I have constantly had a love/hate relationship with this car. In our immediate family, we also have a 1992 Toyota Corolla and a VW Jetta. The Honda's appearance is bothersome. Ours is a sedan, which you want to be fairly low-profile. But with the low snout and garishly glittering headlamps, it has a boy-racer look from the front. There are enough chrome accents around the doors, window, and grille to give it a "poor white trash I wish I had a Cadillac" look. So, score down on looks. Good news, though, the low hood means visibility outside is good. That moves us to the cabin, which is good news - exactly what you want in a low-key small economical car. Firm, supportive seats, although not wide enough if you're a Porker American. They fit us fine. Visibility all directions is good. Dashboard is classic Honda - well laid out, made of cheap plastic, but functional.
The driving experience is where I have a love/hate relationship. First off, the controls are a mishmash. The clutch pedal is very light-touch, but the throttle requires a heavy foot. The gear shifter, while pleasantly short-throw and requiring a light touch, is rubbery. The heavy throttle pedal means that you push gently, and nothing happens, then you push a little harder and the engine roars to life, nothing subtle there. The steering wheel seems too large for the rest of the interior and because it's got a built-in airbag, you cannot replace it with a smaller one without violating federal law. The steering has the "right" weight to it, and you expect it to give you great road feel when you get moving - but it doesn't.
The transmission shifts smoothly enough, but the clutch spring is too light, and it takes quite a bit of practice to learn to drive the car without bouncing the clutch.
Driving - once you get moving, the car can cruise steadily and stable. You get decent feedback from the suspension on the road, if none from the steering. Initial turn-in is great, you flick the wheel and the car heads that direction. Too bad there's no engine to back it up.
The worst part about this car is the engine. It roars, and is loud doing so, but has no poop. It'll do 0-20 pretty snappy, but then it's all over. 106 horsepower should be plenty for a 2400 pound car, but our Corolla - with 102 horsepower and 2300 pounds, moves out MUCH more quickly, and so does our Jetta. Also, the Honda engine simply feels sluggish, as if it's got a heavy flywheel. We've driven other 1997s, and this is how they all are; ours is not an exception. Both the Toyota engine and Jetta engine feel far more willing to rev and go. There's also a family member with a recent Focus engine: that is responsive in spades compared to the Civic. The Focus' suspension is also more nimble than the Civic.
In driving the mountains of Colorado, you are constantly struggling to maintain the speed limit without having to downshift to the point where the engine drone drives you batty. This is a LOUD engine when revved up. It's flat-out unsafely slow in some situations.
One would hope that in exchange for the lethargy of the engine, one would be rewarded with super fuel efficiency. Sadly, this is not the case. When I drive the car in my "super efficient" mode, where I lug the engine somewhat, keep the highway speeds down to 50 at most and generally drive just on the edge of being so slow as to impede people, I am able to squeak the car up to 40 miles per gallon. By comparison, the same driving style gets 44 MPG on our Corolla and 42 on the Jetta, both of which are snappier driving cars. Oddly, the high-efficiency driving style may as well be the one of choice, as the sluggish engine doesn't offer much else anyway. Push it hard and you go a little faster, drink more fuel, and tolerate a loud droning noise.
The suspension in the Civic gets good points, though. The steering turn-in is quicker than anything in its class except the Focus. There's good communications from tires to driver, better than even the Focus. The chassis feels as if its at its limit; I would not want to try a suspension upgrade as I'd fear a great deal of chassis flex would occur.
The final overall feel of the car is that it's a well-considered interior sitting on top of a decent suspension, but in sad need of a superior drive train.
Reliability has been quirky. Since my '78 Celica, I've never had to take a Japanese car to the dealer before 100,000 miles. This one has been an exception. For some reason, it LOVES to illuminate the "check engine" light. The owner's manual warns you in stern words to get the car to a dealer pronto when that happens. It's amazing how many of those occasions are nothing at all - the ECU detected a sparkplug misfire (sometimes on new plugs), or the ECU detected a glitch in a sensor that's now working. The dealer resets the light and charges us nothing, but frankly, we'd rather not have to go into the dealer at all! This happens about twice a year. Twice, the light required us to have the O2 sensor replaced, for about $200. Be aware also that Hondas have very dicey water pumps: you MUST replace them at the recommended interval, as the failure mode can damage the entire engine, as the impeller grinds away at the block. Recommended interval for timing belt and water pump is 105,000 miles, and this is a VERY expensive "routine maintenance" job.
The brakes and shocks have been a trouble for us, but not due to outright failure. The brakes get vibrate-y easily and then they need to turn the rear drums on the car. $150 each time. The shocks get soft at only a few years old and then need to be replaced. We've gone to aftermarket shocks, but can't get much more life out of them, except that they are cheaper.
On the whole, it is reliable, if all you care about is that it continues to run and is safe, and you're not fussy about a car that jounces and bounces over bumps and the brake pedal vibrates when you come to a stop, and if you don't mind getting to know your dealer on a first-name basis for free visits.
I would still purchase another Civic. The driving experience is better than the Corolla, mainly because the Corolla is trying to pretend it's a Camry, and therefore the suspension is terrible and it cannot handle. I would be a lot happier if the Civic had the Corolla's smooth engine with responsive power-on demand. The Jetta's suspension would be a nice tick upwards, too, but the Jetta has been far less reliable.
Honda does make a higher-MPG engine, but it goes only in the HX coupe, and we need a sedan. That engine delivers more bottom-end grunt as well as delivering the MPG that you expect in a car this small.
If you want a small car that's reliable, you should look at this car and the Corolla. If you're not fussy about handling, you would do better with the Corolla - it's quieter, gets better economy in real-world driving, has a more responsive engine, and doesn't force you into the dealer as often. But if a car with nimble cornering and some connection to the road is important, you'll probably like the Civic better.