Before 1998, prison was the only reason to visit Joliet, Illinois. For more than 135 years, guests of the small town were either temporary residents for 25 to life or visiting their uncle Vinny, who still swears it was self-defense.
In the last seven years, however, motorsports have replaced the pokey as Joliet's draw. In that time, six racetracks have gone in and the infamous 144-year-old Joliet Correctional Center has been boarded up. Three of those tracks are part of the 320-acre Autobahn Country Club, which opened last April. It's basically an upscale private club for gear heads instead of golf geeks, offering members unlimited daily track time, car storage, a decked clubhouse, etc. And the place is a hit. Nearly 300 G-load junkies have already signed up despite the $25,000 initiation fee and $3,000 annual dues.
It was there, on Autobahn's 1.46-mile, 9-turn North Circuit, that Honda let us drive the new 2006 Honda Civic Si. And it was there, with its guttural exhaust note howling through the trees, that this little hot rod proved itself to be the best car to ever wear the iconic Si badge.
Not a Hot Hatch Anymore Unlike its predecessor, which was a slow and homely-looking hatchback with a meager redline and the agility of an elderly woman, this Si is a quick (Honda says it'll accelerate to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds), fun-to-fling-around coupe, with sharp lines and the most sharply raked windshield in Honda's history. Yes, sharper than even the NSX's.
And it revs. Oh brother, does it rev. Redline is eight thou, and the engine flies past that mark with such willingness Honda has set the rev limiter at a hold-on-to-your-connecting-rods 8,500 rpm.
Honda has also made the new car 9.1 inches longer, 2.2 inches wider and 3.2 inches lower than a 2005 Si. And it rides on a 3.1-inch-longer wheelbase (104.3 inches), which it shares with the Civic coupe, but not the sedan. For the first time, the Civic sedan and coupe don't share a wheelbase. The sedan's is 2 inches longer. (We'll post a first drive of the 2006 Civic Coupe, Sedan and Hybrid next week.)
Those new dimensions have added 95 pounds to the Si's curb weight, and have swiped almost 3 inches of rear legroom. Unless you hang with supermodels and NBA stars, the car's backseat remains usable. And let's face it, if you're driving a Civic, even an Si, you ain't hangin' with Tyra and Shaq.
Honda says it can seat five. Good luck with that.
The trunk is smaller, too, down to 11.5 cubic feet. But remember, the last Si was a hatchback, this one is a proper coupe. The previous Civic coupe's trunk had 12.9 cubic feet of space.
Animal Sounds As another mutation of the Honda's K-Series engine family, the new car's engine is an all-aluminum 2.0-liter with double overhead cams, 16 valves and four cylinders. It shares a basic architecture, an 11-to-1 compression ratio and Honda's i-VTEC valve-control system with the 2.0-liter that's been powering the Acura RSX Type-S since 2001, but a balance shaft for additional smoothness and throttle-by-wire are unique to the Si's engine.
Honda also designed a special short, single cast-aluminum intake manifold for the Si with an extra-large 70mm intake duct. Honda says it boosts high-rpm power and is partly responsible for the car's unique sound. To enhance that sound the intake duct was routed inside the fender to take advantage of the body panel's acoustics. According to Honda, the panel amplifies the intake sound, which is probably why we could hear the Si ripping down the back straight from pit road.
You can feel i-VTEC doing its thing, first changing the engine's feel and tone at 3,000 rpm and again at 6,000 rpm. Despite the engine's tendency to hold onto revs when you close the throttle (a slight annoyance tuned into the electronic throttle), there isn't a better normally aspirated four-banger in the world.
An even 200 was the planned horsepower rating, but the new SAE ratings system cut that number back to 197 hp at 7,800 rpm. Torque is up to 139 pound-feet at 6,200 rpm. The EPA rates it at 22 mpg city and 31 mpg highway, and it drinks premium. The engine in the 2006 RSX Type-S will be rated at 201 hp at 7,800 rpm and 140 lb-ft of torque at 7,000 rpm.
Both cars also use a version of the same six-speed manual transmission, which is the only gearbox offered in the Si. The Si's version of the transmission gets a taller 6th for more relaxed highway cruising, and redesigned cones and synchros for reduced shift effort.
But here's the best part: A helical limited-slip differential is standard equipment.
Racetrack-Ready And on the racetrack, that diff makes all the difference. The Si would handle well without it, but it may be the best handling front-wheel-drive car we've ever tossed around because of it. Carry too much speed into a corner and the Si understeers like any other front driver, but you can easily correct your mistake by burying your foot in the throttle.
Yes, you floor it. The Si's differential transmits more torque to the outside tire which has the most grip. This immediately tightens your line and gets you around the turn faster looking like a hero.
Of course the LSD doesn't make magic alone. The Si shares its MacPherson-strut front suspension and multilink double-wishbone suspension with the rest of the Civic line, but the Si gets increased spring rates, stiffer dampers, and larger, solid antiroll bars. It also gets unique 17-inch wheels and all-season Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 tires standard. The cars we drove wore the optional summer tire, which is the same size as the standard rubber, only stickier.
The combination supplies a firm, but very livable ride on the street and Deney Terrio dance moves on the racetrack. Grip is high, body roll is very well controlled, as is brake dive, and the feel and ratio of the electric power steering is right on. Its larger front and rear disc brakes also felt good and failed to fade significantly after 10 hard laps.
Office Depot The interior is where our over-the-top enthusiasm for the Si wanes a little.
But first, the good: After only a few miles of Illinois farm road it was clear that control placement and visibility are excellent, as are the seats, the three-spoke steering wheel and perfectly placed aluminum pedals.
The list of standard and optional equipment is also impressive. Power everything, keyless entry, a tilt and telescopic steering wheel, ABS, side curtain airbags, a sunroof, a rear spoiler, air conditioning, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel, a fold-down rear seat, a 360-watt sound system with CD player, MP3/MPA capability, and an auxiliary audio port are all included for the "less than $20,000" price. A navigation system with voice recognition is available for the first time, and the dealers can sell you 18-inch wheels and tires.
So where's the problem? Right in front of the driver.
Honda chose to divide up the gauges, leaving the traditional analog tachometer in the traditional location, viewed through the steering wheel, and placing a digital speedometer and digital gas and temperature gauges up at the base of the windshield. Honda calls it a two-tier instrument panel and says the design places the speedometer up high in the driver's field of vision.
We think it looks kind of silly, but our problem with it isn't purely aesthetic. In our preferred seating position, which is different for everyone, the rim of the steering wheel completely blocked the upper-tier gauges from view. Uh, hello?
Whatever. Maybe the kids will like it.
The Si Is Back After driving the Si on the road and racetrack, we agree with page 4 of the 2006 Honda Civic press kit, which states, "Bottom line, the 2006 Civic Si is the best handling, best performing Civic to ever touch tire to asphalt in America."
And the price is right. Not only is it a whole lot less than a membership to the Autobahn Country Club, it will be between $3,500 and $5,000 less than an RSX Type-S.
Save the cash. When the Si hits this fall, the only folks still buying the Acura will be the badge-conscious and lovers of leather seats. Their issues, their loss.
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