High on a quart of coffee, we load up Alice in Chains and point the 2006 Honda Civic Si toward Vegas. The plan, if you can call it that, is to hit the Tropicana, lose money on blackjack and have a drink with a spicy stranger. It's 2 a.m. If the California Highway Patrol is on our side, we'll be broke by sun up.
Turns out Vegas gets old faster than the fruit salad at the Bally's buffet.
Pockets empty, gut still wrenching from the volatile mix of French roast and all-you-can-eat prime rib, we speed up Interstate 15 to Nevada's Valley of Fire. It's where we should have been all along. There's nothing out here but empty two-lane roads. For hours we throw the 2006 Si into tight corners, taste its 8 grand redline, and consider blowing off another day of work.
The boss will understand. After a few years in the pretender column, the Si is a serious performance coupe again. With six forward gears, a limited-slip differential and a high-revving all-aluminum engine, it's the most fun $20,000 can buy. Spontaneous road trips are just part of the deal.
Never Calm Under the Si's hood is a double-overhead-cam 2.0-liter four that produces 197 horsepower at 7,800 rpm and 139 lb-ft at 6,200 rpm. This doesn't look like much torque, but Honda's i-VTEC (innovative Variable Valve Timing and lift Electronic Control) kicks in immediately off idle and it makes all the difference.
Simply explained, i-VTEC dictates when the valves open and how high they lift. Low-lift, torque-boosting camshaft profiles operate below 5,800 rpm, while a high-lift set geared toward maximum horsepower production takes over above that. The timing of the intake valves varies continuously within either range, providing further performance and efficiency benefits.
Even though the Si's tach needle blasts past 6 grand so quickly, it's impossible to miss the changing of the cams. The engine's progressive rock soundtrack abruptly switches to death metal, good death metal, as if the smooth and refined Honda 2.0-liter has hit puberty and filled with angst. Now the Si accelerates with greater urgency, blowing past its 7,800-rpm horsepower peak. A red shift light begins blinking at 7,600 and goes solid at 8,000, but the computer doesn't cut you off until 8,500.
All this, along with the six-speed manual transmission's fairly aggressive 1st and 2nd gears, is enough to get the Si to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds, though Honda claims a 6.7 is possible. We've timed Chevrolet's Cobalt SS coupe at 7 flat and the Saturn Ion Red Line at 6.7. Although we hate the way the engine holds onto revs artificially when you lift off the throttle, Honda has geared the six-speed perfectly to keep the tach above 6,000 rpm during acceleration runs. With a 15.1 at 93.8-mph run, the Si does beat the supercharged Cobalt in the quarter-mile, but the blown Ion's 14.6 quarter tops them both.
Long Haul But you've got to be in the right mood to keep up with the Si's frenetic pace. There were a few moments when we wished the engine would shut up for two minutes. We even cruised the Vegas strip in 5th gear just to get a little peace.
On the plus side, the Civic Si's solid low-end response kept us sane in stop-and-go gridlock. And 6th gear offers a livable compromise of relative quiet and juice for passing on the highway. However, load the coupe with two adults and luggage and keeping an 80-mph pace up a mountain grade does require a drop to 5th.
Fortunately, clutch pedal resistance is perfect, as is pedal spacing. Although a Miata's gearbox is a tad more precise, moving the aluminum-capped shifter through the gates feels right every time. This is a car you never get tired of shifting.
Road trip mileage is impressive. We got 25.5 mpg without trying, which is right in line with the 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway Honda estimates.
Killing Time on Back Roads Our Civic Si went to the test track the same day as a Corvette Z06, a Viper and a Ford GT, yet, it stayed with these high rollers in the slalom, running through the 600-foot cone course at almost 68 mph. That's faster than the Viper and only a hair behind the Corvette's performance.
In our first drive, we told you how the 2006 Honda Civic Si drives on the track. "Grip is high, body roll is very well controlled, as is brake dive, and the feel and ratio of the electric power steering are right on," we wrote. All this is true on the street as well.
This car engages its driver the same way a rear-drive BMW does. Although front-wheel drive, the Si responds immediately to every input and the standard limited-slip differential lets you get back on the gas sooner without upsetting your line. Pay extra for the optional 215/45R17 Michelin Pilot Exalto PE2 summer tires. They're sticky enough to justify the added expense.
Braking hardware consists of ventilated 11.8-inch discs in front and 10.8-inch solid discs in back. Even when hot, the brakes feel strong with a natural pedal feel. Our tester's best stopping distance from 60 mph was a very good 122.7 feet.
Comfy All the Way to Sin City For such an athlete, the Civic Si offers a surprisingly compliant highway ride. It can be a little harsh over broken pavement, but the car's fully independent front strut/rear double-wishbone suspension never gets out of sorts.
Equally accommodating are the front seats, which are firm on the sides, yet soft in the middle, and the standard tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel ensures anyone can find a comfortable driving position. One day we spent 12 hours in the driver seat without a backache.
Honda's designers wanted the Civic's interior to look "futuristic and sophisticated," and it works on us. Subtle touches like the sculpted steering wheel hub and the gentle slopes of the dash appeal to our artistic side, while simple controls, ergonomically shaped door armrests and the vast amount of storage slots provide more day-to-day practicality than we thought possible in a budget sport coupe.
