Much of the credit for elevating the status of inexpensive subcompacts can be given to Honda. Before the Civic came along more than two decades ago, low-buck offerings tended to be little more than alternatives to used cars, desperation purchases made by the financially challenged. That's certainly not the case now. Clever engineering, good assembly quality and a comprehensive menu of features both standard and optional have made cars in this class, the Civic among them, more than palatable. They can--and do--offer driving pleasure and surprising comfort on top of relatively low price tags. The key word in the last sentence is "relatively." With stickers edging toward the $20,000 mark for fully loaded Civics, alternatives go beyond the likes of Toyota Tercels, Mitsubishi Mirages, Nissan Sentras, Dodge/Plymouth Neons and others of similar size, price and packaging. For example, a Ford Contour, Nissan Altima or even Honda's own Accord can cost less than a top-of-the-line Civic EX sedan (from $17,675, including destination), while offering more in the way of interior space. But a sensible Civic, one equipped well but not lavishly, remains an exceptionally good value. And at least one Civic model offers a novel and effective technical feature not found on any other car sold in the U.S.