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2008 Honda Civic EX-L test drive

The Civic goes upscale -- but I still like it anyway

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

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2008 Honda Civic EX-L front-left view

2008 Honda Civic EX-L

Photo © Aaron Gold

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Why does one by a Honda Civic? Let me count the ways. You buy a Honda Civic because it's smart. You buy a Honda Civic because it's economical. You buy a Honda Civic because it's... luxurious? That's the idea behind the new-for-2008 Honda Civic EX-L, which adds leather upholstery and heated front seats -- along with a $1,200 price premium -- to the top-of-the-line Civic EX. Is this the mini-luxury-car you've been looking for? Read on. $15,445 base, $23,095 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 21-40 city, 29-45 highway.

First Glance: The luxury Civic?

Larger photos: Front - rear

Fifteen years ago, small cars were cheap cars; crank-down windows and cut-rate interiors were de rigueur. Today, high gas prices and the credit crunch are forcing American motorists to re-think the bigger-is-better mentality. More and more buyers are turning to small cars -- so the automakers are making their small cars nicer. Today's compacts offer amenities like GPS navigation, cruise control, and even the luxury-car holy of holies: Leather seats.

The Honda Civic isn't the first compact sedan to offer leather. In fact, it's rather late to the party -- the Ford Focus, Nissan Sentra and Hyundai Elantra already offer leather, while the Mitsubishi Lancer and Toyota Corolla are introducing it for '08 and '09 respectively. Still, the addition of leather to the super-sensible Civic is significant. Honda doesn't need gimmicks to sell Civics; people would probably buy them if the seats were covered with Astroturf. The introduction of a leather-lined Civic indicates a shift in buyer mentality: Small cars are the future, so we may as well make them comfortable.

And they've certainly done it Honda-style. Clearly, they aren't using the same leather supplier as Rolls-Royce, but the Civic's leather is decent stuff, and it doesn't just end at the seats. Steering wheel, shifter, and center console get it too, and the door panels are lined with faux leather that does a reasonable imitation of the real thing. Since leather tends to get cold in the winter, the Civic EX-L also gets heated front seats (and heated side mirrors, though they aren't made of leather).

In the Driver's Seat: 3 years old, yet still futuristic

2008 Honda Civic interior

Civic's interior, like it's exterior, is attractive and modern; quality of materials (plastics, fabrics and carpet) is very good

Photo © Aaron Gold

Larger interior photo

Leather or no leather, the Civic's interior is one of my favorites. It's been three years since Honda introduced the Civic's split-level instrument panel, but it still strikes me as innovative and futuristic. The top level, positioned so as to be visible above the steering wheel, features an easy-to-read digital speedometer, flanked by the all-important fuel gauge and the not-so-important temperature gauge. The lower section has a tachometer and assorted warning lights. It's an ingenious design that helps the driver keep his or her attention focused on the road.

And since I'm over-using the word "ingenious", let's talk about the Civic's back seat. Honda has engineered the Civic so that it has a perfectly flat floor -- an ingenious idea that makes the back seat feel bigger than it is. The Civic is one of the few compact sedans in which I would voluntarily ride in the back seat for a long trip. My kids, who have become back-seat connoisseurs, had no complaints. And thanks to the easy-to-clean leather upholstery, I was able to relax my usual no-snacks-or-beverages-in-the-nice-clean-press-car-that-Dad-is-driving-but-doesn't-actually-own-so-finish-that-milkshake-before-we-get-back-in-the-car-or-else rule.

The Civic's trunk isn't the biggest or the best among compact cars; at 12 cubic feet it gets pretty well spanked by the Nissan Sentra (13.1 cubic feet), Hyundai Elantra (14.2) and Toyota Corolla (16.6!!). Still, what room there is is enough for a heavy-duty grocery run or a family vacation (provided you go easy on the souvenirs).

On the Road: Everything's adequate

The average Civic buyer probably isn't too concerned with what's under the hood, as long as it provides adequate power and goes about its job smoothly and quietly -- and that's precisely what the Civic's engine does. Forget the hard numbers (which, by the way, are 1.8 liters, four cylinders, 140 horsepower, and 128 lb-ft of torque) -- suffice it to say that the Civic's motor is more than adequate, even when coupled to the optional five-speed automatic transmission. Granted, if you've got four people and a full trunk and are headed for the highway, you may have to push the engine a bit -- but don't worry, Honda engines love to be pushed.

EPA fuel economy estimates for the automatic Civic are 25 MPG city and 36 MPG highway, putting it slightly ahead of all of its competitors save the Toyota Corolla. I averaged right around 30 MPG, par for the course with most small cars I test. Want to use less gasoline? Honda offers a hybrid version of the Civic called, oddly enough, the Civic Hybrid. Want to use no gasoline? Then check out the Civic GX, which runs on compressed natural gas.

The Civic's suspension is smooth and sensible, designed for those who want a comfortable, quiet ride rather than those who want to tear up the corners. Overall, it's a bit dull -- the Civic just doesn't have the personality of the Ford Focus or the fun-to-drive factor of the Volkswagen Jetta. That said, if you're looking for serious thrills, the Civic Si sedan is about as good as it gets -- it's a pocket racer thinly disguised as a sensible family car.

Journey's End: The smart family car

2008 Honda Civic rear view

From the rear, Civic is tidy and futuristic

Photo © Aaron Gold

The addition of leather is nice, but what impresses me most about the Civic is how well it works as a family car. I've always regarded mid-size sedans as the best family four-doors, but after a week of hauling wife, kids and stuff around in the Civic, I can't find a single reason to buy a bigger car. But I can find one very big reason not to: Fuel economy. In my experience, compact sedans use 20-30% less fuel than mid-sizers. That's like getting your gas $1/gallon cheaper than everyone else.

Safety-wise, the Civic scores high, with antilock brakes, six airbags, and a body structure designed to protect occupants against crashes with bigger vehicles. All that's missing is electronic stability control -- an innovative life-saving technology that isn't available on any Civic save the hot-rod Si model.

Of all the Civic's rivals, my favorite is the Nissan Sentra; I like its neat styling and innovative continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). But the Sentra, like the Civic, doesn't offer electronic stability control. The all-new 2009 Toyota Corolla does, though leather is only available on the XRS model. Both are great cars, but I can't say that either one is clearly better than the Civic.

So does leather make the Civic a better car? It certainly strikes one item off the list of reasons not to buy it. Frankly, what I'd really like to see added to the Civic would be standard electronic stability control. Aside from that, the Civic remains one of the best small family cars on the market. -- Aaron Gold

Next page: Pros, cons, who should buy it and specs

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