- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Anytime the price of gasoline rises significantly, many prospective car buyers think maybe they should veer away from the big chug-a-luggers and buy something that sips the increasingly precious fuel.

But can American motorists, who tend to think big and drive bigger, really enjoy life behind the wheel of a modestly powered compact car?

If a lot of passengers and cargo are absolute necessities, the answer is an obvious “No.”

But if the reasons are less compelling, more fuel-efficient transportation might make sense.

I recently spent a week and more than 600 miles behind the wheel of the newly redesigned, top-of-the-line 2006 Honda Civic EX sedan. My journeys took me through two states along congested urban roads, lightly traveled suburban thoroughfares and long stretches of busy interstates.

Accompanying me most of the way were my wife and a 95-pound English sheepdog. The uncertainty of the weather and the reason for our travels — business and pleasure — necessitated an inordinate amount of luggage. In all, we had a half dozen pieces of soft luggage, a stack of clothes on hangars and a few extra coats and jackets.

Frankly, I started to have doubts about the Civic’s suitability before we were underway and suggested some things we might be able to do without. My advice went unheeded, which became more and more obvious as the luggage began to pile up at the rear of the small sedan.

As it turned out, I had misjudged the Civic’s cargo-carrying ability. The 12-cubic-foot trunk swallowed just about everything without wrinkling the clothing or straining the trunk lid. Only later did it occur to me that the little Honda has a trunk that is only half a cubic foot smaller than the one in its bigger, thirstier and much more expensive cousin, the Acura TL.

Once inside, we had another surprise. The dog fit comfortably across the rear seat and my wife, a busy but usually silent traveling companion, showed no discomfort as she surrounded herself with a newspaper, book, crossword puzzle and tote bag full of knitting gear.

The somewhat unusual configuration of the Honda’s two-tier dashboard actually added an illusion of spaciousness to the front of the cabin.

The lesson here is that small isn’t what it used to be. In fact, it’s downright big and luxurious compared with the tiny putt-putt Honda introduced all the way back in 1973.

A young family of four could live easily with a car the size of the new Civic.

But the big test was still ahead. Could the 140-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and five-speed automatic transmission deliver enough power to the front wheels of a mostly full, 2,800-pound automobile to make driving enjoyable and, more importantly, safe?

Here, the answer was a more qualified “Yes.”

The engine’s off-the-line acceleration, combined with the car’s quick and responsive power rack-and-pinion steering, made the Honda a delight in the cut and thrust of city traffic.

On the open road, the engine was reasonably quiet and easily able to maintain cruising speeds of 80 mph. It seemed more content, though, at speeds in the 70-75 mph range.

But, passing at highway speeds or on hills was another matter. When I pressed the accelerator to the floor, the engine barked its intentions with authority but just couldn’t back them up with much bite.

The payoff, of course, is at the pump. I didn’t hit the EPA’s 30-40 mpg estimate — who does? — but I did average 33 mpg for the week. That put the tab for regular fuel at about $40.

But the experience backed up my contention that cars with relatively small four-cylinder engines work best when equipped with manual transmissions.

In addition, drivers who enjoy their job will appreciate the inherent sportiness of the manual-transmission Civic. With its firm, independent suspension, steering acuity, and strong front disc/rear drum brakes, the little sedan can willingly follow the instructions of an enthusiast driver.

Last word on the powertrain: The engine/automatic transmission combination, which most people will buy, is adequate but certainly not soul-stirring. Those willing to simply go along with what the car has to give will be content.

A word about that firm suspension is also in order. It may enhance the car’s handling prowess, but it lets the passengers know in no uncertain terms when the road turns rough.

Safety is always a concern for motorists, no matter what size the car. Honda counters this concern with sturdy construction, air bags everywhere, three-point seat belts, antilock brakes, active head restraints and side-impact door beams. In fact, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has given the 2006 Civic its “Top Safety Pick — Gold” award for its ratings in frontal, side impact and rear impact tests.

Gasoline-powered Civic sedan prices range from $14,560 to $20,560 for the EX sedan with navigation system that I drove. If a fully loaded Civic seems a bit pricey, the good news is that the same core qualities can be obtained in a Civic costing a lot less.

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