You may not like the unusual gauge layout, however, which puts an analog tachometer in the traditional location, but the digital speedometer on the top of the dash. One 5-foot-10 driver contends the setup is ideal, but another says the steering wheel blocks the speedo.
Materials are high-quality and all the essential stuff is standard, including A/C, a high-quality stereo (you can plug in an iPod or digital audio card), full power accessories, cruise, a sunroof and side curtain airbags which protect the heads of everyone in the car. Front occupants also get torso-protecting side airbags. Our coupe was also equipped with the optional navigation system, which will retail for about $1,300. It's a touchscreen and it's idiot-proof.
Incredibly, it's pretty easy to get into the backseat, and there's enough room for two average-size adults. Plus there's 11.5 cubic feet of trunk space and a 60/40 fold-down rear seat.
More Than a Fling We didn't get anywhere with the spicy stranger at the Trop, but our affection for the 2006 Honda Civic Si is lasting.
It's an affordable coupe with the intensity of something twice the price, the kind of car that has you feverishly scanning the map for obscure two-lane roads nobody's using. Yet, it's not so tightly wound that it drives you crazy if you get stuck in traffic for two hours. That makes the Si just about the perfect compromise, and that's a rare feat at the $20,000 mark.
System Score: 10.0
Components: Any 2006 Honda Civic from the LX up to this Si coupe comes with a pretty impressive audio system. Even the LX offers a six-speaker system with the ability to play WMA files and plug handheld devices (like Apple iPods and Dell Jukeboxes) into its auxiliary input jack. Step up to the EX or Si and you get a six-speaker audio system with a subwoofer. It offers 350 watts of power and when the navigation system is ordered, there's also the benefit of a digital audio card reader and CD text display (only certain coded CDs have this feature). Satellite radio is optional.
Performance: We feel the Civic Si's stereo deserves a 10 not necessarily because of its sound quality but because of the abundance of features it offers even on models that are priced under $20,000. The ability to play WMA files and the auxiliary audio jack are exactly the kind of features Civic buyers are looking for. We also like the changeable background on our test car's navigation system-equipped head unit.
That's not to say the Civic's stereo doesn't sound good — it does. While sound reproduction can sound a bit mechanical at times, there's enough punch and clarity to keep audiophiles reasonably content. The bass response is good, but at higher volumes it can sound messy and uncontrolled.
The real highlight of this stereo is how it incorporates many internal and external features without being confusing or complicated — another reason it earns a 10 in our book. High-line brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz could learn a lot from Honda in this area.
When the navigation system is ordered, the menus are clear and easy to use, but we wouldn't mind if the text and some of the touchscreen buttons were larger. Still, everything makes sense and we rarely, if ever, had to bust out the manual to figure out a certain feature.
Best Features: Nicely integrates many popular features.
Worst Feature: Some fonts on the menus are too small.
Conclusion: This stereo is exactly right for this car. Not only does it sound good enough to please most buyers, it offers extra features and value that make other budget-priced cars seem lacking by comparison. — Brian Moody
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says: Remember when Coke introduced the "new" Coke back in the mid-'80s? It was the ultimate example of fixing something that wasn't broken and it was snubbed by the faithful. Honda made a similar mistake in 2002 when it replaced the almost-too-much-fun 1999-2000 Civic Si coupe with the Civic Si hatchback. An engine that really came alive at higher revs was supplanted by one with a broader, but less entertaining power band. And the taut chassis gave way to a softer one tuned to appeal to the general populace, not die-hard driving enthusiasts.
For 2006 Honda brought back the proper personality for the jock in the Civic family. Winding out this Si's twin-cammer never got old for me as it has an addictive rush that hits at around 6,000 rpm and continues to the 8 grand redline. The shifter feels so good to flick around that I found myself blipping the gas and downshifting even as I approached red lights. On twisty roads the very direct steering feels great and the handling is razor-sharp.
My quibbles are minor. I dislike the front styling — too much windshield and not enough hood, the engine hangs onto revs when you let off the gas a bit, and the brakes seem touchy until you acclimate to them.
It didn't take Coke too long to suck it up and go back to its original winning formula. I'm glad to see that Honda did the same.
Senior Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed says: My short time in the Civic Si left a strong impression on me. It started from the time I slid in behind the wheel and fired it up. The gauges are not only eye-catching but well placed for easy scopeage. The center-mounted display screen (which folds out á la Star Wars) is packed with features, and the graphics of the nav screen appear more advanced than previous generations. I really like the combination of the digital speedometer and an analog tach.
The placement of the gearshift and e-brake also shows off Honda's attention to ergonomics. The steering is ultraresponsive to the point of being twitchy, but maybe that's just because I'm used to driving cars that are numb on center. Certainly, it communicates a feeling of agility that young drivers will appreciate. Despite the horsepower boost there isn't an overwhelming feeling of torque. Still, it winds up nicely and will quicken the pulse of most drivers.
The only negatives are that there are more hard plastics than I would like and, at a glance there appeared to be some panels with sharp edges. Some of the plastic parts still had molding visible. Still, this new Civic will likely be a big hit for Honda.
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