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Integrity, Design, and the “Absolute Value”: How the Honda Civic Became an International Hit

A blue and a red 2021 Honda Civic Si are shown from the side facing each other.

A visit to your local used Honda dealership reveals one thing about the celebrated manufacturer: people love the Honda Civic. It’s hard to imagine a world without the flexible, versatile, economic vehicle in all of its sedan, coupe, and hatchback iterations. The history of the Honda Civic is a rich tale that combines all of the classic elements, including a cast of strong characters unified in a common goal to overcome adversity.

The Honda Civic was designed to be perfect in every way, and according to many aficionados, it not only succeeded magnificently at its 1972 debut, but in the decades that have passed since that day. The Civic is one of Honda’s global brands, with hundreds of thousands of Civics being produced and sold each month in both North America and Asia. Automotive experts claim that over 20 million Civics have been sold since the brand’s first vehicle rolled off the assembly line in July 1972.

But how did the Honda Civic come to be? Let’s take a look down memory lane at all of the concepts that came together and challenges that were overcome to create the world’s first Honda Civic.

“Let’s Change the Landscape of the Automobile Industry.”

When Honda first established itself as an automobile manufacturer in 1963, “Let’s change the landscape of the automobile industry” became their working slogan. We can see this in practice today with Honda’s unique lineup of vehicles that earn top safety scores, lead their segment in fuel economy, and include a full variety of comfort and convenience features that demonstrate the manufacturer's technological innovation.

The Honda Civic began with a very bold idea: to create a single vehicle that could be successful in urban markets worldwide. As a result, Honda’s development teams knew they would have to create a small enough vehicle to maneuver through crowded streets, powerful enough to accelerate appropriately in traffic, and economical enough to meet the standards set by the US Clean Air Act of 1970.

The Civic was born in Japan as the country soared to the forefront of the global stage. With Japan selected to host international events such as the World Exposition and Olympic Games, it was clear that the country was a major player in the global economy. Therefore, while the Civic was initially considered a potential solution to Japan’s messy transportation industry at the time, Honda considered the Civic to be a global product first and foremost.

A blue 2020 Honda Civic is shown from the rear after leaving a used Honda dealership.

“A Car Created for Citizens and Cities”

To design the new Civic concept, Honda divided twenty designers into two teams of ten. One team was composed of experienced designers, while the other included engineers who were newer to the Honda program. The veteran team members were older, with average ages in their late 30s, while the newcomers were in their 20s and early 30s.

Honda encouraged the design teams to create an all-purpose urban vehicle based on their own preferences and requirements. Competition between the teams was encouraged, and later evolved into Honda’s current “free-competition approach through the concurrent implementation of heterogeneous projects.” That means that to get a feel for what different populations wanted most in a vehicle, Honda encouraged teams of contrasting demographics to design the same product separately.

One of the team leaders, Hiroshi Kizawa said of the experience, “We were all weary of the fact that we had made a car that was very good in certain areas but poor in others. We wanted to create a more ordinary car that could provide good quality in all aspects.”

Ultimately, that meant combining plans and design efforts to create a two-box car in which the interior and trunk space were created from one single body section, along with a front-engine and front-wheel drive. Engineers spent ample time experimenting with the percentages of space used for human passengers and trunk area to ensure the right balance of comfort and cargo.

To maximize the interior, increase overall vehicle stability, and reduce the weight of the up-and-coming Civic, engineers decided to include a strut-type four-wheel independent suspension system instead of the rigid rear-suspension favored by Mr. Honda. Though there was some dispute regarding which version would make it into the production vehicle, the advantages of the independent system outweighed Mr. Honda’s reservations about the cost and time required to manufacture this system, and it soon became the standard for all of the manufacturers compact and midsize vehicles.

Clean Air Compliance

Though initially released in its home country of Japan, the Civic immediately gained international notoriety. However, there were a few changes in the American market that needed to be addressed by the Civic’s engineering team before it could become a hit on the U.S. roadways.

First, there was the Clean Air Act of 1970, which provided emissions control regulations for stationary and mobile machinery. Many manufacturers struggled to reduce the emissions output of their vehicles without sacrificing horsepower and overall performance.

At the same time, the oil crisis of 1973 had a disastrous impact on the availability of unleaded gasoline. Vehicles developed with catalytic converters required unleaded gasoline due to potential lead build-up, creating overheating issues.

The Honda Civic’s development team created the Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion, or CVCC engine to meet both of these high stakes demands. Starting in 1974, the Honda Civic was named the most fuel-efficient car by the EPA for four straight years.[a] By combining a low-emissions engine that could operate on any type of gasoline while being a lightweight, compact vehicle, the Civic was able to become exactly what the design team had sought to create: an economical vehicle that didn’t sacrifice performance or practicality.

Though the Civic’s body style has changed significantly from the 5-square meter trapezoidal version that first hit the streets in 1972, its overall economical approach to driving has not wavered. The 2022 Civic LX gets an EPA-estimated 31 MPG on the city streets and up to 40 MPG on the highway.[b] Sporting state-of-the-art aerodynamics and a performance-oriented engine, the Honda Civic continues to be an international success fifty years after the first model was released.

A close up of the front of a blue 2022 Honda Civic Sport is shown at night.

The Future of the Honda Civic

The increased popularity and efficiency of SUVs, including Honda’s own CRV and HRV, have led experts in the automotive industry to question the future of sedans such as the Honda Civic.

However, sales figures released over the past year have indicated the world had a relentless appetite for a vehicle that offers as much for drivers to enjoy as the Honda Civic. While the two-door coupe has been discontinued for 2022, the sedan and hatchback versions continue to sell well. The sportier Civic Si has gained a tremendous following among sports car drivers who require a more practical daily driver, while the Civic Type R TC makes no attempt to hide the fact that it is a full-fledged race car.

The Honda Civic was designed to be a people’s car. By selecting design elements from two teams with very different focuses, Honda was able to combine all of the top design and engineering features that have made the Civic a continuous success. With innovation at the forefront of each new model year’s Civic, it’s clear that this is a vehicle that has fully earned all of the accolades it has received.

[a] Honda Civic won the Top Mileage Performance. For more information, visit The Environmental Protection Agency is a registered trademark of The United States Government.

[a] 31 city/40 highway/35 combined mpg rating for LX. 30 city/37 highway/33 combined mpg rating for Sport. 33 city/42 highway/36 combined mpg rating for EX. 31 city/38 highway/34 combined mpg rating for Touring. Based on 2022 EPA mileage ratings. Use for comparison purposes only. Your mileage will vary depending on how you drive and maintain your vehicle, driving conditions and other factors.