Still King of the Hill?

The new Honda Civic proves that success is a deterrent to daring.

WAY BACK IN 1973, Honda started selling a bug-eyed little hatchback in the U.S. with one of the cleanest, most fuel-efficient engines ever seen in a mass-market car. The Civic CVCC was an engineering marvel, and blessed by fate. Who knew that it would hit the market just as OPEC cut off oil supplies?

Since its debut, the Honda Civic has gone through another five generations, evolving into a larger and ever more mainstream car. It has become the bestselling small car in America, and a standard-setter in its class.

Now Generation VII of the Civic is rolling into an American market that is once again jittery about gas prices. So what have Honda's small-car masters delivered for 2001?

I got a chance to drive the 2001 Civic outside of San Diego, before its public launch. Back home in Detroit, I drove some of its rivals, including a Ford Focus sedan, a 2000 Nissan Sentra GXE and, representing the low end of the price spectrum, a Kia Spectra. I didn't take another spin in a Volkswagen Jetta, but that car is a delight to drive, and the Honda engineers who designed the new Civic focused on the Jetta as their primary target.

Based solely on price and features, the new Civic should be a fine value, and will remain a top choice in this segment, along with the Toyota Corolla. But the decision to buy a Civic may not be the no-brainer it once was when shopping for a compact car.

The new Civic proves once again that success is a deterrent to daring. From 20 paces, the casual car shopper might not see any difference between a 2001 Civic four-door and a 2000 model. Honda clearly was reluctant to do anything bold with the Civic's styling or its basic premise: economical, efficient, reliable transportation for the highly rational consumer. This is a car for your superego, not your lead-footed id.

Honda has worked a number of innovative engineering tricks to make the new Civic smaller on the outside but increase head room, leg room and trunk space on the inside. For instance, there's no longer a hump in the rear floor of the car. The Civic is subcompact in exterior size, but Honda says it's now really a compact car based on its 104 cubic feet of interior volume, up from 101.7 cubic feet. Trunk space in the new car is 12.9 cubic feet, equal to that of the Focus and about a cubic foot more than the old Civic's.

Another of Honda's goals for the 2001 Civic was to recapture some of the green halo the car had in the 1970s. To that end, Honda's engine designers retooled the Civic's power plants to qualify it as an "ultra-low emission vehicle" in all 50 states.

The new 1.7-liter Civic engines have a touch more horsepower than the old ones, but weigh 8% less and get better mileage. While government fuel economy ratings aren't in yet, Honda expects the Civic to average about 30 mpg in city driving, compared with 25 to 28 for the Ford Focus.

There's just one problem. The new Civic isn't much fun to drive.

The new Civic's base four-cylinder puts out 115 hp, while the 1.7-liter VTEC engine used in top-of-the-line EX models is rated at 127 hp. What this translates to on the road is surprisingly flat performance. In the hill country east of San Diego, I had to floor the accelerator of a Civic EX with a four-speed automatic to go uphill at 55 mph. Merging onto a freeway from an uphill on-ramp involved putting the foot to the floor as well.

In a Civic LX with a five-speed transmission, getting up to 80 in fifth gear on a straightaway also required standing on the accelerator. Of course, downshifting with the five-speed helped. Overall, the new Civic seemed happiest cruising on a flat freeway at 60-optimum commuter mode.

The Civic's ride and handling are stable, smooth and precise. I survived without ill effects about half an hour in the backseat as a colleague navigated up and down a twisty mountain road. But especially in automatic models, the car just didn't have much oomph.

For attractive styling and a touch of attitude, the Volkswagen Jetta puts the new Civic in the shade. The 2.0-liter, four-cylinder Jetta GLS delivers 115 hp, while the V-6 available on higher-line Jettas pumps out 174 hp. But the Jetta costs a lot more than the Civic, and offers a smidgen less leg room. A new Civic sedan will range in price from $13,000 for the basic DX model to about $17,000 for a Civic EX. Jettas start at about $17,200 and range up to above $25,500 for a loaded GLX with a V-6 and automatic transmission. (All prices include destination charges.) Yet if your reason for buying a small car isn't related to your bank account, the Jetta remains a must-see.

The other worthy new contender, more in the Civic's price range, is the Ford Focus. I drove a silver Focus ZTS sedan with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder ZETEC engine, four-speed automatic and other standard goodies, as well as the optional side-impact airbags. The Focus's 16-valve engine delivers 130 hp at its peak. That's more than the Civic musters, but it doesn't translate into neck-snapping acceleration either. Like the new Civic, the Focus offers a smooth ride. It has more total passenger volume than the Civic and a touch more leg room in front and back; also, its styling inside and out has more flair. My test car had a sticker price of $16,815. Ford also offers a cute little Focus hatchback, aimed mainly at twentysomethings, and a station wagon model. (Honda has decided to drop its Civic hatchback.)

The 2000 Nissan Sentra GXE that I drove is the midlevel of the recently redesigned Sentra lineup. The GXE's 1.8-liter engine works up 126 hp and makes plenty of noise during acceleration. The car moves well in passing maneuvers between 50 and 70 mph. But the Sentra feels smaller inside than the new Civic, particularly in the rear. At a list price of $15,697, the Sentra that I tested came with most of the same features as the pricier Focus model, minus the optional side airbags.

Against all this competition, the Kia Spectra has a hard time keeping pace. I drove a four-door hatchback model-not a bad-looking car. Its 1.8-liter four-cylinder puts out 125 hp, but it does so noisily. The steering column shook noticeably on the highway, and the interior looked as if it belonged in a cheap car. Of course, the Spectra is a cheap car, with a base price of $11,245. My vote would be to spend the extra money to get one of the bigger-name brands.