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Anytime the price of gasoline rises significantly, many prospective car buyers think maybe they should veer away from the big chug-a-luggers and buy something that sips the increasingly precious fuel.
But can American motorists, who tend to think big and drive bigger, really enjoy life behind the wheel of a modestly powered compact car?
If a lot of passengers and cargo are absolute necessities, the answer is an obvious "No."
But if the reasons are less compelling, more fuel-efficient transportation might make sense.
I recently spent a week and more than 600 miles behind the wheel of the newly redesigned, top-of-the-line 2006 Honda Civic EX sedan. My journeys took me through two states along congested urban roads, lightly traveled suburban thoroughfares and long stretches of busy interstates.
Accompanying me most of the way were my wife and a 95-pound English sheepdog. The uncertainty of the weather and the reason for our travels -- business and pleasure -- necessitated an inordinate amount of luggage. In all, we had a half dozen pieces of soft luggage, a stack of clothes on hangars and a few extra coats and jackets.
Frankly, I started to have doubts about the Civic's suitability before we were underway and suggested some things we might be able to do without. My advice went unheeded, which became more and more obvious as the luggage began to pile up at the rear of the small sedan.
As it turned out, I had misjudged the Civic's cargo-carrying ability. The 12-cubic-foot trunk swallowed just about everything without wrinkling the clothing or straining the trunk lid. Only later did it occur to me that the little Honda has a trunk that is only half a cubic foot smaller than the one in its bigger, thirstier and much more expensive cousin, the Acura TL.
Once inside, we had another surprise. The dog fit comfortably across the rear seat and my wife, a busy but usually silent traveling companion, showed no discomfort as she surrounded herself with a newspaper, book, crossword puzzle and tote bag full of knitting gear.
The somewhat unusual configuration of the Honda's two-tier dashboard actually added an illusion of spaciousness to the front of the cabin.
The lesson here is that small isn't what it used to be. In fact, it's downright big and luxurious compared with the tiny putt-putt Honda introduced all the way back in 1973.
A young family of four could live easily with a car the size of the new Civic.