DETROIT -- About 18 years ago, Honda Motor Co. got a lot of attention when it displayed its Civic, which had an unusual, fuel-efficient engine that satisfied pollution concerns.
In two weeks, Honda will introduce a new Civic model whose engine could have a big impact in the current debate: Whether fuel-efficient cars need come only in small packages.
The 1992 Civic VX, which can comfortably seat up to five people, is equipped with a four-cylinder engine that Honda expects to get a government fuel-efficiency rating of 55 miles a gallon on the highway and 48 miles a gallon in the city.
That would compare with the rating for the Geo Metro, among the most fuel-efficient cars sold today.
But perhaps most important, Civic's VTEC-E engine with 94 horsepower is more powerful than the power plants found in many comparably sized cars.
The new Honda Civic, which is expected to be priced at about $10,000, means that Honda has married a highly fuel-efficient engine with a relatively roomy car that performs suitably for normal everyday use.
Detroit is concerned that the fuel-efficient Civic VX may become a powerful weapon in the hands of those who favor stiffer auto fuel-efficiency standards. Within the next few weeks that issue is expected to intensify as Congress begins to debate pending energy legislation.
"The numbers seem to be there, and if the performance is good, thiscar means that the Japanese have opened a new chapter in the debate, and all the old responses are simply not appropriate," said Leon Mandel, publisher of Autoweek magazine.
He added, "If you are a legislator who's only interested in fuel savings and the environment, then this is going to be a devastatingly persuasive argument."