Honda Civics are rather like toasters, they’re always popping up every few minutes. Blink and you’ll miss a facelift. And if that doesn’t confuse the buying options when choosing a used example there are shed loads contrasting sixth generation models built from 1995 to 2001 vying for our attention. In case you didn’t know the Civic comes in several flavours. There is a Japanese-built three door and four door, an American made coupe’ plus a UK constructed five door and estate. Confused? You might be, but what they all have in common is great build quality and just as big as the range of cars is the range of excellent engines.
Why buy a Honda Civic
Honda had a big image problem. New Civic buyers are nice, responsible people, who are affluent and quite possibly a bit dull. However they know a reliable, well built car when they choose one, even if the styling is a little bland. A no-brainer new buy, but it also makes sense as a used Honda because it will never, ever let you down. Build quality is generally superb and reliability pretty much unquestioned by the huge majority of owners. All-round it’s a very safe set of wheels to buy and run. You should not confuse the Civic’s undoubted qualities with being boring. There is still a lot to be said for owning a car that won’t cause you any hassle. Interestingly the Civic can also deliver just a little bit more than basic transportation.
Yes the truth is that Civics are not just the standard, bland, Japanese offerings, because the introduction of the VTEC engines adds real excitement and also adds up to a potent performance package. Honda’s variable valve technology improves performance and economy on all but the 1.4 petrol and diesel engines.
The great thing for passengers and drivers alike is that they can feel that the Civic is a quality car. The interior is dull, but obviously screwed together in a careful way with above average plastics as well as being reasonably spacious and comfortable. Indeed, the driving position is just about perfect for the majority of drivers, which can at least take their mind off the firm ride when bouncing around town. However matters improve on the motorway when the small Civic becomes quiet and refined. In the handling stakes, the Civic and this goes for all models, are capable, rather than exciting, but then that is what Honda customers expect. The steering is pleasant, direct and above all safe. Strong brakes, slick gear changes and firm suspension.
The five door Civic had an impressive Euro NCAP rating of three stars (out of four) which at the time was pretty good. Driver and passenger airbags were standard throughout the range from the late ’90s, and even ABS brakes were standard on the majority of models. Security on the early cars was only average, but a very effective immobiliser was fitted from 1996 although it is still possible to get past the door locks without too much trouble.
Which model should I buy?
There are a lot of Civics to choose from. We won’t hesitate in recommending that you go for the most numerous and practical models and that means the 5-door hatchback. You may not realise that this was essentially Honda’s version of the Rover 400, which is not a bad thing. What tips the balance in favour of the Honda though are those jewel like engines. The 1.5 is very economical but needs to be revved hard for real speed which then turns a refined engine into a noisy one. Much better are the VT 1.6 and 1.8 engines which offer lots of high revving performance. The diesel is fast and frugal enough and is worth finding. Fitting the 2.0 litre direct inject turbodiesel was one explanation for the revised front end is the need to accommodate the taller diesel for fleet buyers. The engine Rover’s acclaimed diesel, which is quiet, torquey and reassuringly flexible. The middle way though is a 1.6 introduced in June 1999. SE specification means alloys, airbags and air conditioning. From November 1999 there was a 123bhp VTEC engine installed. Certainly don’t look at anything pre 1997 and ensure that there is a nice bright metallic finish. So a ’99 on a V 1.6 VTEC SE it is then.
What to look out for?
Have we mentioned how reliable the Civic is? Thought so, but that doesn’t mean that you can relax. The owners we spoke to love their Civics, but they warned that the presence of a Honda badge does not mean that you can relax. If anything the standards you expect from a used Civic should be higher than the average family car.
HISTORY/MILEAGE The most crucial element of any used Civic is the history. From a private source always expect to get a large sheath of bills and receipts, which is always very reassuring. A Company maintained Civic should at the very least have a computer print detailing every time the car has docked in the service bay. The Civic though does lend itself to clocking because it can rack up a large company mileage and then the history is either lost of doctored.
So tug on the driver’s seatbelt and then let go. If it snaps back fine. If it takes forever to retract the car has done a big mileage. Squashy, frayed and worn driver’s seat? More signs that there have been lots of bums on seats. A worn and shiny steering wheel, a worn gearknob, worn pedal rubbers and also a hole in the driver’s side carpet are all signs that the car has done at least 100,000 miles.
ENGINES There are no real weaknesses with any of these Honda units. Neglect though takes its toll, look at the oil filler cap located at the top of the engine. It should be clean. Any black treacle or white sludge means not much in the way of servicing. (Less than frequent oil changes will slowly kill the unit especially the VTEC, so listen for the rattly sound of camshaft wear on neglected and high mileage examples. Also if the anti-freeze isn’t changed every few years the waterways will fur up especially on the aluminium VTEC. Open the radiator cap if the water is brown, no anti-freeze has been fitted and the water seldom changed. Watch out for white deposits too which suggests a problem. Look underneath the engine, are there any oil, or water leaks?
TRANSMISSIONS Changes are traditionally smooth and light. If there is resistance it could be due to selector problems, or very worn bushes in a high mileage gearbox. Ensure reverse gear selects easily – can be tricky, expensive to fix if you can’t live with it. Automatic Gearbox, the changes should be smooth and without delay and relatively silent. Applying the brake you should be able to engage drive and reverse, then accelerate without the gearbox slipping.
INTERIORS Very hard wearing which means that there is always the temptation for a seller to wind back the odometer. A cast iron history and conversations with previous owners should help resolve the matter. Many have observed though that the interior trim on basic 1.4i is not as good quality as other models.
TYRES AND WHEELS Look at the tyre tread, any uneven wear suggests that the steering is not adjusted properly, or perhaps the wheels have been repeatedly thumped by a driver carelessly parking. Chips and scrapes on the plastic wheel trims, or alloy wheels will confirm this. It is also nice to see the same make and tread of tyre on each wheel, or at least as matched pairs on front and rear which shows that the previous owner cared.
BRAKES/SUSPENSION/STEERING On the high performance variants, warped and scored discs are common. Inspect them when cold on the test drive there may be some pedal judder. If servicing schedules are missed the gaiters will split and the driveshafts will fail. Check rear suspension lower arm bolts – 1999/2000 models were recalled earlier cars can also be affected. If there is no evidence that they have been checked by a Honda dealer, at least get a local mechanic to check is you don’t know what you are looking at.
ELECTRICS Removed Fuses – check the fuse box for ‘missing’ fuses. If a seller realises that an expensive ‘option’ is not working they will remove the fuse from the fuse box to hide the problem.
BODYWORK Fit and finish is superb. Anything else indicates poorly repaired accident damage. Paint sometimes a bit thin so a stone chip can lead to minor corrosion. If rust starts anywhere it will usually be on the tailgate.Limited rear visibility means that rear wings and bumpers can suffer parking damage. More of a worry though is the fact that the panelwork is so thin and it damages very easily. Not just on the doors and wings but also on the roof. There were also some poorly fitting sunroofs added to basic models so check for leaks. Most owners will tell you about the headlamps that mist up. There was a dealer fix for the condensation problem. Provided you have a steady hand a power drill all you have to do is drill some vent holes in the glass cover.
ROADTEST When you start the VTEC engine from cold don’t be surprised if it sounds noisy a just a little bit diesely, that is normal until it warms up fully. Clocked cars tend to suffer from ‘loose’ or vague steering and ‘creaking’ suspensions which indicates worn bushes and joints. Check the temperature, head gaskets can fail with poor maintenance and the temperature shoots up accordingly.
Bangernomics buying advice from their time machine.