The difference between the 2012 Honda Civic Si and the car which defined the Si name back in 1999 isn't measured in lateral Gs, quarter-mile times or slalom speed. Nope, it's measured in soul — the nebulous and obscure character of a car that makes it memorable, gives it timeless value and, bottom line, makes it fun.
The 1999-2000 Civic Si was — and still is — all of those things. With its delightful, direct steering feel, a nicely modulated throttle and an eager engine, it embodies a driving character true to its maker's roots. Its seats work well and the straightforward dash design is a paragon of ergonomic virtue. Driving it hard reminds us of Honda's simple 1990's design philosophy which valued reward and engagement over virtually all else.
By contrast, the 2012 Civic is, well, soft. Its suspension, its steering and its attitude pale in comparison to the car that made the Si name. The relentless, nasty crush of time has compromised its feedback, feel and even its outright performance in some tests. But it's this car's soul which suffers most.
Turn of the Century Legend
Seven different cars sold in the North American market have worn the Civic Si name. They date back to 1986 when Honda added a fuel-injected engine to the existing Civic S hatchback.
Of those, the car that defined the species was the fourth version sold during the 1999 and 2000 model years. It was the first Civic Si based on the two-door coupe body preferred by Americans, the first to feature a dual overhead cam and 16-valve engine, and the first with an engine rated to spin all the way up to a dizzying 8,000-rpm redline. It was also the last Civic Si with Honda's hallmark double-wishbone front suspension. Say "Civic Si" to any Honda freak and it's the 1999-2000 model that pops into his mind.
In order to compare that car to the newest Si, we need a benchmark. Finding a stock fourth-generation Civic Si is near impossible. Virtually all the surviving Si coupes of that vintage have been either butchered by tuner teens or haphazardly rebuilt from stolen hulks. Often both.
Thankfully, Justin Hall, a student at Cal State Dominguez Hills whose father works for American Honda, has a well preserved, wholly stocked 1999 Civic Si he was willing to share for this test. He bought the car two years ago and the only change he's made has been the fitment of 205/50ZR15 Kumho Ecsta XS tires on the original seven-spoke alloy wheels. Well, that and spinning the odometer up to 120,800 miles.
No problem. At 120,800 miles, a Honda Civic is just about broken in.
The new 2012 Honda Civic Si coupe promises to appeal to more people than any previous Civic Si. It's got great seats, and it has Bluetooth and computer displays undreamt of in 1999. It also rides comfortably, and its well of midrange torque means it's easier going around town.
"We do extensive research," Jay Guzowski, Honda's senior product planner for the Civic told us, "and a lot of Si owners and intenders and rejecters felt the engine wasn't torquey and they had to shift a lot. We wanted to gain more power and improve fuel economy. We wanted to move around with ease and without a 1-2 shift every time you wanted to move through traffic."
It's reasonable to criticize the new Civic Si for its two-tier dashboard and uninspiring exterior design. And Honda really ought to be ashamed for cheaping out on some of the interior materials and subtle features (like omitting the red LED that lit up the shifter on the 2011 Civic Si). But as a daily transportation device, this is the best Civic Si yet.
It is not, however, the best Honda Civic Si by the standards of previous Si generations. In broadening the car's appeal, Honda has let its passionate, car-guy soul fade. When the VTEC hits in the new car, the driver knows it because there's an indicator on the dash that tells him, not because he just awoke the banshee in the cams. The driver gets a briefing from the steering, instead of a detailed dossier on every pebble on the road.
Stick It and Stuck
On the slalom course, feeling those Kumho tires bite into the pavement through the 1999 Civic Si's direct steering is a sheer joy. And when the limits of adhesion are reached, the driver can feel the tires skitter over the surface as the car transitions into oversteer. This isn't a hardcore Acura Integra Type-R, but the old Civic Si's rack-and-pinion steering is still among the best ever. The same goes for the snick-snick action of the five-speed shifter.
With that in mind, the 1999 Civic Si's 66.8-mph trip through IL's 600-foot slalom was truly impressive (and a significant improvement over the 65.5-mph performance Motor Trend reported back in '99 along that outlet's similar course). Yes, those Kumho tires are stickier than the all-season 195/55VR15 Michelin XGTs the car wore when new. But the car is 12 years old now and it feels planted. It's the same story on the skid pad where the 1999 Civic Si orbited at an impressive 0.88g.
