The trouble with moving targets is self-evident: They move. Sometimes they move so quickly, so far away from their original position, you lose sight of them. You aim at emptiness; or, maybe, if you are a rival car manufacturer shooting at Honda Motor Co., you target a memory, such as the old Honda Civic.

The Civic, introduced in July 1972, gave the small car a good name. It was fuel-efficient, reliable and environmentally friendly. It was an ugly two-door coupe in its initial presentation. But ugly was okay. It was a badge of honor.

Civic buyers cared more about quality than fashion. They honored ingenuity. Other car owners bragged about horsepower. Honda devotees raved about technology that allowed early Civics to meet U.S. clean air standards without the assistance of catalytic converters, exhaust system devices used to reduce tailpipe emissions.

Times changed, and the Civic changed with them. Rival car companies that thought they could match the Civic by rolling out small, inexpensive and often dowdy cars missed the mark. The Civic had moved onto something else -- becoming hip without sacrificing its core values of quality, reliability and practicality.

Civics that once were horsepower slugs were transformed into chariots of speed through the efforts of a new generation of hot-rod enthusiasts seduced by the thrill and danger of street racing, and assisted by the wonder of computers. The car for nerds thus became the wheels of the fast and the furious. Rival car companies, with the notable exception of Toyota Motor Corp. and its redoubtable Corolla, were left behind in the small-car race, again.

But no circumstance lasts forever. Over the years, the small-car quality and reliability of all major automobile manufacturers improved dramatically. "Small" no longer meant "cheap," or otherwise less than desirable. BMW gave us the born-again Mini Cooper, proving that "premium small" was a bona fide automotive sales concept. Ford Motor Co. eventually regained its competitive focus and greatly improved its Focus subcompact. General Motors Corp., still the world's biggest automaker, began taking small cars seriously; and a recovered Nissan Motor Co., which rode back to glory with breakthrough vehicle styling and big engines, renewed its commitment to things small in the form of the new Versa subcompact.

All of those companies are still gunning for the Civic. But, based on a week of driving the splendid 2006 Honda Civic EX sedan, they're still shooting wide.

Simply stated, the new Civic is loaded and ready to rock. Exterior styling is sleek, sassy. Honda obviously borrowed design cues from the street stylists of Southern California for this one. The interior is a mixture of computer game and Ferrari. This works well. The digital readouts -- white on an indigo-blue background -- are easy to see. The onboard navigation system, sold as a package in the EX with navigation, is intuitive and informative.

Interior materials are mostly high-quality vinyl. But the small, perfectly graspable steering wheel in the new Civic clearly was inspired by race cars. The driver's seat is comfortable and supportive for backs young and old; and although interior space, especially in the rear, is a tad smaller, four adults can sit comfortably in the car on a 50-mile drive.

The Civic, available as a coupe or sedan, remains front-wheel-drive. It is fuel-efficient with its traditional four-cylinder internal combustion engine. But, if you really must have a gas-electric hybrid -- and if most of your driving will be in stop-and-go urban traffic where current hybrids are most effective in saving fuel -- a hybrid Civic is available.

But I'd be happy with the standard 1.8-liter, four-cylinder 140-horsepower engine in the new car. It has zip. It saves fuel. It costs less than the hybrid; and it doesn't pollute the air any more than your average political speech.

In short, the Civic remains the car to beat in the small-car contest. That means, as presented for 2006, it ranks first in overall execution, performance, value and appeal.

With its new sleek and sassy exterior styling, the 2006 Honda Civic is still reliable and fuel-efficient.