rpm.   There’s continuously variable intake valve timing, and a camshaft profile changeover point for top-end power.

One thing missing from this “factory-tuned” special is a clutch pedal.  Given a choice of just one transmission, Sato-san and his team chose the automatic.  Warning klaxons began to sound: would we miss Honda’s slick manual?  Then again, this is a five-speed auto, with supposedly optimized gear ratios.  No shortage of gears then, but how will the computer use them?

We buckled onto the driver’s seat, with one of the Ramirez boys, our track coaches for the day, riding shotgun.  Off the line, the engine delivers a smooth, strong takeoff.  It’s not the pressed-in-your-seat type of acceleration but a quick build-up of speed.  Launch from standstill was the only time we missed having a manual gearbox.  The five-speed auto is ultra-smooth, allowing the engine to snarl to redline and downshifting readily.

The automatic showed its worth in the slalom section, which we took at about 30-40 km/h.  Despite the rapid press and release of the accelerator, the gearbox chose an appropriate gear (probably second) and stayed in it.  This allowed us to make relatively smooth progress—and have a lot of fun—through the cones. Next came the hairpin, which we took rather gently at first.  Again, no problem for the auto, which held its gear all the way through the turn.  We hitched a ride during daredevil Michelle Pritchard’s stint behind the wheel.  She swung the car through the 180-degree for all it was worth, and the Civic stayed controllable even as the rear tires were screeching near their limit.

A short stretch of road followed, which allowed us to go 120 km/h.  Quick trips to the redline, accompanied by the VTEC soundtrack, were served up in each gear.  The quoted 0-100 km/h is less than 10 seconds, slightly faster than a stock SiR mashed for all it’s worth.  The braking feel is also good, assisted by the sticky Yokohama Advan A-460 tires in size 195/60-15.  ABS intervenes quite late in the process, only when seatbelt-locking force is called up.

Among all the compact sedans, this generation of Civic always had the best-sorted chassis.   Where others jiggle and bang their way across humps and potholes, the Civic just glides through them. Perhaps its only shortcoming is a soft setting that sees it bottoming out on really deep ruts.  The front McPherson struts and rear double-wishbones were slightly retuned to lessen this tendency and also for better road feel.  On the reverse side, the Civic also has the most entertaining handling, with the car remaining relatively flat even with enthusiastic twists on the wheel.

One more advancement included in the Civic is Electric Power Steering (EPS).  This eliminates the belt-driven pump common to hydraulic power steering systems, in favor of an electric motor.  The system improves fuel efficiency, as power assist is given only when needed, and has the added benefit of variable levels of assist.  The Civic’s EPS doesn’t go video-game light at low speeds, unlike the City’s.  Instead, there’s a normal level of assist in the parking lot, and an assuring weighty feel when speed’s into the triple digits.

Honda will always have its top Civic compared to the groundbreaking SiR, and nothing short of a full-blown Type R will ever suffice. This version’s sportiness is already at volume 9, and volume 10 is just a tantalizing notch away.  Still, the 2.0 i-VTEC is the SiR’s successor, not its replacement.  It will beat the SiR by any measure of performance or comfort.  It gives up the visceral thrill of the old 7500-rpm DOHC VTEC for something much more refined, and is much more satisfying in everyday traffic. Growing up can be painful, but the Civic has done it just right.

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