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Why an old Honda Civic beats the new 2012 one

Published: 02 February 2012

A few months back, I tested the all-new Civic and wasn’t particularly impressed: I didn’t like the too-high seating position, the oddly weighted steering, the coarse diesel engine, the still-dubious rear visibility and, crucially, the lack of any discernible fun factor. There was no doubt about it in my mind: I’d buy a VW Golf instead.

Then, in January, I took the family back to my wife’s native San Francisco and ended up knocking about in my mother-in-law Mara’s late 1990s Civic, the EK generation. You might have heard of Mara: I once scared her in my E36 M3. Anyway, despite all this, Mara was kind enough to hand over the keys to her trusty car, a Civic that some light-fingered badge tamperer has turned into a Vic instead. It bears the scars of a life in liberal SF: an Obama bumper sticker, a rear bumper pockmarked by ditzy parkers cradling a Starbucks and mobile phone, and a rumpled front wing too.

It’s a pretty basic CX spec, so basic that I don’t reckon we even got such a lowly trim level here in the UK: there’s no rear wiper, no central locking, no rev counter, no electric windows, the wheels are tiny 14-inch steels, and black plastic shrouds the wing mirrors and rear spoiler. I don’t know why, but this no-frills trim somehow endears it to me even more; maybe it’s the purity of purpose, the absolute focus on function. One thing this model has got over the next two generations of Civic, however, is a proper multi-link rear axle, not a torsion beam.

I open the door with a tiny little key – remember that? – and sit down low in a comfy velour seat. There are so few buttons that every control function is instantly understood, and the hatchback bodyshell with its expanses of glass lends excellent visibility and easy manoeuvring. So I adjust the seat – Mara’s quite small – turn the ignition key and grip the large-diameter steering wheel. This car is a four-speed auto, but the throttle tip-in is incredibly aggressive as you move off and I surge forward on a crisp, eager wave of acceleration; a big smile spreads across my face. As an urban runaround, it’s excellent.

And that, to be honest, was all I expected of it. Then I headed up into Tilden park above Berkeley, taking in a road called Grizzly Peak on the way, and, you know what, the old Civic was excellent here too: the steering had a lovely, honest heft to it, the ride was good, the 106bhp 1.6-litre DOHC revved sweetly, the turn-in was sharp and crisp with moderately low but easy-to-judge grip levels, and the whole car moved with a lightness that the new model can’t match – in fact, the old car is about 300kg lighter than the new one, and that’s a huge, very-easy-to-feel difference, like pulling over and demanding that the four adults you’ve been lugging around get out and find some other mug to drive them everywhere for free.

All this makes the EK Civic a fun car to drive, certainly more fun than the new Civic and the Mk3/Mk4 VW Golfs that were on sale at the same time in the late ’90s/early noughties.

It got me scouring the classifieds when I got home, and it turns out you can find decent examples of the EK Civic for around £500. That’s well worth a look if you want something fun, reliable and practical too.

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator