When the current generation 'ES-Civic' was launched in 2001, Honda shocked and upset their fans by deleting the mighty SiR sedan and launched SOHC-VTEC variants in its place, even for the Japanese Domestic Market. With the hatchback Civic Type-R the only performance oriented variant and as usual reserved for Japan only (though UK/Europe has their own version as well), Civic fans especially across Asia responded by abandoning this model en-mass. Unfortunately the general buyer to whom the ES-Civic is targetted for did not respond as hoped. As a result the Honda Civic slumped to near oblivion over the last few years especially here in Asia.

Honda of course is alarmed and most definitely not amused by the turn of events. On the morning of May 18th 2004, only a few months after a minor face-lift late last year, Honda Malaysia took the offensive and announced yet another change to the Civic line-up for Malaysia. And this time, they mean business ! Just as with the Jazz revision launch last month, for this Civic revision, Honda has gone back to its root and has blatantly addressed us the enthusiast. For this new line-up, Honda Malaysia retained the 1.7l SOHC VTEC Civic with a minor exterior revision but also introduced a very much awaited and long overdued performance variant, the Civic 2.0 iVTEC sedan !

Who would pay more for just an engine ?

If its the right engine, the enthusiast would of course ! The new Civic 2.0 iVTEC features the highly regarded 2.0l K20A engine. As Honda enthusiasts would know well, the K20A is DOHC iVTEC in configuration with iVTEC (i.e. VTEC and VTC) implemented on the intake side. On this Civic, VTEC switches between a 1 valve low-cam and a 2 valve high-cam mode like on the CR-V, Stream and Accord with VTC working to optimize torque and fuel economy across the mid-range. The intake manifold is a single short length runner design, unlike the CR-V & Stream where a dual runner intake is used, or the 2.0l Accord where the single runners are long and tuned for low-end torque. I had a discussion with the Honda R&D engineer Kinoshita-san who was on the Civic 2.0 iVTEC design team. According to him, while the K20As on the CR-V, Stream and 2.0l Accord are designed for good low-end torque at the detriment of high-end power, the K20A on the Civic is designed for a good spread of torque across the rpm range. This is shown by the specs of the engine: 155ps at 6500rpm, similar to the CR-V and Stream but with a max torque of 18.0kgm at 5000rpm - lower max torque but coming in at a higher rpm. Thus the K20A on this Civic is designed to have a very wide useable power band, with good pulling power from the low-end right up to the redline of 6800rpm. I told him us enthusiasts expects our 'twin-cam-vtec' engines to pull strongly right to red-line. Kinoshita-san told me this engine is designed to do just that. I also told him how I just reviewed the 1.7l Civic and I was dissappointed at the engine sound. We enthusiasts highly values what we colloidally calls the 'VTEC Roar'. Kinoshita-san smiled and nodded saying Honda now understand that and then again tells me the K20A will also do 'just that'. I reacted by giving him the good old 'thumbs up' !

Besides the larger, more advanced and more powerful K20A engine, the new 2.0l Civic also comes equipped with a new 5-speed gearbox equipped with progressive shift technology and Grades Logic Control. As an enthusiast, I am used to close ratio gearboxes for (manual gearboxed) performance models but however when I checked the gear ratios on this new 2.0l Civic, I found that the 1st and 2nd gear still maintains quite a large difference in ratio : 2.684 for 1st vs 1.500 for 2nd, a difference of 1.184 which while closer than that on the 4AT of the 1.7l version but is still relatively larger than what I would expect. On the other hand, the ratios for 3rd, 4th and 5th are spaced relatively close together, going from 0.983 to 0.733 to 0.571 respectively. I put this to Kinoshita-san who explained that because most of the driving is expected to occur with the gearbox in one of these gears, i.e. 3rd, 4th or 5th, they are set with rather tall ratios so as to avoid constant high revs and thus ensure relatively good fuel economy. The good and wide power-band of the K20A means that good pick-up is still available even with the rather tall ratios. In any case, with 1 extra gear to work with, the 2.0l Civic's 5AT still retain higher (shorter) ratios when compared gear to gear (i.e. 3rd to 3rd, 4th to 4th) with the 1.7l Civic. And now of course it has a 5th gear which is geared really nice and tall for low-rpm high speed cruising.

To be sheepishly honest, I was still not convinced by Kinoshita-san's rationale at that time. But today while researching for this article, I checked the gear ratios for the 4AT gearboxs used on the much loved EG9 & EK4 SiR auto and I found that even they have rather tall ratios, indeed taller ratios than this 2.0l Civic. So with a relatively mild increase in kerb-weight but a relatively massive increase in torque thanks to an engine that is 25% (2l compared to 1.6l) larger, the 2.0l Civic fares very well even when compared to these great performance Civics of the recent past !

The intake system used on the K20A is similar to the one used on the CR-V and Stream, with the intake pipe making a turn from the throttle body back towards the car. The system also features the 'cold air intake' design, with the filter box routing in air via a tube connected to the front of the car, behind the front grill and in front of the radiator, thus taking in the relatively cooler air there and shielded from the hot air inside the engine bay.

To the delight of us enthusiasts, the Civic 2.0 iVTEC also comes loaded to the brim with Honda's most current technologies. Besides the K20A engine and the 5AT GLC gearbox, the 2.0l Civic comes with dual-SRS, ABS, EBD, BA (Brake Assist), EPS (Electrical Power Steering), and climate control (i.e. fully automatic fuzzy logic air-conditioning).

To emphasize a sporty and luxurious orientation, the interior is fully leathered with a black-based colour scheme. The front seats are quite semi-bucket like in sculpture and comes with 'sporty headrests'. The dashboard panelling are 'hi-mesh metal' which is a sort of checkered pattern a bit similar to carbon-fibre finishing. No more fake wood finishes ! Even the steering wheel and the door panels are leathered, the door panels being complemented with some hi-mesh metal finishing as well.

Exterior-wise, the new 2.0l Civic features a minor face-lift mainly to the front. The headlights are slimmer and of a new interior design, better looking in my opinion compared to the previous ones. The front grill seems larger and also features a revised design. The most significant changes are the front and rear bumpers, the front bumper especially given a more rounded design and again comes with integrated foglights and an integrated lower lip. The rest of the car is mostly similar to the old version except for a new rear taillight cluster design. Wheels are 15" alloy fitted with 195/60R15 88H Goodyear tyres.

But in the end, what I find most significant and most gratifyind is that with the launch of this Civic 2.0 iVTEC variant, in a single move Honda Malaysia has given us enthusiasts in Malaysia, the most powerful and most technologically advanced Civic sedan auto ever sold in this region. Indeed at 155ps, it is also currently the most powerful and most advanced in its market segment, beating out its competitors by miles ! The car screams sporty any way we look at it. Indeed even when pitted against the mighty SiR Civics of the previous generations - the famous EG9 and EK4 Civic SiR variants - when comparing like to like (i.e. auto to auto), this Civic 2.0 i-VTEC matches their power but with a better midrange, a more advanced gearbox and higher technology ! Indeed I for one would have been more than happy to accept Honda Malaysia calling this as an ES3 Civic Ferio SiR !

And Now, the Finishing Blow

In a unique unprecedented move, in this Civic launch Honda Malaysia surprised even me by also putting up a specially prepped Civic on show ! They took a Nighthawk Black 2.0l and slapped on a bodykit; front & rear lower lips, rear trunk spoiler and a great looking front grille (the side skirts are standard). To this, they swapped the wheels to the 16" 'Civic Type-R' lookalikes used on their highly successful limited edition Civic RX of last year and with Bridgestone Potenza tyres and also used a set of Eibach Pro-Kit sport springs to lower the ride height of the car. Then they cheekingly put this on display behind the main-stage and calls it a 'Concept Civic'.

As a package, this special Civic now truly screams 'hard-core !' at me. The car looks fantastic and for a change, this time has the performance to back up the sporty looks ! And the good news is when I asked about plans for this Civic, the response sounds 'positive'. If it really gets sold, it would really be fun to look at what wild and wonderful things an enthusiast can do to such a car, with the looks already catered for and an engine just begging to be souped-up ! In 'celebration' of this wonderful new move, I will be covering this unit in a special photoshoot article later.

Back With a Vengence !

For too long the Civic rotted at the bottom of the mid-sized executive market segment, competing unsuccessfully and getting creamed by the likes of the Toyota Altis and Nissan Sentra, both of which uses a 1.8l DOHC engine with variable valve timing to take down the 1.7l SOHC VTEC. But now it's no more the weakling whipping boy. Watch out everyone, the Civic is back and it's back with a vengence ! With a single crippling blow, Honda Malaysia at once makes the Civic the most powerful and most advanced car in this market segment. And given the specification, I am confident it will be the fastest (auto) one as well. The only damper was the pricing - quality have to come at a price and at RM$124,900 'On The Road', it has unfortunately breached the psychological 120k barrier that enthusiasts have for the upper price limit of a Honda Civic. So only time will tell if the attraction of this new Civic will justify the relatively high premium it commands.

What is most gratifying to me at the launching ceremony was how Honda Malaysia blatantly addressed this new 2.0l Civic to us enthusiasts. The whole ceremony focussed almost completely on the 2.0l Civic, with only a small mention that the 1.7l version has received 'minor revisions' as well. Then the packaging and design of the 2.0l Civic screams sporty and enthusiasts right from its very core. Kinoshita-san told me the design objective for the car is 'luxury with performance'. It's aimed at those enthusiasts who appreciates stylish relaxed cruising but also very much enjoys performance driving as well. And then of course there's that 'concept car' ! I have often said in the past how Honda is going back more and more to its sporty and performance oriented roots and that us enthusiasts remains an important integral part of their customer base. They may have strayed a little bit off the track once and while but this time, they are surely right on track ! And at this rate, given their track record, I am now so much more hopeful for even harder core performance enthusiast models for the future !

Given my hard-core enthusiast nature, it would surely not be a surprise to readers that I am very excited and eager to check out the performance abilities of this new (what I like to call) K20A-Civic. So for this launch, I made a request to Honda Malaysia to participate in the special media familiarization session they usually hold for most of their new model launches. Hopefully my request can be accomodated and I hope to be able to conduct a quick short test drive and report on it in the near future while waiting patiently for the review cars to clock up the mileage and run in properly before I borrow it for a longer period to do the full length review. Stay tuned !

May 2004
© Temple of VTEC Asia