B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
Ask any teenager in California what type of car he would like most, and chances are good that you will hear the Honda Civic mentioned. The Honda Civic is to '90s youth car culture what '34 Fords and '57 Chevys were to hot rodders in the first half of this century-cheap thrills in an easy-to-modify package. Take a drive down the Harbor Freeway in Los Angeles to see what we mean, the preponderance of lowered, spoiler-clad Civics with droning exhaust notes and pounding stereo systems speaks volumes about California's Honda-crazed youth.
Like the hot rods of yesteryear, the Honda Civics of the X and Y generations are often cobbled together rattletraps that are more flash than substance. Noisy exhaust systems, amateurish paint jobs, garish body kits, and bright chrome wheels with low-profile tires are sometimes the only defining characteristics of this new breed of road racer. Nevertheless, there are plenty of young enthusiasts who take the latest wave of stoplight drag racing seriously, and some of their pint-sized pocket rockets can eat dad's '68 Camaro for lunch.
While Nissan, Toyota and Mitsubishi have all had some success with hot hatchbacks and coupes, Honda has ruled the Asian-import sport segment since creating it with the 1983 Civic 1500 S. Upon its introduction, the Civic 1500 S showed that there were more to inexpensive Japanese imports than high gas mileage and a low sticker price. The Civic 1500 S introduced a whole new dynamic to American street racing; namely, that there is more to speed than cubic inches.
Two years after the Civic 1500 S was released, Honda stormed the compact scene with the Civic Si and CRX Si. Featuring a fuel-injected SOHC engine, the first ever in a Civic, the Civic and CRX Si models gave speed-hungry American teenagers an alternative to cumbersome, gas-hogging Ford Mustang 5.0s and trouble-prone Volkswagen GTi's. Wildly popular from the outset, these hot hatches proved to be fun, stylish, and most importantly, durable. Year after year, the little Hondas stood the test of time, zipping along with the tach needle buried in the red zone for countless trouble-free miles.
It didn't take long for kids to figure out that while factory Hondas were fun, they could be improved with a little Yankee ingenuity. Out came the wrenches, air guns and bondo, and on went turbochargers, alloy wheels, nitrous kits and rocker panels. During the past decade, many aspiring engine and suspension tuners have wrought their magic on these little 1.5-liter Hondas, some improving them, others just adding a dash of personality.
For awhile, Honda dropped out of the factory-tuned game, merely supplying buyers with a stable, reliable platform on which to work their go-fast voodoo. All of those aftermarket suppliers' sales must have had Honda's accountants seeing dollar signs, because this year Honda has jumped squarely back into the factory-prepared pocket-rocket segment with the Civic Si coupe.
The result is a VTEC-infused Civic that makes 160 horsepower at a nosebleed-inducing 7600 rpm. Fast? You bet! And it comes straight from the factory that way with a full warranty and no headaches.
The heart of the Civic Si is its 1.6-liter motor, a familiar sight for you Honda fans out there that last saw it used in the now-defunct Honda del Sol VTEC roadster. Like many of Honda's high-revving engines, power in this DOHC unit doesn't come on until the tach needle swings past the 10-o'clock mark, rewarding late-shifting drivers with a powerful punch that could draw a smile out of Kenneth Starr at a Bill Clinton pep rally. The only complaint we have about this engine is its weak torque output. Peaking at 111-foot-pounds of twist action at 7,000 rpm, the Civic Si's motor requires plenty of attention during acceleration.
Other modifications to the Civic Si include suspension upgrades built around stiffer springs, front and rear anti-roll bars, and a tower brace, all of which work to give the Civic Si a flat, neutral cornering attitude that won't send your passengers groping for the Dramamine when the road gets curvy.
The Civic Si also gets bigger wheels, tires and brakes than regular Civics, giving the Si excellent grip and stopping power in most circumstances. We say most, however, because Honda chose not to equip the Civic Si with antilock brakes, an obvious misstep for an otherwise serious entrant into the entry-level sports car market. Since we were driving an early-build model of the Civic Si, and press kits were not yet available, we weren't aware that the car didn't have antilock brakes until our editor-in-chief found himself coping with a locked-up right front wheel on a stomach-churning stretch of mountain road near Julian, Calif. Oops, guess that will teach him to conduct the brake test first.
Honda used the less-is-more design approach with the Civic Si, restraining themselves as they strolled through the parts warehouse looking for ways to distinguish visually the Si from its HX and EX brethren. The look they came up with is attractive and stealthy at the same time. What attentive viewers will notice first is what the Si doesn't have: no decklid spoiler, no fog lamps, and no tacky graphics; just a nice set of 15-inch wheels, a mild chin spoiler, inoffensive side sills, and a tasteful badge or two. Is Honda aiming this car at a slightly older market, or are they just leaving the wild stuff to the kids who will want to do their cars up in their own, ahem, special way? We don't know and we don't care. The looks of this car suit us just fine.
Driving the Civic Si is fun, yet somewhat unusual. It takes awhile getting used to letting the engine run up to 6,800 rpm before shifting. Likewise, it takes time adjusting to the racket that a lightweight car with a beehive engine makes when racing to redline. After a few trips in the Si, however, we got used to sensation and learned to relish the turbo-like power the VTEC engine provides. We also came to love the car's precise steering and easy shift action. The Civic's handling abilities quickly gained our confidence, thanks to the car's ease of operation.
The interior of the Si is standard-issue Civic with a few thoughtful touches. The driver's seat features a tilt adjustment for the bottom cushion, and the seats themselves are supportive. Other nice features include a standard CD player, sunroof, power windows and door locks, leather-wrapped steering wheel, remote keyless entry, air conditioning and cruise control. The red-faced instrument markings are an Si-exclusive that we could do without; we think they look childish and out of place in this otherwise well-sorted interior.
The Civic Si is a serious sports car with a none-too-serious price tag. Priced $4,000 less than competitors from Volkswagen, Mitsubishi, and sister-division Acura, the sub-18K Civic Si offers grown-up performance at a mall-job price. What are you waiting for, dude? The line for the new Si starts behind the guy with the nose ring.
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