Rising gas prices shine fresh light on one of the oldest gas-savers
Much about the Civic has changed over the past near 40 years, but not it high value for the buck engineering.

With the price of regular gas once again topping the $3 a gallon mark and heading even higher, this is a good time to celebrate the virtues of the Honda Civic, the first popular subcompact economy car.

When the Civic first debuted in American in 1972, it had three things going for it - a low price, high gas mileage and amazing interior room for such a small car. The combination made it a big seller, especially after the slightly larger second-generation debuted a few years later, about the time of the Arab Oil Embargo that limited gas supplies and boosted prices.

The same virtues can be found on the 2010 version, which was first introduced four years ago. The base DX model is relatively inexpensive, gets an EPA-estimated average 30 miles per gallon, and carries four adults in comfort.

In fact, although the Civic is classified as a compact, it feels roomier than some midsize cars, in part because the large and steeply angled front windshield, which lets in lots of light and offers good views of road.

But much about the Civic has changed since it was first introduced almost 40 years ago. The first version was only offered with one engine and interior trim level. Today, seven generations level, Civics can be ordered with four different engines, four different transmission and numerous trim levels. The most expensive versions offer luxury touches that could not have been imagined back in the 1970s, including heated front leather seats, upscale stereo systems, a sunroof and a navigation system.

Such options say a lot about how buyers look at economy cars these days. Forty years ago, many people drove them because they had to. Today they drive them because they want to.

And there are lot of reason to want the current version of the Civic, which was first introduced in 2006 and only slightly upgraded since then. For starters, it is fun to drive. The driving position is close to the road, almost like a sports car. The steering is precise, the suspension is taut and the optional 140-horsepower 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine in our EX-L test model had plenty of power, even when mated to the available five-speed automatic transmission.

Our Civic also felt solid and well made. The doors closed with a reassuring thud and little road or wind noise intruded into the cabin. The interior materials were good, the fit and finish was impressive and the optional leather seats were comfortable and supportive. The optional six-speaker stereo sounded great and the navigation system was easy to use.

In fact, the only complaint about the interior was the strange split-level gauge package directly in front of the steering wheel. The top level was digital, including the speedometer. The bottom level featured a large analog tachometer and little else. The combination was weird and surprisingly uninformative. Although the top level included digital fuel and temperature readouts, there was plenty of unused space on the lower level for volt and oil pressure gauges.

When the redesigned Civic was first introduced four years ago, some reviewers criticized the sweeping line as too futuristic. Today it looks almost generic, an indication of how much its styling has influenced other designers.

Civics have sold well over the years, even when gas prices were relatively now. They should draw even more interest as prices rise, and this is one area where the car really excels. All four of its available engines get excellent mileage, including the optional, more powerful 2.0-liter inline 4, which is the EPA estimates will get an average 25 miles per gallon. There is a hybrid version that the EPA estimates will get an average 42 miles per gallon. And for buyers interested in alternative energy sources, a natural gas-powered version is rated an EPA-average 28 miles per gallon.

In truth, even the cheapest Civics are not the rock-bottom bargains they once were. The South Korean car companies offer fuel-efficient compacts that undercut Honda's lowest prices by thousands of dollars. Most lack the Civics' quality and refinement, however, although the Kia Forte is knocking on the door.

Back in the 1970s, Honda Civics offered hope to those worried about increasing gas prices and looming shortages. They still do.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2010 Civic.

• Manufacturer: Honda.

• Class: Compact sedan.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door, four passenger sedan.

• Engines: 1.8-liter inline 4 (140 hp as tested); 2.0-liter inline 4 (197 hp); 1.3-liter inline 4 gas/electric motor hybrid (110 hp); 1.8-liter inline 4 natural gas version (113 hp).

• Transmissions: 5-speed manual transmission; 6-speed manual transmission; 5-speed automatic (as tested); Continuously Variable Transmission.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 25/36 (as tested); 29/45 (hybrid)/

• Price: Beginning at approximately $17,000 ($24,950 as tested).

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