The 2012 car feels significantly softer. That's no bad thing on the freeways where the new Civic Si provides an exceptionally comfortable and quiet ride. This is a Civic Si that can gobble up hours of long cruising like a BMW. Almost.
Consequently, there's too much body roll in the slalom. Despite the (optional) super-sticky 215/45ZR17 Michelin Pilot Exalto PE2 summer-spec tries, the new Civic Si's reflexes seem muted. Honda has done much better with electric power steering than other manufacturers, but it still hasn't duplicated or matched the feel of its old hydraulic systems.
So with that in mind, the 2012 Civic Si's handling performance is unsurprising. With the stability control turned off, it nosed through the slalom at 67.1 mph. There was plenty of understeer evident, and the new car isn't as amenable to chassis attitude adjustments with throttle changes as the old car is, but the limited-slip differential and easygoing torque curve are big advantages. On the skid pad, the 2012 Civic Si stuck to the tune of 0.87g whether the traction control was on or not.
The new Civic's suspension softness also showed up in braking where nosedive was evident during the 121-foot, ABS-aided stop from 60 mph. The 1999 Civic Si was flatter as it took 129 feet to stop from 60 mph without the help of ABS.
Track This. Track That.
Back in 1999 Motor Trend measured the Civic Si ripping to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds while screaming its intoxicating VTEC wail. The quarter mile sped by in 15.7 seconds at 88.4 mph.
In May 2012, Justin Hall's Si took a full second longer (8.2 seconds) to do the same deed for IL. The engine can still make power, though, as it turned in a 16.1-second quarter mile at 86.7 mph. Despite the performance drop off, the personality is there; this is a car built for fun first. And, as it did in 1999, it left us wanting another three or four gears to stretch the engine out. The 1999 Civic Si still feels like a sports coupe.
With its thumper motor, the 2012 Civic Si feels more like a Chevelle; this power plant is the big block of naturally aspirated, four-cylinder engines. And with the traction control off, there's no way to avoid some wheel spin when launching this car hard.
Sure enough, the 2012 Civic Si flat buries its ancestor with a 7.0-second 0-60 blast and a 15.1-second quarter mile at 92.3 mph. This was the exact same Civic Si that IL previously tested, yet it took an additional tenth of a second to reach 60 mph this time and lost almost 1 mph off its trap speed. Go figure.
Of course, it will still be spanked by turbocharged alternatives like the Mazdaspeed3 and Subaru WRX, but the 2012 Civic Si is the quickest Civic Si yet.
Are They Related?
Pull up the 2012 Civic Si two-door coupe next to the 1999 car, and they don't look all that alike.
The '99 car is cleanly styled but old-fashioned with its upright windshield, tall greenhouse, thin pillars and blunt nose. It's a design that was conservative when the sheet metal went into production for the 1996 model year. But it was easy to understand why Honda was restrained in drawing this coupe. After all, it was following up the hugely popular 1992-1995 Civic two-door coupe that introduced that body style to the line. Why futz much with success?
The 99's 15-inch wheels weren't state-of-the-art back in '99, but they weren't that far behind it. And the large rear wing on the deck lid is pure affectation; it doesn't have the rake necessary to produce any downforce.
In contrast, the 2012 Civic Si coupe looks like it was styled by being shot out of a potato cannon. It's a sleekly organic, very modern shape defined by the steep rake of its windshield and its fastback roof line. It takes most of the styling themes established by the 2006-2011 Civic coupe and flamboyantly exaggerates them. The longer we had it, the more we liked how it looked. But few love it.
The low, small spoiler that defines the trailing edge of the 2012 Civic Si's deck lid is just as ornamental as the big hoop on the 1999 car and just as aerodynamically irrelevant. On new non-Si Civic coupes, the trailing-edge piece is just a solid-plastic plug. If there's still an aftermarket for Civic spoilers, some company will come up with a more interesting way to finish off the tail. Meanwhile, 17-inch wheels are yesterday's 15s.
