Finding the Chakras of Fast and Snap in Honda's High Performer
Dan Frio, Automotive Editor
After you see the commercials for the 2012 Honda Civic Si, you might think the car was built by over-caffeinated Japanese animators for equally restless gum-chewing teenage girls who dabble in ninja work when they tire of hanging out in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park. Anything but subtle, the marketing message appears to target a buyer raised on video games, Red Bull and manga. Ironically, inspiration for the new Si came from a farther-flung blend of kookiness: yoga and Pilates.
Seeking ideas for the ninth generation of a cornerstone product, Honda designers from Japan's Wako studio came to the U.S. to walk among Civic buyers, both past and potential. Toshiyuki Okumoto, chief exterior designer for the new car, says he wanted to learn their lifestyles and values. His team found that Civic buyers are an earthy, body-conscious lot into ecology, good fuel economy and Eastern stretching. Okumoto wanted to integrate yogic principles of purity and efficiency into the new Civic skin, and create something that brought vitality to the surface.
"The silhouette was key," he says. "We wanted it to have this feeling of energy, of strength bursting from within."
As design concepts go, we've heard weirder. Truth is, the 2012 Honda Civic Si doesn't look a whole pin different from its predecessor. Sure, its rear flanks show more cut and definition, bringing home Okumoto's point; the sheet metal indeed looks as though it's toned up in the ashram. The grille is pinched in and the headlights dip deeper to the road for more scowl. Character lines run across the beltline and rise up from the door sills, giving the Si a windswept look.
They're subtle changes that fire up the Civic's static profile enough to rekindle interest, without making noisy statements or reinventing the segment. More welcome are what separates the new Si from the one it replaces: more grunt, quicker twist and more of the ragged character that forged the sport compact coupe explosion a decade ago.
The Unbearable Lightness
Smooth clutch. That's the first thing we notice when merging into Washington, D.C.'s morning maze of one-ways and roundabouts. The clutch pedal offers the slightest resistance, and it's accompanied by the six-speed manual's equally greasy short-shift throws that are essentially just two-fingered flicks. It's too light, really. We'd prefer a little more meat, a little more fight in our row. Still, drivers in congested urban areas will likely appreciate the Si's well-oiled gearbox over the course of 50,000 miles and innumerable traffic jams.
Lightness may be virtuous when swapping cogs, but not when applied to interior materials. The small-diameter leather-wrapped steering wheel, thick seat bolsters and stylish red stitching throughout highlight a cabin otherwise trimmed with dull, hollow plastics. An even steeper windshield rake on this year's model yields an expansive dash of hardened petroleum that continues through the door panels and down the center stack.
It's a stark contrast to the slim-fit dash of a beautifully preserved '76 Civic wagon we see at an event later that evening, its dash just a thin strip of red vinyl-covered foam not much wider than a deli sandwich (we do, of course, appreciate our chances of walking away from the wrong end of a Suburban in a new Civic compared to its nostalgic brother). While the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra have raised the standards for interior refinement, the Civic has inexplicably fallen behind.
Set deep in that massive cowl is Honda's two-tier dash and driver interface, which now includes the intelligent Multi Information Display, or iMID. Opt for an Si with navigation and you'll have four stations competing for your attention: tach, speedometer, iMID and nav. The digital speedo, fuel gauge and schticky (but kinda cool) VTEC shift lights sit in the upper portion, in the sight line above the steering wheel rim.
The iMID shares the upper tier adjacent to the speedometer and displays audio and hands-free phone functions, trip information and maintenance minders. Keypads and menu buttons on the steering wheel navigate through the iMID, cruise control and hands-free phone functions, and it's intuitive enough for anyone who's spent time with a smartphone. But it's overload; there are 14 buttons and directional commands on the steering wheel alone.
Struts Are Here To Stay
After arriving at FedEx Field, we put the 2012 Honda Civic Si through its paces on an autocross course and nearby city loop. The parking lot outside the home of the hapless Washington Redskins seems an appropriate place to open up the Si through the cones; it effortlessly bobs and weaves like flamboyant former 'Skins running back Clinton Portis.
The Civic's electric power steering and a 16.1:1 ratio feel right, while its composure through corners is confidently flat. A 1.1-inch shorter wheelbase and 18-pound lighter frame make the chassis eager to rotate, while the drivetrain's helical limited-slip helps keep the Z-rated Michelin summer rubber stuck to the pavement (all-season tires are standard).
Purists lamented Honda's switch from front wishbones to MacPherson struts in the 2002 Civic Si, and fretted again when they carried over to the next generation in 2006. Struts return for 2012, but are now so dialed in as to be indistinguishable from the beloved wishbones to all but the most sensitive autocrosser or track-day regular.
The 2012 Si's 11.8-inch brake rotors up front and 10.2-inch discs in back offer decisive and immediate bite. The brake pedal, like the clutch, still feels too light but maintained its quick grab even after multiple laps of fade-free flogging.
More Midrange, More Miles
The 2012 Honda Civic Si offers just a small 4-horsepower boost over its predecessor, raising it to 201 hp. More impressive is its 22 percent torque increase from additional bore (1mm) and stroke (13mm). The larger displacement makes for a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that delivers its extra twist 800 rpm earlier, and a chassis that jumps from corners and straight-line cruising like a yogi working plyometrics into his routine.
Kept boiling at 4,300 rpm where it now packs 170 pound-feet of torque, the Si springs out of apexes with a pleasant exhaust growl, before righting itself and compressing for the next one.
Second through 6th gear ratios in the six-speed manual have been tightened up, so keeping the four-pot in the sweet spot of its power band is easier. Acceleration benefits, too, with no cost in fuel economy, even with the larger displacement. At 22 city/31 highway mpg, the new Si beats the former on both counts.
Nearing 40, Close to 30
The 2012 Honda Civic Si coupe and sedan goes on sale this May, about a month after its standard Civic counterparts. The coupe will start at $22,955 and the sedan at $23,155. An Si coupe with all the trimmings — navigation, satellite radio, and summer tires — will sticker at $24,655.
Closing in on its 40th anniversary, a loaded Civic is still an impressive deal priced well below $30,000. Viewed against a Mazdaspeed 3 or Ford Focus Titanium in similar trim, however, you believe there must still be room at the top of the well-appointed, high-performance sport compact hill. The Civic Si's low-end power boost, fast reflexes and subtle design evolution cement its place in that company. Its busy, discount interior, however, keeps it from total ownership.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report.
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