Exactly 30 years ago, a bright red Honda Civic sedan graced our dooryard as the replacement for a cancer-stricken Accord sedan with over 175,000 miles that appeared bent on self-destructing. This purchase mirrored wife Kathryn’s earlier Honda purchase, her very first car, except the salesman asked her not to come back again. She had squeezed him for everything possible on a car that barely stickered for $10,000.
That car was agile and fun, and it got very good fuel economy. It was also quite loud on the highway, the seats were too small, plus the decision to go with the lower-priced Spartan model produced unexpected regrets. After two years, the Civic disappeared in a private sale as a Camry came for a very long-term visit.
Given this previous experience with owning a Civic, my expectations were low for the arrival of this Civic Si, the sportier model that is popular with many Civic fans. The brilliant Rallye Red paint, the smallish front seats, and the road-noise-saturated interior initially cast dark shadows on the Honda’s arrival.
Alas, a week later the Civic ($26,155 for base Si) proved to be much different and better than expected. Yes, it is 500 pounds heavier than our 1990 Civic — due mostly to huge advances in safety features and interior content; and this Si was swift beyond imagination with its willing and able 1.5-liter, 205-hp turbocharged and torque-rich engine producing satisfying acceleration all of the time (our little red Honda had 102 hp). Plus, the Si featured three pedals, a refreshing driving experience in a sea of swamp-box automatics that generate all of the driving passion of, well, automatic shifting.
Fuel economy, always a Civic calling card, proved to be virtuous — still. EPA ratings are 26/36 mpg with the six-speed manual gearbox — the only one available in Si trim. After three fill-ups and two snowstorms, the front drive Si returned 38 mpg, which is pretty impressive given the earnestness with which the tachometer needle explored the rev limiter.
Ride and drive dynamics are agile, compliant, and zippy when pressed — reflecting the sportier nature designed by engineers who generally like to race their Civics. Matte black wheels, a limited slip front differential, plus Goodyear Eagle Sport all-season tires that worked better than they should have, complimented a chassis that didn’t punish on spring’s rough rural roads, yet was crisp with steering requests. A little more path accuracy on the super-slab — the Si tended to wander in those ever-present truck grooves — would certainly improve stability at elevated speeds.
Si trim also brings red-accented sports seats (only manually adjustable, and no lumbar at all) more driving assists, including adaptive cruise, automate emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, plus an e-brake button in the console. Honda’s Lane Watch is included — a large dash-mounted view of the right side of the car when your turn signal is engaged — should be standard on all Hondas, and really, all cars.
Yes, you get Apple/Android, multiple USB ports, and a touchscreen for audio and other functions that has added a tiny volume knob, but this setup has quickly been eclipsed by many rivals. Therein lies the danger of many of these touch systems, as Ford and Cadillac also learned; unconventional has great showroom appeal but is less attractive in the real world while driving.
Yet Civic drivers, and especially Si buyers, seek a package that provides fun performance, daily functionality, as well as practical value. Roomy and comfortable back seat, check. Elevated fuel economy and above-average reliability, check. Slick clutch, rewarding shifter and spine-tingling turbo-torque — check, check.
Volkswagen’s regular Golf is exiting the American marketplace, as only the GTI and R models will remain. Chevy, Dodge and Ford have nothing like the Si anymore. Only other Asian automakers offer comparable compact sporty sedans and/or coupes that can reach into this market, cars like the Veloster, the WRX and the Elantra Sport.
Yet none of them have the pedigree of the Civic, the longevity, the fan base or the aftermarket enterprises building custom components (for decades). With a price significantly lower than the top Civic R, the Si model feels good, drives great and makes excellent sense for the enthusiast driver with a family, on a budget or the practical buyer serious about their daily driver.
Si buyers will probably keep their red rocket sedan longer than two years too.