Sizing Them Up
It's no secret that Honda shrunk the Civic coupe's wheelbase down to 103.2 inches for 2012. What few have mentioned is that 103.2 inches is the same wheelbase as the 1996-1999 Civic coupe. Yes, the 2012 Civic Si coupe is bigger than its 1999 ancestor, but only slightly. At 175.5 inches long overall, for example, the 2012 Si is just 0.4 inches longer than the 1999. And though the 2012 car looks lower, at 55.0 inches it's actually 0.9 inches taller than the old one.
The biggest dimensional difference is overall width, as the 2012 car is a chunky 1.8 inches wider than the 1999 edition. The newer car also has wider tracks front and rear, as it measures 59.0 inches wide in front and 59.9 inches in back compared with the old car's 58.1-inch track measurements both front and back.
By far the biggest shock is the difference in curb weight. On IL's scales the new car came in at 2,844 pounds while the old car weighed in at 2,583 pounds. That's a significant 261 pounds, but it's a modest weight gain considering the new car's side and side curtain airbags, hefty load of electronics, much beefier structure, substantially thicker sound insulation, and bigger wheels, tires and brakes. By 21st-century standards, the 2012 Civic Si is svelte.
Where It Matters
The heart of this comparison lies, of course, in the two engine bays. And it's a startling contrast.
The 1999 Civic Si is powered by Honda's all-aluminum, 1.6-liter, DOHC, 16-valve "B16" four-cylinder equipped with the company's legendary VTEC variable valve timing system. Situated on the left side of the engine bay, the B16 has its intake behind the engine and the exhaust ports in front of it. It rotates counter-clockwise and feeds a five-speed manual transmission and an open differential.
In contrast the 2012 Civic Si is powered by Honda's all-aluminum, 2.4-lter, DOHC, 16-valve "K24" four-cylinder equipped with the company's latest i-VTEC variable valve timing and lift electronic control system. Shoved in on the right side of the engine bay, the K24 has its intake system in front of the engine and the exhaust manifold is behind it. It rotates clockwise and feeds a six-speed manual transmission and a limited-slip differential.
In short, the new car's engine is half again as large as the old car's and operates in mirror image to it.
Is It 50 Percent Better Though?
But in specific output, the old engine has it over the new one. Back in '99 the B16 in the Civic Si was rated at a full 160 horsepower while whirring at 7,600 rpm — 400 rpm short of its thrilling 8,000 rpm redline. That's 100 hp per liter. Where the B16 falls down is on torque production, with a peak output of just 111 lb-ft at a screaming 7,000 rpm.
In a perfectly linear world, the big K24 should be making 240 hp and about 167 lb-ft of torque. But engineering doesn't work that way. So the 2012 Civic Si's K24 produces 201 hp at its 7,000 rpm redline and a chunky 170 lb-ft of peak torque at just 4,400 rpm. It's the first Civic Si engine that might work OK feeding a — GACK! — automatic transmission. In fact, this version of the K24 is virtually identical to the version used in Acura's TSX luxury-adjacent sedan.
It's not just the fact that the K24 has a greater displacement; it's that the extra cubes are achieved using a long-stroke crank. In the B16 the cylinder bores are just 81 millimeters in diameter and the pistons travel only 77.4 millimeters up and down. The K24's cylinder bores are 87.0 millimeters wide, while the pistons travel a long 99-millmeter stroke. To keep piston speeds reasonable (after all, Honda warrantees these engines), the long-stroke K24 simply can't be allowed to spin as high as the B16.
Long piston strokes are great for producing friendly torque curves and cruising around doing daily chores. But it's the giddy thrills of short-stroke engines that have long been the essence of the Civic Si's personality.
Time has changed Honda, and Honda has changed the Civic Si. But there's room in the market for something more hardcore.
Here's our proposal. Take the new 2012 Civic Si and strip out the heavy moonroof, cut back on the sound insulation, stiffen the suspension, add 10 millimeters of width to the tires, let the engine rev to 7,500 rpm and increase output to 240 horsepower. Omitting the rear seat would be OK too. Call it the Civic Si-R.
For now, be on the lookout for a good 1999-2000 Civic Si with low miles and without many modifications — because it has defied time. In some respects it's not as good a car, but, at the end of the day, it's a better Civic Si.
The manufacturer and a private owner provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.