For Honda's sportiest Civic, sex appeal is down, but the fun factor is up.
When the Honda Civic Si was redesigned in 2001, it caused much consternation among devoted Civic Si-chos. Out went the previous car's double-wishbone front suspension and BMW 3-series silhouette, in came a tall, boxy hatchback body, front struts andHeresy!a 6800-rpm redline for the i-VTEC four-cylinder, down from 8,000 rpm. The more mature engine also grew from 1.6 to 2.0 liters. Fans of The Fast and the Furious were aghast and not curious.
Which is too bad, because the current car is quite nice in many ways, if not as extreme as its predecessor. Styling is a matter of taste, but at least the hatchback Si is faster than it looks, while the 1999-2000 model was, arguably, the other way around. In fact, on my way out to the Si in a parking lot, a woman actually asked me if it was an electric car. Maybe she thought "VTEC" stood for Veggie-Thermo Energy Converter, maybe it was the copy of How to Build a Solar-Powered Commune I was carrying in my recycled hemp shopping basket, but that's not the type of question you expect to field when you're driving a high-performance vehicle. Suffice it to say that the Civic Si is a sleeper.
The Si's 2.0-liter engine makes the same 160 horsepower as the old 1.6, but it now eeks out 132 pound-feet of torque at 5000 rpm. The 1.6 was good for only 111 pound-feet, which is roughly the amount of torque exerted by a five-year-old opening a bottle of Flintstones vitamins, and it produced that paltry amount at an RPM best expressed in scientific notation. The result of this torque boost is increased tractability, also known as not having to rev the pee out of it all the time. You still get the VTEC lunge near the redline that lets you know you're driving a relative of such high-revving luminaries as the S2000 and Acura RSX, it just arrives earlier in the rev range.
The VTEC engine is part of a package that includes grippy Sparco-looking sport seats, fifteen-inch alloy wheels (which look pretty modest when even Minis are running around on seventeen's), and a stubby rally car-style shifter poking improbably out of the dashboard. While none of the Civic's components are of class-busting specification, they all work together to provide an entertaining package on a twisty road. The 2.0 may have more torque than the 1.6, but that's like saying Calista Flockhart is fatter than Lara Flynn Boyle. You still have to rev it to extract the power, but therein lies the funeither you enjoy blasting to the redline or you don't. If surging from corner to corner on a wave of torque is more your style, there's always the Volkswagen GTI 1.8T.
Speaking of competitors, the Civic Si ($19,460, or $19,710 as shown, with seat-mounted front-seat side air bags) isn't as hard-core as a Ford Focus SVT nor as stylish as the Mini. It is, however, an economical, usefully packaged everyday driver with a dose of driving excitement hidden at the high end of the tach.