Prepare the nostalgia klaxon: this week we’re going to spend a bit of time remembering the ’90s. You see, the era of cool Britannia, Oasis vs Blur vs Pulp, curtains on your head as well as on the windows, and France winning the world cup the first time around was also responsible for giving us some of the sweetest-driving bog-standard cars there ever were – or indeed, ever will be.
Why does this matter? Well, at risk of trivialising the process, it isn’t too hard to build a fun performance car. However, building a car for the people – the sort of thing that’ll truck back and forth to the supermarket each day, yet still feel delightful doing so – is rather trickier. And it’s an art manufacturers – for the most part – have forgotten. Today, sadly, the majority of boggo cooking-spec models suffer from over-light, feel-free steering, notchy manual gearboxes with ratios all to cock to game emissions regs, weedy engines bolstered by a dollop of torque either at the top or the bottom end, and a general sense of disconnection and, frankly, disappointment.
I was reminded of this the other day when I was allowed to have a go in an entirely humdrum Honda Civic 1.6 LS. A unique opportunity, because this wasn’t just some clapped-out old bone of the sort you’ll find in the dregs of the classifieds, but because it was an absolute minter, owned by Honda and with just 469 miles on the clock. Yes, you read that right.
The story with this old thing was quite special. Seems it, along with a couple of other cars of the time, had been kept back at the production line by Honda UK at Swindon in the early ‘90s. The idea was that they’d be factory runarounds; however, they were never registered for the road, and sat simply gathering dust in a forgotten corner – until, faintly unbelievably, some time last year, when Honda’s PR team got wind of, and rapidly appropriated, them.
So there we were – even more bizarrely, and for tenuously legitimate reasons, somewhere south of Barcelona – with a delivery-mileage 1995 Honda Civic to take for a little razz, and a chance to find out what this 1990s family favourite felt like when it was brand new.
I was entirely prepared to be underwhelmed. I mean, this was a very blog car even in period; sure, the 1.6-litre VTEC engine was peppy, with 133hp, but still, 0-62 took just shy of 11 seconds, with top whack an entirely unremarkable 119mph. What's more, it's not as if thisgeneration of Civic was ever renowned in its day for the sort of fine handling you’d find in a Ford. And, if I’m honest, that’s not what I got. The Civic was, and still is, very ordinary to drive – a family-sized front-wheel-drive hatchback which, if you push it too hard, will tend to understeer.
And yet. Around the edges of that ordinariness lay simple pleasures the like of which you might not have noticed you’ve been going without. Things like a progressive throttle pedal and feelsome clutch that make it difficult not to pull away or swap cogs beautifully smoothly, each and every time; an engine with a smooth power curve and no nasty flat spots, and gear ratios that feel logical and well-placed. Not to mention, of course, a cushiony-smooth ride.
All this in a mid-range family hatch known for anything but its dynamic prowess. I handed the keys back with mixed feelings – an unexpected fondness for, and delight with, this little Civic, but also a pang of disappointment that they don’t make ’em like they used to.
The thing is, I know they don’t, and I think I understand why. Yet sometimes I wonder whether it’d really be so hard for manufacturers to engineer in just a little more finesse here and there. Less damping on the clutch, for example, so we can actually feel what it’s doing, and the same goes for the gearbox. And perhaps less of the ridiculous variable steering that spears you off into the car park barrier if you turn the wheel just a smidge too quickly.
Of course, the chance would be a fine thing, especially with the current drive toward less, rather than more, involvement for the driver. So maybe those of us in search of sweetness in the everyday will have to content ourselves with the old Civic, and its contemporaries. Cars like this rather charming old Megane,a high-end 2.0 RXE and bone-stock down to the hubcaps and replete with squishy velour seats and the sort of ride quality the French used to do so well.
Or keep it Honda with this lovely Accord 2.0, complete with air con, four electric windows, plasti-wood and, if my memory serves me right, you even get cruise control thrown in with these. Such mod cons. Yes, it’s pricey, but find another with this sort of mileage. And if those are just a bit too boring for you, how about this 1998 E36 BMW 328i manual? It’s smart, comfy, and unassuming, yet it has a fantastic six-pot engine with more than enough oomph to make it feel fast, and it should ride and handle fantastically well by modern standards.
No, everyday cars aren’t what they once were. And while there are very good reasons for that, it’s still a bit of a shame. I for one miss the days when something as ordinary as a Focus or an Astra would surprise you with its innate balance and feel, and when even a plain-jane Honda Civic felt smooth and sweet enough to make you smile. So if you get the chance, have a go in something ordinary from the 90s soon. I’ll warrant it’ll be better than you’re expecting.