There was a time was when any serious discussion of "hot hatches" – small, lightweight economy cars pumped full of go-fast parts and body modifications of dubious taste – always included the Honda Civic Si. Back in the day, the D16Z6-engined Si would routinely do battle against the Volkswagen GTI and Nissan Sentra SE-R for import tuner supremacy. Times, however, change.
These days, the battle for hot hatch supremacy starts and essentially ends with turbocharged beasties like the Mitsubishi Evolution and Subaru WRX/STI, with a dash of MazdaSpeed3 or Mini Cooper S thrown in for flavor. The Sentra SE-R is little more than a sad shell of its former self (a fact we find odd considering just how much cache Nissan has built up for the brand with its exotic-destroying Godzilla GT-R) and the Volkswagen GTI has evolved into an entry-level Audi – lots of interior and NVH refinement, but lacking the kicked-in-the-you-know-where power necessary to keep up with the all-wheel-drive Japanese kids. But what about the Civic Si? Where does it fit into the import tuner lexicon, especially when loaded up with lots of Honda Factory Performance (HFP) parts? Make the jump as we attempt to find out.
Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL
The four-door Civic is more conservatively shaped than the two-door version, a double-wedge profile that we still find intriguing late into its life-cycle. The sedan, however, is sort of the BMW 3 Series of the small C-segment: Smartly shaped and aerodynamically efficient, but now getting on a bit. Honda has tried to address some of this lacklusterness by tricking out this particular Si with lots of HFP add-ons. While these supposed aero-mods might actually enhance performance, the front splitter seems only there to scrape up against gas station driveways.
Meanwhile, the rear wing is a total show piece, as a factory Civic Si is hardly capable of speeds where this sort of downforce is warranted. Worst of all, fart-can exhausts should never, ever come from the factory and we think this is a particularly shameful way for Honda to make $40. It's not that we find the Si HFP ugly (we think the paint scheme is great), but it's sending out the wrong sort of message, the sort that Jesse's Jetta sent out in the original Fast and the Furious movie. Almost a desperate, "Me too, me too..."
Inside is the now familiar Star Trek dashboard affair that people love or hate. We're (naturally) split. On the plus side, we really like the simplified layout where the tachometer is front and center, just like it should be in a performance-oriented car – though it does make you wonder why it occupies that place of honor in the more pedestrian Civic models that make up the overwhelming majority of sales. Still, fans of VTEC will appreciate knowing exactly when cam-phasing is set to take place.
But on the demerit side, it's easy to overlook the speedometer and the fuel gauge, two readouts most folks probably use more often than a tachometer. In fact, so hidden was the bar-graph fuel meter that we nearly ran out, inadvertently running the tank down to one bar before we rolled into a gas station on fumes. Also, the speedo is digital only. We wish there were a duplicate analog gauge, because if you turn the headlights on during the daytime, the speedometer fades to near invisibility without monkeying around with the dimmer settings. Speaking of invisible, the frustrating-to-use, aftermarket-looking navigation system is exactly that. Though, if you're into the last decade's aesthetic, we suppose it's a neat time capsule piece.
The single best part of the Si's interior is its six-speed shifter. More specifically, its silken, precise action. The shift knob itself is a HFP part, wrapped in cow and a little small for our taste. Also, the leather (or is that leather-ette?) shroud wasn't attached in our tester, and as far as we can tell, it isn't supposed to be attached. The resulting free-floating piece of material therefore feels cheap and annoying. But Honda could've covered the shifter in cactus and we really wouldn't have cared – the movement is that good. Say whatever you want about Honda's recent U.S. efforts, the one thing that's simply undeniable is how consistently wonderful their manual transmissions feel. Mazda and Porsche come close, but at the end of the day, Hondas just swap gears better than anyone else. And the clutch action is just as good.
We also liked the leather-wrapped HFP steering wheel, and in terms of the HFP seats, we were split. The material was properly racy and the bolstering good – especially the upper back-bolsters – but the seats were a little too squishy (to one of us) for true pocket rocket duty.
After giving our blue four-door Si tester the once over, and especially after looking at the headline-font-sized "VTEC/DOHC" graphics on the rear doors, a very wise lady said, "My initial reaction to lettering on the side of a car is that it's stuffing its pants." A keen observation, perhaps, especially when you look at the Civic Si's engine through 2010-eyes. Rated at 197 horsepower and 139 pound-feet of torque, the mill is a torqueless wonder. Consider the Subaru WRX for a moment, and never mind about its 265 horsepower. Even with a plastic intake manifold, the Rexer managers to lay 244 pound-feet of torque down to all four wheels. This Civic's got barely half that going to just the fronts. The good news? You need torque to have torque-steer.
There is, however, plenty of plain old steer. Honda has done a commendable job of equipping its hottest Civic with a smart suspension, one that's able to take what little power there is and make the most of it. Additionally, the age old question of "Fast car slow or slow car fast," receives a pretty good answer from the Civic Si. Compared to its competition, at least, you can essentially drive the thing flat-out at almost all times. Not only will it take you longer to get into extra-legal speeds, but when you are cooking along, you're in total control of the kitchen.
But again, cooking alone takes some effort, as just getting up to 45 mph from a standstill takes all the cam-phasing the little VTEC can muster. That said, the little motor spinning off into the stratosphere sounds wonderful. We can't tell you how many times we were startled to finagle a perfect launch, roughly slam our way through the gears through fourth only to look down in amazement that we hadn't yet cracked 50 mph. Frankly, it's sort of an odd sensation.
But back to the handling, where we need to stress one particular point. In some ways the handling is very good, meaning that when you head straight out of the box and onto your favorite road, the Civic Si will delight you. Turn-in is sharp, the steering is fairly communicative and the damping is crisp with a near-perfect amount of rebound across uneven stuff. But there's a catch: Enthusiasts out there who will appreciate the sort of sharp reflexes offered up by the Si are likely to be the exact people that can't get over the power deficit. They'll demand more power. And while we're certain the aftermarket is brimming with solutions (hi Mugen!), a large power infusion would probably upset the Civic's balance. Evil, steering wheel-ripping torque steer would doubtlessly be an issue, and any more weight over the front wheels is not what the performance doctor ordered. The 2010 Civic Si is and will remain a slow car, which is probably not what its target customer wants.
At the end of the day, the base $22,255 Civic Si is a good driver's car. But it's severely down on power to its competition and all the HFP parts don't help the equation – especially at an as-tested price of $25,165. For that kind of money, you could take your pick from an entire fleet of more capable pocket rockets. The WRX starts at $24,995, and with options and destination will cost you more than the Honda, but it's so much more car. More to the point, perhaps, a Mini Cooper S starts at $23,000 and offers as much handling with more grunt (due to its lower weight, not power).
Essentially, Honda is going after the kind of customer that likes the idea of customized and tuned cars, but one who doesn't feel like doing any work. Or market research. We're guessing there's not too many of them, which is why you don't see a Civic Si all that often, especially one loaded with HFP parts like our tester. Maybe in the next generation. Or maybe next time, Honda will finally give us Yanks the opportunity to sample the buffer Civic Type-R, the Honda us fast-driving types actually crave. Until then, with the retirement of the S2000 and the perpetual cancellation of any sort of NSX-successor, the Civic Si remains Honda's sole performance product. Not only don't we think it's good enough, we doubt Soichiro Honda, the company's founder, would either.
Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL