Today’s Honda is one of the world’s most popular automobile brands, but only 50 years ago Honda was more known for making motorcycles and power equipment than cars. All that changed with the Honda Civic. Credited with getting Honda into the US automotive scene, the Honda Civic compact wows consumers for its consistently excellent form and function as well as for the sterling reputation as a reliable, low-maintenance vehicle. Later versions of the Civic also have improved fuel economy and cleaner yet still competitive engine performance, further cementing the Civic's place as one of the best-selling vehicles on the planet.
1970s: Success from the oil crisis
Introduced in 1972 as a 1973 model, the Honda Civic was largely developed as a brand new platform, straddling the line between the compact and subcompact classification. But what really set the Civic apart was its Honda E engine’s ability to accept both leaded and unleaded fuel. This flexibility over the choice of fuel as well as the Japanese tradition of producing high-quality economy automobiles made the Civic a prime choice for Americans reeling from the 1973 oil crisis and the continuing decline in quality of American-made cars due to rising manufacturing costs.
Aside from fuel efficiency, early generations of the Honda Civic were also known for their remarkable legroom. Despite having an 87-inch wheelbase and 140-inch overall length, the Civic had ample space for four passengers. This maximized interior was due to the transversely mounted engine configuration – a rarity in the American market – and 12-inch wheels. The Civic also received a major upgrade in 1975 with the 53-horsepower CVCC engine. The design of the CVCC provided for cleaner, more efficient combustion and removed the need for a catalytic converter or unleaded fuel in order to meet the US emissions standards. This enabled the CVCC-equipped Civics to become the only vehicle available in California for that year due to the state’s stringent emission standards.
1980s: Bigger, sleeker, better
The 1980s saw the Civic with a sleeker body, bigger wheelbase and engine size, and a mandatory CVCC engine on all submodels. The Civic saw further upgrade in size in 1984, with an increased wheelbase of 96.5 inches, a new suspension configuration that allowed for additional space and improved ride and handling characteristics, and a sporty interior design. These features made the 1984 Civic an especially popular one, with dealers running out of Civics to sell in their lots due to the huge demand.
1990s: VTEC and other improvements
Honda continued to improve on the Civic’s successes with sleeker designs and more powerful engines. All Civic submodels were given slightly longer wheelbases as well as a lower hoodline and increased glass area for better aerodynamics. The old CVCC engines were also swapped for more powerful 16-valve engines. But probably the biggest improvement for the Civic during this decade was Honda’s Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control or VTEC valvetrain system. The VTEC system enabled the engine to switch between multiple camshaft profiles optimized for low and high RPMs, leading to a vastly improved power output (around 100 extra horsepower per liter) and better fuel efficiency. Later models were also outfitted with driver-side airbags and ABS brakes.
2000s: Safety, style, and sedan hybrids
The 7th-generation Civic was introduced in 2001 with a 100-inch wheelbase, a new MacPherson strut design that allowed for more comfortable handling and a flatter rear floor for roomier middle seats. A wide range of safety features was also included, such as improved ABS brakes, side curtain airbags, and stability control. It was also in 2001 that the hybrid version of the Honda Civic was introduced into the market. The Honda Civic Hybrid was the first vehicle certified to have partial zero emissions by the California Air Resource Board and to become one of the best-selling electric hybrid vehicles with global sales exceeding 255,000.
In 2012 the Civic was redesigned with a subtler exterior, a roomier and smarter interior and better fuel mileage with 40 miles to a gallon. The Civic also comes in a wide array of models: from coupes to sedans, regular gasoline, hybrid, and natural gas engines, and the Civic Si performance variant.