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Honda setting its sights on even higher sales in US

If Honda could build more cars, it could almost surely sell them. At a time when the US automakers are giving away the store to get rid of some of last year's cars that buyers didn't want because of size, uncompetitive mileage, or whatever the reason, Japan's Honda has staked out an even bigger claim in the United States.

The company became famous as a motorcyclemaker in the 1950s and '60s. When the company began to make cars, it built what the world wanted: low-cost transportation with flair and a lot of good engineering.

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It wasn't until the 1980-model year that Honda had to turn to a catalytic converter, and unleaded gas, to meet the US emissions standards on its cars. Up through 1979, the distinctive Honda CVCC (compound vortex-controlled combustion -- whatever that means) was able to ride on lower-cost leaded fuel and still meet all governmental standards with a low-emissions engine alone.

It was not only the engineering, but the size and style of its cars, that had an appeal that was hard to beat.

Last year Honda sold 350,000 cars. In 1970, the first year it moved into the US marketplace with an automobile, it sold fewer than 4,000.

The US market is of great importance to the people at Honda, who already, unlike Toyota and Nissan, are taking out "good-citizenship papers" in the US. Honda is running out of car-building capacity in Japan, thus making it unable to meet the rising demand for its vehicles. Thus, it now will become the second modern-day auto importer to build cars in a US factory. Honda will put up a car-assembly plant in Marysville, Ohio, near Columbus, adjacent to its brand-new motorcycle plant. Volkswagen of West Germany was the first, with its Rabbit facility some 30 miles out of Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania.

Because of this assembly plant commitment, Honda will run into far less flak from the United Automobile Workers union and certain American politicians, despite its high and rising car sales in this country. Other Japanese car manufacturers, notably Toyota and Nissan (Datsun), are under mounting pressure to set up assembly facilities in the US. But neither company is willing to commit itself to such a plan at the moment.

Meanwhile, Honda has introduced its brand-new Civic -- 2 inches wider than the earlier version, yet half an inch shorter. Inside, it has 13 percent more room than the model just replaced.

No longer is Honda's a few-dollars-and-some-change nameplate in the market. The base price of the Civic 1300 is $3,699, with a small engine and four-speed manual transmission. But with options, the price of a Civic can run up to $5, 000 or more. A 5-speed gearbox is an option. The wagon lists for a base of $4, 849.

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Honda also offers a two-speed automatic transmission in the Civic. It has a three-speed automatic available in the Prelude and Accord. Later this year the Civic should get the newer, and more responsive, automatic transmission.

As far as gasoline economy, I've been getting about 35 miles to a gallon of fuel, although the figure could run up in the mid-40s or better on a long-distance trip at constant speed. My driving has been commuting alone.

The spirited little Civic is highly maneuverable in traffic and steps out as if it had far more power beneath the hood. With the car in fifth gear, and with a light foot on the gas pedal, economy is at the maximum. Handling is more like that of a sports type of car than a small sedan. Simply, the new Honda Civic is superbly agile and responsive to the driver's command.

Either you like the styling of the Civic or you don't. I really do. The Japanese automaker also markets the highly rated Accord and the sporty Prelude, the latter essentially a two-seater vehicle, even though there is a second seat in the back.

All instruments in the Civic -- speedometer, tachometer, and fuel and temperature gauges -- are clearly visible at all times. In the car I'm driving the digital clock is hidden by the off-center steering wheel. But who cares, really?

The engine has a tendency to start up fast on a cold morning but then stall once or twice as you back out of the driveway. After a couple of miles, however , the car runs without a hiccup.

Where the Honda shines is in the economy department -- and here it's hard to beat on the road today.


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