CALL IT CYNICAL, vicious, sadistic, whatever. I was determined to punish the 1988 Honda Civic LX sedan. I really wanted to beat it up.

I mean, the press clippings on this car and its five Civic cousins are unbelievable. Raves, raves, everywhere, raves!

I figured no car could be this good; and I told the Honda folks as much when they delivered the metallic "gothic gray" test model. They smiled at my incredulity and gave me the keys. I cursed their self-confidence and cranked the engine.

There'd be no easy roads for this one -- none of that schlepping-through-the-Shenandoah Valley jazz. No. For this little pet of the nation's auto critics, I had planned a route of unusual cruelty: District of Columbia streets -- lots and lots of bumpy, brutal, pot-holed, chassis-breaking, litter-strewn, traffic-jammed D.C. streets.

But now, in retrospect, I know why the Honda people were smiling: The 1988 Civic LX took everything that awful D.C. streets handed out; and it finished the course in rattle-free splendor.

It also endured a dozen or so hours of idling in "rush hour" traffic without misbehaving in any way.

In short, the test car was every bit as good as the Honda people said it would be. I'm not accustomed to that. I guess I owe 'em an apology.

Complaint: The clutch and five-speed manual gearbox were a little mushy and wimpy. Shifting in this car was so devoid of effort and feel, it should've been an automatic.

Yeah, I know. That's a nitpick. But there's not much else to complain about here.

Praise: Honda's front-wheel-drive Civic series was already good. The company could've rested on its laurels. It didn't.

The 1988 Civic sedan is 166.5 inches, an overall 3.3 inches longer than its predecessor. It has 3 cubic feet more cabin space, which helps it seat four adults in greater comfort. The new car, with its sloping hood and wide windows, even looks better than the old sedan.

It's no wonder that Honda consistently has less than a 20-day supply of cars in a market where a 60-day supply is considered normal. "Good" is never good enough for this company. It's always trying to improve. Bravo!

Head-turning quotient: Cute, solid, unmistakably Honda.

Ride, acceleration, handling: Superior small-car ride and handling. The Civic LX sedan went over bumps without bouncing up and down, handled shallow potholes with minimum shudder, and moved through heavy traffic with finesse. Credit here goes to Honda's use of double-wishbone suspensions front and rear, which help each of the four wheels make individual adjustments to bumps and depressions without upsetting the car's overall balance.

The test car's 1.5-liter, dual-point, fuel-injected, four-cylinder, 16-valve engine produced excellent acceleration. The engine is rated 92 horsepower at 6,000 rpm -- more than enough gallop for a car weighing 2,039 pounds.

Sound system: Aha! Yes! It's here in the notes. The two-speaker, AM/FM Honda stereo radio-cassette was mediocre. Hee-hee!

Mileage: Easily 33 to the gallon (11.9- gallon tank, estimated 390-mile range on usable volume), running mostly driver-only, windows up, heater on, in the District of Columbia. The Civic LX's mileage increases significantly (up to 37 mpg) in steady highway driving.

Price: $1O,894, including an estimated $1,000 in options and a $219 destination charge. Base price on Civic LX sedan is $9,675, and dealer's invoice price without options is $8,224.

Purse-strings warning: This is a high-demand car made by a company that doesn't seem to have any problems selling any of its products. Look out for dealer "premium" charges and other non-value-added markups.

Warren Brown covers the auto industry for The Post.