More often than not, the best-selling cars out there aren’t the most interesting things on the road. Most mass-market cars are affordable, reliable, and not much else. That’s what makes the Honda Civic so interesting. Not only is it the sixth best-selling car of all time, but there’s also plenty to say about it.
The Civic truly is all things to all people. For the practical, budget-minded driver, it’s a cheap-to-maintain runabout that can be depended on for years to come. To a gearhead, it’s a blank canvas — an easy-to-modify car with almost limitless performance potential. And for everyone else in between, it’s probably exactly what you’re looking for.
So if you own, have owned, or know someone who owns a Civic, you probably have fond memories of the car that put Honda on the map. And even if you’re already a fan, chances are you might not know these interesting facts about the Honda Civic.
1. It saved Honda
In the 1960s, Honda was well-known as a motorcycle manufacturer. In 1963, it began building cars, but mechanically they had more in common with motorcycles than an average car. The first Honda car sold in the U.S. was the tiny N600, and outside of the West Coast, it failed to find much of an audience. So with little traction outside of Japan and an uphill battle distinguishing itself from other automakers in its home market, Honda considered leaving the automotive market altogether. Then, the Civic came along.
Next: The Civic was a real car.
2. It was Honda’s first proper car
In developing the Civic, Honda took what worked with the N600 and made it better. Released in Japan in 1972, it was available as a three-door or five-door hatch or as a station wagon. For around $2,200, buyers got power front-disc brakes and reclining front seats with available air-conditioning, AM radio, and a fold-down rear seat. That might not sound like much now, but back then it was a lot for a little hatchback.
Next: It was a hit.
3. It became an overnight sensation
The Civic debuted in the U.S. in 1973, just as the oil crisis hit and strict safety and emissions regulations were to go into effect. While Detroit struggled to comply with the new laws and navigate the gas crunch, the Civic appeared too good to be true. Not only could it run on regular or unleaded gas, its Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion engine returned over 40 miles per gallon and didn’t need any complex (and expensive) emissions equipment. Americans were smitten.
Next: It was something to brag about.
4. Honda used it to troll GM
As the Civic was hitting the American market, General Motors was publicly complaining that it needed an extension on the new emissions laws because meeting them by 1974 was impossible. While both Ford and Chrysler licensed some of Honda’s new Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion technology to meet the regulations, GM dismissed it as a “toy motorcycle” design.
In retaliation, company founder Soichiro Honda bought a V8-powered Chevy Impala and shipped it to company headquarters. By modifying the Chevy engine with a carburetor, manifold, and cylinder heads based on the Civic’s design, he not only got it to run cleaner without emissions equipment, but it got better gas mileage, too.
Once the tests were confirmed by the Environmental Protection Agency, Honda had established itself as an engineering force to be reckoned with. And it showed up the mighty General Motors in the process. It wouldn’t be the last time.
Next: It’s an icon.
5. It’s a sports car icon without being a sports car
The third-generation Civic debuted in 1984. And with it came the Si, a 91-horsepower, three-door hatch. Thanks to its light weight and free-revving engine, the Civic Si quickly became an affordable performance car icon, one that continues to this day. For more performance-minded buyers, Honda introduced the CRX, a two-seat Civic with a rakish fastback body. On top of being one of the best driver’s cars of the 1980s, the CRX could also return up to 50 miles per gallon. After all, it was a Civic first.
Next: It’s magic.
6. To Honda fans, VTEC is a magic word
In 1989, Honda introduced the Variable Timing and Lift Electronic Control system, or VTEC. Like the Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion system of the ’70s, VTEC made Honda’s small displacement engines incredibly efficient. What’s more, at higher revolutions the engines delivered impressive performance. A 1.6-liter VTEC inline four was available in the 1989 CRX, making a whopping 150 horsepower.
Throughout the ’90s, Honda introduced a number of simple, reliable, efficient, and powerful VTEC engines across its lineup, powering everything from the Civics to the Acura NSX supercar. Honda still uses the technology today.
Next: It wins with simplicity.
7. It’s a giant killer
Colin Chapman, the founder of sports car brand Lotus, famously said “simplify, then add lightness.” For most of its existence, the Civic has been a lightweight, free-revving, mechanically simple car that’s cheap. Since the 1980s, it’s been a staple of the tuning community. By the 1990s, Honda joined the game itself and released the red-hot Civic Type-R. Unfortunately, we never got it in the U.S.
Next: Different Civic for different folks
8. It has had split personalities
With its insatiable appetite for small cars, the Civic has always been a success in Europe. And when the eighth-generation Civic debuted in 2006, Europe got a Civic all its own. Honda offered three distinct body styles from 2006 to 2011: one for North America, one for Europe, and one for Asia and Russia. Out of all of them, we wish we could’ve had the futuristic-looking European (and incredibly fast) Type-R hatchback.
Next: It once fell off track.
9. It’s had one big misstep
The ninth-generation Civic was supposed to be released as a 2010 model but was delayed because of the global financial crisis. When it finally did arrive for 2011, critics were shocked to find the new Civic offered considerably fewer features than the outgoing car. What’s more, customers hated its shockingly un-Honda fit and finish and driving dynamics. As a result, Honda launched an emergency redesign. And for 2013, the Civic was significantly upgraded. After a tough couple years, the iconic compact car was back on track.
Next: Speed is key.
10. It’s the fastest front-wheel drive car in the world
Virtually every automaker tests new cars at Germany’s infamous Nürburgring. And as of 2017, Honda’s latest hot Civic, the Type-R, is the fastest front-wheel drive car around the track. While the Civic Type-R has been around since 1997, we’ve never gotten it stateside. Now, it took 20 years, but it’s finally coming to America. For Civic fans, it’s a dream come true.