So there I was, sitting under a giant Honda tent at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. It was the morning, I was eating breakfast, and I was staring off into the distance, idly wondering why I couldn't remember any of my high-school Japanese. (Ok, I didn't take Japanese in high school, but I'd like to pretend that I did, because the smart kids all took Japanese. I took Spanish, a language that has helped me exactly zero times in my professional life but nevertheless allowed me to insult all of my mexican college friends in their native tongue. Y tu mama tambien, bastardo!)
Why was I wishing I had learned Japanese at some point? Simple: I was at a table surrounded by a bunch of Japanese engineers, none of whom spoke much English. Few things make you feel more like an stark raving idiot than being around well-dressed, impeccably groomed foreigners -- with you in your jeans and sneakers -- and being reduced to smiles and nods. And so I asked simple questions, they humored me and answered them as best they could in English, and I tried to bury the awkwardness.
It was during this burying of said awkwardness that I noticed something a bit odd. (Staring around politely and trying not to make an ass of yourself tends to help you notice small details, don't ya know.) A small pack of journalists had come to Mid-Ohio to drive the Honda S2000 CR -- the "club racer" version of the standard S2000. A bunch of Honda motorsport people (hey, that dude looks like Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon -- oh wait, it is Dan Wheldon) and PR folk were scattered around as well. Everyone fit in. Everyone, that is, except the Mugen guys.
Mugen: Honda F1 folks. Mugen: tuner car stuff. Mugen: what the hell were they doing on a Honda press launch for a production car? Something must be up, I decided - but what?
I got my answer a few minutes later when we were herded into Mid-Ohio's main timing and scoring tower for Honda's presentation. The big surprise of the day, and the reason the Mugen engineers were present, was the last-minute launch of a factory-endorsed, Mugen-tuned Civic Si. Honda, as it turns out, has decided to get a bit of this "tuner market" stuff embraced by the "kids" these days with their "Internets" and their "rock and roll." Fantastic new market, that, even if the big H does seem to be approaching it a few years too late. Regardless, they have to be commended for trying; the tuner-car market grows every day, and while the credibility of factory-authorized tuner cars has always been a little nebulous, there's no doubting the existence of PR value in appeasing the die-hards.
Naturally, Honda turned to the almost-sort-of-in-house tuner Mugen for the project. Unnaturally, in a world of fast-and-furioused-out two-doors, they chose to base their project on a sedan: the Civic Si four-door.
Like Honda's S2000 CR, the Mugen Civic Si recieves no additional thrust compared with a stock Civic Si -- output stays at 197 hp and 139 lb-ft of torque. The Mugen Si receives only suspension and body modifications, along with a few small trim items.
This may not seem like a big deal, but in actuality, the Mugen-engineered changes make a world of difference. Stiffer and lower (by 0.6 inches, which may not seem like a lot but nevertheless greatly reduces the car's fender gap) springs; stiffer shocks, and lightweight 18x7.5-inch wheels all help increase the Mugen Si's track prowess. The Mugen body kit includes an angry-looking front spoiler and grille, side skirts, a cool bumper diffuser, and a rear wing. Inside, a cheap Mugen dash plaque and Mugen spherical aluminum shift knob may make you feel like you've seen one too many Best Motoring DVDs, but they get the point across. A Mugen exhaust, all snorty and rorty and look-at-me-I've-just-snorted-six-cans-of-Red-Bull with its huge tip, nevertheless sounds cool. The paint, a color known in Hondaland as Fiji blue, is the only hue available.
On the track, the stock Civic Si is a fairly quick, fairly capable car, but it has three glaring faults: one, it doesn't like to rotate; two, it feels as if it needs more rear roll stiffness; and three, widely spaced gearing often keeps the car from operating in its narrow, high-rpm powerband. The Mugen Si doesn't completely fix those flaws, but it does greatly help them. You'll never forget that this is a fairly heavy mid-size sedan -- one with very little peak torque and a rev-for-it powerband -- but the additional spring rate, better shocks, and grippier tires provide a much more poised platform while cornering. Over Mid-Ohio's notorious everything-oversteers-here Madness section, yes, the Mugen Si came around easily under abrupt turn-in--but what's much more impressive is that it also could be pitched into a balanced drift in the other, less crazy sections of the track. The additional cornering grip results in higher entry and exit speeds, and on street tires, the car responds much more directly to mid-corner throttle and steering changes; there's much less waiting for the chassis to settle out during transitions. The additional cornering speed also serves to keep the Si in its powerband more of the time, which in turn keeps you grinning more often.
That's not to say that the Mugen Si is perfect. Ideally, even though its shocks and springs are significantly stiffer than those of the ordinary Si, the Mugen could use even more stiffness; turn-in and transitional response are still a tad mushier than we'd like for a track-oriented car of this heft. That said, like the S2000 and S2000 CR, the Mugen Si's genius lies in how comfortable and surprisingly capable it is. Few street cars strike this perfect of a ride-and-handling balance; the Mugen could be comfortably driven by your grandmother's three-legged dog without complaint.
Only 1000 examples of the Mugen Si (one for each Honda dealer in the United States) will be built, and even so, we wonder if that's already too much. As good a car as the Mugen is, its appeal is fairly limited -- it's likely not extreme enough for the checkbook tuner crowd, and probably too street-oriented for the die-hard track rats. Topping it all off, the traditionally low-budget tuner kids will see a car far less ridiculous -- and far more expensive -- than one they could have built themselves.
Regardless, Honda plans on setting the Mugen's price at less than $30,000 when it goes on sale this fall, so it's at least affordable; the car also carries a full Honda factory warranty, something most tuned cars can't boast. And if it means anything, the Mugen Si makes talking to a couple of barely English-speaking Mugen engineers a whole lot easier. All you have to do is pull up, step out, and look them in the eye: the grin on your face will say it all.