On the Road Review: Honda Civic Si

The Si trim level has been a steady part of the Civic’s storied run on the American automotive scene.

At first just a bunch of visual pieces that alluded to sportiness, the Si label now includes a sharper focus on the chassis and the suspension’s ability to enhance handling, greater output from the now larger 2.4-liter V-TEC four-cylinder engine, as well as the wheels, shape and general stance of a sporty front-drive car. In addition, the Si trim now comes in either two-door coupe or Civic sedan, so now there are no apologies for the evolving family man (or woman) who needs four-door practicality to go along with their sporting driving needs.

{gallery}si{/gallery} Honda’s history with capable front-drive sporty cars is impressive. The departed Prelude was ahead of its time with FWD balance that escaped many other automakers during its run, while the current Si uses much of the chassis tuning learned during the Prelude’s successful run to make favorably strong driving impressions today. Limited slip front differential, nice wide-track stance and of course curtailing the dreaded weight factor, all help to make the Civic Si composed, quite responsive and often quite rewarding to drive at an elevated pace over your favorite roads. Steering feel, light in town, heavier on the road, is excellent for a front-drive car — a layout that demands braking, turning and accelerating from the same front tires.

Under the hood, Honda ditches the former high-revving 2.0-liter V-TEC four for the larger 2.4-liter V-TEC four from other Honda products. Horsepower creeps up four — to 205 peak output at 7,000 rpms — while peak torque also increases by four to 174 pound/feet, which now arrives at 4,400 rpms. Running through a sinewy six-speed transmission that works with one of the greatest clutches in the industry, the Civic Si returns EPA fuel economy ratings of 22/31-mpg on recommended premium fuel. Hold this thought for a moment.

Alas, the Civic Si does not sell in a vacuum. Its contemporaries employ, for the most part, turbocharged four-cylinder engines that, A) produce more horsepower and greater levels of torque at lower RPMs, and B) achieve higher levels of velocity and fuel economy. Rivals such as the VW GTI, Ford Focus ST, Ford Fiesta ST and Subaru WRX are all quicker than the Civic, and more relaxed doing so. With the greater torque of the turbo-charged fours under their hoods, they can more easily climb long grades, power away from doodling traffic and otherwise outpower the Civic. At a time when many new cars and crossovers effectively cruise today’s elevated highway cruising speeds at around 2,000 to 2,200 rpms, the Civic Si is busily turning 50 percent more rev’s on the tachometer.

Combined with the high levels of road and wind noise evident in the Civic, the car just ‘feels’ very busy.

But not everyone buying a Civic Si will be plying the highways all of the time, so the car’s many virtues will become apparent in short order.

Sight lines are terrific. Skinny A-pillars, with little corner windows, open up your forward vision. Looking over your shoulder, it is easy to see what is around you. If not, Honda’s clever Lane Watch camera gives a great view down your right-side flank while a large rear view camera aids all backing maneuvers.

The interior is roomy, for a coupe, with space for four real adults and relatively easy access. The bucket seats are supportive, while a standard sunroof improves medium temperature ventilation. Painted a lively Arrest-me-Red, the latest Si is more expressively attractive, especially with the 18-inch five-spoke wheels of our sample car. Great forward lighting, fog lamps plus daytime lamps, plus touchless access and ignition are all welcome pieces.

Much of the interior’s surfaces are hard plastic, which again contrasts with the competition’s more modern designs. One could easily adapt to the dual-level instrument screens, and there will be admirers of Honda’s iPhone-like Audio Head display — you touch or swipe the screen to make changes, but the touchscreen is not intuitive to use while driving, and all of the Civics’ display screens washed out in direct sunlight. For simple audio functions, it became far easier to learn to manipulate the steering wheel control.

From my notes: sprightly performance, great clutch and shifter, responsive handler, decent two-tone seat, excellent outward visibility. Also liked the car’s stance and integrated styling — except for the lone rear tailpipe.

Complaints included: small fuel tank (requires premium fuel too), noisy cabin at highway speeds, inconvenient nav/audio controls while driving. Honda packs a lot of potential in the new Audio Head 7-inch digital display screen, Pandora, SMS text, Bluetooth, XM and HD radio and HD traffic, but the new screen has no dials or knobs — just touch-buttons and swipe controls, which can be terribly inaccurate actions while piloting a less than perfect road.

Feature-rich, the Civic Si stacks up well price-wise versus the competition, starting around $23,000 to gain a noticeable price advantage; the GTI is $1,000 more, the Focus is $800 more, and the all-wheel-drive WRX is $3,000 more on the starting list price. The Si also promises Honda’s legendary levels of reliability and continued value.

However, shoppers will find more performance elsewhere. At the end of the day, buying a Si is about improving your driving enjoyment, savoring greater thrills and performance. Honda may need to bump things up a notch to put the Si back on a level playing field with its rivals.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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