'98 Honda Civic CX: Civic or Brutal?

Hi all:

I drive a '98 Honda Civic CX 5-speed manual hatchback with 52,000 miles. It’s in great condition, peppy enough for my needs, it’s paid for, and the gas milage is very good. I keep up with the routine maintenance as if it were a religion. I work from home in a neighborhood that’s a short bicycle ride to all necessities (plus light rail and other public transit options), so, weeks go by when I don’t need to pull it out of the garage. As a matter of fact, when I bought it in 2000 there were 36,000 miles on the odometer… the 16,000 miles I’ve added in 8 years are mostly for road trips.

In a lot of ways, it’s a perfect car for my lifestyle. Sounds pretty good, right? There’s just one problem… and it’s driving me nuts. I’m often stalling, racing, or lugging the engine in city driving. The clutch is extremely touchy. To ride with me, you might think I’d never driven a manual transmission… in fact, I’ve never owned an automatic in all the decades I’ve been driving. I’ve never had a similar problem with any other car I’ve owned.

It’s fine on the freeway (once you get it rolling). The problem is mostly with first gear. The same ratio of pressure to gas pedal and clutch produces wildly unexpected results. It’s random and crazy. Like I said earlier, I’m often lugging, racing, or just stalling the engine. Friends who’ve driven the car to test what I experience say pretty much the same thing: “Dude, this ain’t right.”

I’ve taken the car to a local (trusted) mechanic and the (typically overpriced) Honda dealership. The diagnosis is pretty much the same:

“It’s just the way Honda geared this model. It’s not your fault and the car meets all factory specs.”

I can’t help but wonder… if that’s true, why did Honda call it a “Civic”? Wouldn’t something like “Brutal” be more appropriate?

Anyway, sorry for the long post. I’m just trying to be clear. Here’s what I’d like to know:

1) Is there anybody out there with the same model year Honda “Civic” who’s working this issue?

2) If so, have you resolved it? How?

3) What is the meaning of life?

Thank you for your kind attention.

“The meaning of life” is the easier of the questions.
Would you restate the problem as: erratic response to the throttle at low speed, in low gear? Is it the clutch, or is the erratic behavior caused by the engine’s erratic behavior?
The throttle position sensor (tps), or the idle air control (iac) valve, could be erratic. Maybe, you can find a mechanic who knows how to check these components?

Hello hellokit:

Thanks for your reply. Erratic response to the throttle – at low speed, in low gear – most clearly describes my Honda hell. The engine does exactly what I ask it to do, so I don’t think it’s an engine issue. My best guess is some undiagnosed nightmare with the clutch or throttle. Thanks for your TPS and IAC insights. I’ll pass them along to my mechanic.

You know what’s really funny here? I always wanted to own a Honda automobile. Now that I do, the torture never stops. I bought Honda’s marketing campaign, not their product. I trusted Honda. Stupid me.

Whatever. Thanks again for your your reply, hellokit. If you like, I’ll keep you posted about what I discover on this long, strange road.

When checking the tps (throttle position sensor) for erratic behavior, backprobe the tps signal wire (with the backprobe tip on a digital multimeter). Slowly, move the throttle off the idle stop and back while watching the voltage reading. If the voltage is erratic, has flat spots, or has spikes, the tps is defective.
A scan tool would be the best tool to observe the electrical behavior of the iac (idle air control) valve.

The throttle plate may be sticking in the throttle body bore. Clean the MAF sensor with MAF Cleaner. Clean the iac, throttle plate and throttle body bore with a Carb/Throttle Body Cleaner (all in one fell swoop). Results?

Sorry for the reply delay and thanks again for your tips. I’ve printed out this thread and will take it to my local repair shop (they go by the name “Honest Engine” – I love that). I’ll post here if we find anything useful.

Other people have complained that my '88 Accord is difficult to drive. One person says the shift lever is “notchy”. I’m not quite sure what that means. The clutch used to be pretty “grabby”, but a couple of years ago I had the original clutch changed at a little over 200k miles because the rear main seal was leaking too much and the new clutch feels better. Maybe the old clutch had oil on it. Anyway, now I’ll get to something more relevant to your situation.

The throttle was kind of unpredictable, especially after hard acceleration. What made a big difference was cleaning the throttle body and lubricating the throttle cable. I unhooked the cable from the throttle, held it vertical and dribbled in oil. A slow process, but worth the effort.