Any Honda Civic has always been a car that appeals to logic, and has long been seen as a safe choice for legions of small-car buyers. The Civic Si, however, aspires to be something more. It has more power, a close-ratio gearbox, a firmer chassis, and various appearance items. The Si is definitely the most interesting version of the new Civic, and it's a car that's highly competent overall. Even so, the Si doesn't generate the kind of excitement that a sport compact should.
Understated to a fault
It starts with the exterior. Not only is this all-new car a dead ringer for the old one, but the Si's minor styling tweaks do little to make it stand out from the sea of Civics on the road. Seventeen-inch wheels, a subtle decklid spoiler, a black grille, and discrete "VTEC" lettering way down on the rear doors don't make much of a visual statement, especially when the underlying car's styling is so benign to begin with. I'm not asking for a bunch of cheesy add-ons (you see plenty of Civics with those, too), but something to make the Si look less like just another economy car would be welcome.
The same applies to the interior. The Si-specific cloth upholstery is more cheap looking than sporty, and the dash and door panels are vast swaths of black hard plastic. "Si" logos here and there do little to relieve the boredom. The front bucket seats are very firm, and the lateral bolsters could be uncomfortable for larger drivers. As in other Civics, the instrument panel again uses the rather strange, two-tiered design. A new LCD screen in the upper gauge cluster can show instant and average fuel economy, a graphic displaying engine power, audio system information (such as station, artist, and song title), or a photo that you upload.
My test car was equipped with Honda's navigation system. The navigation functions are mostly quite good, but there are a few annoyances. Although it's great that there are hard buttons outside the screen for functions such as zooming and audio, the buttons are so tiny that the unit looks like one from the aftermarket. Other minor gripes: you have to press "OK" to get out of the lawyer screen every time you start the car, and the system defaults to the map at every start-up, rather than to the audio screen, where you left it.
Room with a view
Although the new Civic has gotten a lot of criticism for hewing so closely to the previous design, one benefit is that it has not adopted the upswept beltline, fat pillars, and radically angled rear window that characterize so many sedans today. Instead, one finds the traditional Honda low cowl, tall side glass, and slim pillars, making for excellent outward visibility. Space inside -- including stowage space -- is plentiful, and a flat floor helps makes the rear seat habitable for three (skinny) people. The sedan's spacious interior makes it far more practical than the Si coupe.
The previous Si had an ultra-high-revving, 2.0-liter VTEC four that was the dominant aspect of the car's personality. The new version has a new, 2.4-liter four. It's still a normally aspirated VTEC -- no turbo here -- but it's not the screamer that was found in the previous car. The redline is 7500 rpm; once you cross 5000 rpm, where the camshaft profile change occurs, a red VTEC light on the dash illuminates. As the revs climb still further, three orange lights light up in sequence and engine roar fills the cabin. At 7000 rpm, you've finally tapped the engine's full 201 horsepower. For people who don't want to drive like that all the time, the good news is that the new engine makes more torque and does so lower in the rev range (170 pound-feet at 4400 rpm compared to a scant 139 pound-feet at 6100 rpm previously). One annoyance is the way the revs hang up for a minutes after you let off the gas.
There's enough muscle here to make the sub-3000-pound Civic quite quick. And the chassis does a good job putting the power to the pavement, as torque steer is well suppressed. A limited-slip differential is standard. In other chassis news, the firmed-up suspension is still able to deliver decent ride quality, but we wish the electrically assisted steering conveyed more information from the front tires.
Man up to a manual
Some buyers might be surprised by the lack of an available automatic transmission, but given the engine's high-revving nature, and automatic would likely snuff out the VTEC four's performance. Happily, the manual's stubby gearshift moves easily through its short throws, and clutch modulation is about perfect. This is the kind of manual that implores today's young drivers to give stick a chance.
The EPA puts the Si fuel economy at 22/31 mpg, which is pretty good for the segment. We saw 27 mpg over a week of mixed driving.
Overall, the Civic Si is a small car with plenty of practical virtues. And it's definitely the pick of the Civic family. But even with its extra performance, it's not a machine to create excitement among any but the most ardent Honda fans.