TOCHIGI, JAPAN - Throw the 2006 Civic Si into turn 1 of the Twin Ring Motegi road course, and it's immediately clear that this is the best Civic ever built. It gobbles up corners, rotates willingly, and steers effortlessly on the throttle like some sort of a poor man's Lotus Elise. With 197 hp-37 more than the outgoing Si's engine-its 2.0-liter DOHC i-VTEC four shrieks to its 7800-rpm redline, sounding better than any Honda engine in years. Lap after lap confirms that, once again, the Si is a real car, a credible performance flagship for a new, eighth-generation Civic.
And what a difference the new car is from the outgoing Civic. Although reliable, well built, and a huge seller since its 2001 debut, it no longer was the innovative, class-leading small car that we had come to expect since the 1973 original. The utterly lackluster Si hatchback was an especially bitter pill for the Honda faithful to swallow. Sport-compact enthusiasts sought their medicine elsewhere or tended to their old, sixth-generation Civics.
There's no need to tack on yet another new rear wing, guys. Having met the Ohio-based engineers who were responsible for the 2006 Civic Si, we can understand how it got its mojo back: these rabid enthusiasts own Civics, drive Civics, race Civics, live and breathe Civics, and clearly were embarrassed by how far the last car had fallen in the estimation of the influential sport-compact crowd. With the help of the home team in Japan, they've created not only the superb Si but also a full range of Civics of which they can be proud.
As the crown prince of the Civic lineup, the Si naturally gets special chassis tuning. Differences from the stock Civic include higher spring rates, stiffer dampers, a solid front antiroll bar, bigger front brake discs, and beefier suspension linkages, plus a slick six-speed manual transmission and a limited-slip differential, crucial to smart on-track behavior. The Si's bigger engine block accounts for most of the car's 95-pound weight gain over its predecessor: at 2877 pounds, the Si is, unfortunately, the heaviest of all Civics. All-season 215/45VR-17 tires are standard, but Michelin Pilot Exalto PE2 summer tires are available. Honda Factory Performance offers eighteen-inch wheels, as will, you can bet, half the booths at the SEMA show in November.
The Civic sedan is longer, wider, and slightly shorter than the 2005 model, while the coupe gets its own wheelbase for the first time and loses three inches in height for a hunkered-down, sportier stance. In both cars, Honda's SOHC four grows from 1.7 to 1.8 liters and sends 140 hp through a five-speed manual, up from last year's 115 or 127 hp. We drove an outgoing sedan back-to-back with the 2006 Civic on the high-speed oval at Honda's Tochigi proving grounds. Whereas the 2005 Civic required frequent steering corrections, the 2006 model tracked beautifully and was utterly composed as it entered the banking. The outgoing engine sounded coarse, ran out of steam earlier, and worked the automatic harder, but the '06 produces a muted mechanical purr up to an indicated 122 mph and works well with its optional five-speed automatic. Though not quite as sporty to drive as the Mazda 3, the Civic, overall, is very refined, with a supple but not soft ride, communicative steering, and strong brakes.
Get into the old Civic, and the cabin feels as cramped, claustrophobic, and dated as a middle-school classroom you haven't seen in twenty years, but the new car has a small, handsome steering wheel, an ergonomically pleasing sweep of instruments, expansive sight lines, and storage cubbyholes everywhere, including a center armrest bin for twenty-four CDs. Honda is still using up its lifetime supply of 1980s mouse-fur seat fabric, but the headliner would do Volkswagen proud.
Honda often has been stingy with safety equipment, but the Civic now has six standard air bags and ABS. Honda could have shown more safety leadership with standard stability control, which the Accord finally gets this year in V-6 models. In a 62-mph-closing-speed offset frontal collision with an Odyssey conducted for the media at the Tochigi facility, though, two test dummies sustained minor theoretical injuries, and the Civic's passenger cell remained intact.
We'll again get a natural-gas-powered sedan and the hybrid sedan. An improved version of Honda's Integrated Motor Assist powertrain allows the hybrid to cruise solely on electric power for a few minutes from 10 to 30 mph. Honda expects the hybrid to deliver 50 mpg in both city and highway cycles, increases of 3 mpg and 2 mpg, respectively. As before, the hybrid is nearly identical to the regular Civic in both looks and driving.
Honda generally raises the small-car bar with each succeeding Civic generation, but it failed to do so with the 2001 model. The company redeems itself for 2006. After all, sport-compact enthusiasts can't be expected to drive their sixth-generation Civics forever.
Price: $19,500 (est., Si)Engine: 2.0L DOHC I-4, 197 hp, 139 lb-ft (Si)