Honda has made a wide variety of cars with the Civic name over the years. But all have had one thing in common: a high fun factor. It's a byproduct of good engineering efficiency -- a light but strong chassis and small, light, fuel-efficient engines. Among the current offerings, even the base-model Civic DX hatchback I tested back in 1996 had entertaining handling and energetic performance -- and that from a car with (allegedly) an econobox commute-module specification and automatic transmission. The '96 EX sedan I tried shortly thereafter was a blast, with its 127-horsepower VTEC engine and a 5-speed manual gearbox. But something has been missing from the current Civic lineup: the Si.
"Si" is a magic name among Civic fans. It topped Civic lineup between 1986 and 1995, and made a large number of young, young-at- heart, or young-in-wallet enthusiasts very, very happy with great performance and handling at a reasonable price. Originally outfitted with a 1.5-liter, 91-horsepower engine, the Si's power spec grew over the years. By 1992, it got a 125-hp, 1.6-liter engine with Honda's Formula One-bred VTEC variable valve timing and lift system. But, when the current Civic was introduced for 1996, there was, alas, no Si.
Now there is, and it was worth the wait. The 1999 Civic Si is a true high-tech factory hot rod at a budget price. Its twincam VTEC four-cylinder engine makes 160 horsepower from 1.6-liters, a specific power output once reached only by expensive, finicky, unreliable pure racing engines. It's a $17,445 coupe that has an race car-like 8,000 rpm redline and suspension and brakes to match. Exotic technology for real people.
A 1999 Honda Civic Si coupe has been my transportation for the past week. "Transportation" is not quite the right word, though. The Si is way too much fun to be mere "transportation." It's more like a land-bound equivalent of a private sport airplane -- well-engineered, lightweight, and with excellent power and handling ability. And, it makes the sound of a modern racing engine at high revs. But, it is a Honda, and so it's also practical, and frugal at the gas pump. Exotic technology for real people in the real world.
APPEARANCE: In stock trim, the Civic Si is remarkably conservative-looking. It is hard to tell it from any other current Civic coupe at a glance. Close examination shows a deeper, more vertical front "air dam" bumper fascia , side sills, and "DOHC VTEC" stickers on the sides that look left over from the 'Eighties. In a class where expressiveness is important, Honda is leaving personal expression up to the buyer and the aftermarket. If you want a spoiler wing, or an oversized exhaust tip, pick one from the many aftermarket catalogs. Eyeball-frying paint? Express yourself. If stealthy performance is to your taste, no changes are needed.
COMFORT: Inside, the Si is as plain, honest, and functional as any Civic. No fancy graphics, no acres of faux carbon fiber, just quality synthetics and excellent fit and finish. This does not mean that the Si is a bare-bones racer wannabe. Standard equipment includes air conditioning, a tilt-and-slide power moonroof, and power windows, mirrors, and door locks with remote keyless entry. Leather trim on the tilt-adjustable steering wheel and shift knob makes them easier to grasp, and they are placed correctly for spirited driving. The front seats are firmly padded with grippy cloth and have adjustable cushion height. The rear seat has more room than that of some larger cars, and the front passenger seat is spring-loaded for easy access. The trunk is large enough for any reasonable use. The Honda Civic Si is very useable as an everyday car.
SAFETY: The 1999 Honda Civic Si has a strong, rigid chassis with front and rear crush zones and side-impact door beams, dual front airbags, and three-point safety harnesses for all outboard positions.
ROADABILITY: As delivered, the Civic Si balances performance and comfort very well. It has the same four-wheel independent double wishbone suspension as other Civics, but that suspension is optimized for handling and cornering. Despite 195/55 VR15 Michelins, stiffer springs and shock absorbers, and larger anti-roll bars, the Si's ride quality is supple and comfortable enough for everyday use on any road surface. No jarring harshness. It does have plenty of body roll when cornering hard, but that's not necessarily bad. If the view is getting too far from horizontal, take it to the track. The Si grips the road tenaciously for street use right out of the box; plenty of aftermarket parts should be available for anyone who wants even more cornering ability. The Si has disc brakes at all four corners; other Civics have discs at the front and drums at the rear.
PERFORMANCE: The Si's 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine is different from the 1.6-liter fours in other Civics. It's a high-revving short-stroke, dual overhead cam screamer with an 8000 rpm redline. But, thanks to the VTEC variable valve timing and lift system, it has decent low-rpm torque and makes useable power from 3000 rpm all the way to redline, so it's no problem to drive even in heavy traffic. It's quite possible to upshift at 3000. But that misses the point. As with the first-generation Integra VTEC engine, the shift from low-speed to high-speed cams can be felt at 5500 rpm. It's the modern, high-tech equivalent of opening the secondaries in a four-barrel carburetor, and the surge of power and CART Champ Car sound are what gives the Si its character.
CONCLUSIONS: Functional, fast and fun, the new Civic Si is a Honda-type muscle car. It's a lithe gymnast, not a muscle-bound weight-lifter.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 17,445 Price As Tested $ 17,860 Engine Type Dual overhead cam 16-valve inline 4-cylinder with VTEC variable valve timing Engine Size 1.6 liters / 97.3 cu. in. Horsepower 160 @ 7600 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 111 @ 7000 rpm Transmission 5-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 103.2 in. / 175.1 in. Curb Weight 2612 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 16.3 Fuel Capacity 11.9 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium Tires P195/55 VR15 Michelin XGT4 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc Suspension, front/rear independent double wishbone with coil springs / independent double wishbone and trailing arm with coil springs Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 26 / 31 / 27 0 to 60 mph 7.2 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 15.7 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Destination charge $ 415