Why do many 90s Civics burn oil?

I am planning on getting a car to use as a back up car in case I need to make any major repairs on mine, and the main qualifications are that it needs to be inexpensive and relatively easy to repair myself (repairs on my 1998 Cadillac Seville are generally not easy).

The car I am thinking of is a mid 90s Honda Civic, but when I see them on the road, it seems like they are always burning oil. Picture a Honda Civic with a muffler that sounds like a noisy lawnmower and is leaving a trail of white smoke from the tailpipe as it leaves a stoplight.

My questions are:

A. Is it a misperception on my part because people try to tune them, drive them hard, and don’t maintain them, or do they really have a tendency to burn oil?
B. Everything under the hood looks like it’s so much easier to get at than in my car. Are they actually easy to repair?

White smoke means that the engine isn’t fully warmed up and it’s just water vapor that you see.

White “smoke” that dissipates right away is water vapor. White smoke that leaves a trail behind you and smells like oil burning is not water vapor, I’m afraid.

Typically burning oil will leave a trail of bluish smoke. I haven’t really noticed it that much, but some engines do have a weakness in that area, which could mean poorly designed rings or valve seals, infrequent oil changes, poor driving habits–if you always baby an engine, it will eventually burn oil IMHO–or maybe just an engine with a lot of miles on it. I can’t say whether Hondas are more susceptible than others to this. It seems like older Toyotas that I notice burning oil personally.

I haven’t noticed any more or less oil burning on '90’s era Civics. Yet, at this point any '90’s era civic is about 20 years old. Certainly any 20 year old car deserves to use a bit of oil after a lot of years and miles. '90’s era Civics are only easy to work on if you have small hands.

I’m not sure getting a 2nd old car to maintain as a backup is a good plan economically. Now you’ll have 2 cars to insure, inspect yearly, maintain, put tires on etc. Perhaps another idea is to have the phone number of Enterprise Rental Car handy (they pick you up) or the number of the local “Rent-A-Wreck” franchise.

Our '95 Civic doesn’t burn or leak a drop. About 215k miles, really runs nice. Rocketman

Maybe because there are still a lot of them around that you notice. If you could be guranteed that your car wouldn’t burn oil until it was nearly twenty years old and over 250k, that ain’t too bad. A lot of other cars just aren’t running anymore.

I think it’s more about a typical 20+ year old Japanese economy car being considered disposable by its third owner.
Maintenance isn’t done. Oil changes stretched.
The “A” pipe from exhaust manifold to cat converter is relatively expensive, so the owner lives with the lawn mower sound.

@UncleTurbo I don’t have small hands, but I guess the Civics just looked easier to work on when I looked under the hood. For example, changing the valve cover gasket is so much simpler than it is on my car. A rental car might be OK for a day or two, but if I have to do a repair on my car that is going to take me 3-4 weeks as a relative novice (like changing a head gasket/adding thread inserts), the cost of a rental car adds up in a hurry.

@rocketman That’s good to hear, it sounds like you took care of yours then.

@circuitsmith The “lawnmower” sound I was talking about was from people who put an aftermarket muffler on because they think it sounds cool. That was just to paint a picture of the Civics that I saw where people are “hot rodding” them and blowing smoke. I guess I just didn’t notice the Civics that were quiet and running normally.

'90s Civics burn oil for two reasons:

  1. they’re getting old. Most '90s economy cars are well past their prime.
  2. they were often owned by kids who drive them hard and didn’t always give them the best maintenance

Walk away from the car you’ve described. White smoke is either water vapo or transmission fluid. I think 1990 Civics still had vacuum modulators for the transmissions and a rupture of that could cause tranny fluid to be sucked into the intake. That makes a huge white cloud and a lawnmower noise. The modulator itself isn’t the problem, but the tranny will often have suffered from being operated with low fluid.

Civics are more difficult to work on IMHO than some. I discovered words I haven’t used since bootcamp when I changed my daughter’s headlight, and never did figure out how to change the oil (on ramps) without it running down my arm.

May be because the one’s you’re noticing are the ones with the loud exhausts, which have been mistreated. Civics have been a favorite of the ‘tuner’ set, much more than Corollas. So you’ll see a lot more abused Civics out there.

What about a Toyota Corolla or Nissan Sentra? They’re more boring than the Civic, so maybe owned by folks who didn’t hotrod them, and who followed the maintenance schedule.

Whatever you decide to consider, I think if you watch Craigslist, you’ll begin to see cars that stand out as well maintained and not abused, with low mileage. But but it will take some time to patiently watch the ads. Be ready to pounce quickly when a better than average car shows up for a good price.

@the same mountainbike Thanks for the info. I’m not looking at a specific individual Civic right now, just trying to decide on what would be a good back up car that’s easy to repair.

@texases I’m sure you’re correct about that. I just don’t usually see 90s Mustang “tuners” blowing smoke, for example, so I was wondering if the Civics tended to burn oil even if they are maintained properly.

@WesternRoadtripper That’s something I’ll keep in mind. I don’t have any specific preference for the Civic.

As for a simple and inexpensive car from this time period, I will vouch for the lowly Geo Metro. Try to find one with no rust as this is an issue in the northern climates. Also check to see how the engine is for its overall condition. These things only cost like $6000 new so many treated them as a disposable car. Many are coming out of retirement as they are exceptional on gas. The highest ever was 58 MPG on the XFI models.

They are simple to work on and I suggest the 3 cylinder 5 speed manual for reliability and simplicity of working on it. Although they are a small car, there is lots of room under the hood to work. I can change an engine in a parking lot in a few hours with nothing more than a car jack and basic metric socket set. I can also lift the engine out of the bay without a hoist and I am by no means a big guy.

Find one good car or get one rust bucket with a good engine and one with a good body but bad engine and combine them like I did!


+1 @cwatkin about the “lowly” Metro.
I have a friend with a Corvette ZR-1, a classic 70’s StingRay, and …TWO Metros. I’d swear he likes the Metros better.

One is the two seat convertible, his has flames painted on it. When he got it, before I saw it, he told me it was so small he could turn it around on the end of a swimming pool diving board. On a long trip in the other car, with a passenger and a bunch of camping gear, he got something like 53 mpg. I think he’d agree that they are easy to work on.

The problem is now that gas prices have driven up the prices of these cars, so you may find a gas guzzling Corolla for less. But I agree with cwatkin that buying two with opposite problems is a good way to go, especially on car whose engine is so easy to swap.

It appears that the Geo Metro is the way to go then. That’s sounds like what I am looking for.

Hmmm…the Metro may be all that’s described above, but it also has the structural integrity of an empty pop can…wouldn’t want to get hit while driving it…

Yup, that’s been my impression when riding in the two seater convertible. It’s probably just a little less crashworthy than a motorcycle…

True. The Geo is a pretty lightweight little car and probably not the best on the crash ratings. Anyway, I was thinking about cost to buy and own more than anything plus it is simple to work on. My 1994 Metro is definitely getting at least the EPA rating so I like it for a little commuter car.

That’s a good point. As the owner of an earlier model Civic and 90s Accord, I found they handled well and liked to be reved with a little higher gear rati, at least back in the 80s. This is just a guess as I have not checked, but I wonder if the final drive ratio might be a little high compared to many. They make great racing motors and can take the high revs for a long time, but rings are rings and that kind of wear is harder to engineered out. So, high revving motor, built to last may sooner or later be a oil burner before it’s even close to breaking down. I’m sure they were " engineered" to rust out before it started smoking, so the Civics you’ ve seen had some owners who took exceptional care of the body or the car spent some time out of the rust belt…