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New Car Review: 2004 Honda Civic Si HFP

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The Honda Civic is one of the most popular cars with today's high-performance enthusiasts. How did a car that started life as an economical, low-emissions commuter ``econobox” in the wake of the oil shortages of the early 1970s become a tuner’s favorite? Low cost, a solid chassis, and a robust engine amenable to increased output were and are important. And Honda itself has built some pretty sporty versions of the Civic, starting with the first Si hatchback, introduced back in 1986. In 1992, the Civic Si was the first North American Honda to use the company’s competition-developed ``VTEC” variable valve timing technology. The Si badge disappeared in the mid 1990s, to be re-introduced on a hot version of the Civic coupe in 1999 and 2000. It took a year and a half after the debut of the latest-generation Civic for the Si to reappear, but it was worth the wait. In 2002, the Civic Si hatchback was back, with new styling and hotter than ever, with a 2.0-liter engine that had the same 160 horsepower as the previous-generation Si’s 1.6-liter, but much more torque, for easier, more relaxed driving characteristics.

The Civic Si entered the 2004 model year with a few minor changes. Most notably, wheels and tires were upgraded from 15-inch to 16-inch, for sharper handling. And perhaps better looks. There were also minor changes to exterior and interior trim, but some people still complained about its decidedly different looks. It didn't look like anyone's preconception of a sports car. So change your notions about sports car appearance....Or add an aero kit.

Partway through this model year, Honda made the ``Honda Factory Performance'' (hereafter called HFP) package available. It replaces the lower front apron with a more aggressive air dam and adds side sills and a rear spoiler to give the look of serious performance. The HFP package is more than a cosmetic upgrade, and includes springs and shocks that lower the car and seventeen-inch alloy wheels with P215/45 W-rated high-performance tires. There are also faux carbon fiber inserts to replace the silvery plastic interior trim.

The HFP package is pricey, at a suggested price of $4,000 plus installation. But it's factory-approved and dealer-installed, and carries the same warranty as the rest of the car when installed on a new Civic Si at the dealer. Given the price of aftermarket parts, the price is competitive, and the fact that it's engineered by Honda expressly for the car and warranty-approved is a plus.

Also a plus is the way it works. I've just spent a week in a Civic Si with the HFP package, and the already-excellent handling of Honda's British import is further improved - with no real degradation in ride comfort. Many tuner cars, and even factory sport suspension packages, can be less than comfortable on our poorly-paved roads. The HFP Civic Si not one of those. It's civilized and refined and works very well in the real world.

APPEARANCE: The Civic Si definitely is not what jumps to mind when someone says ``sports car.'' Its nearly one-box hatchback styling, in which the nose and windshield form an almost continuous line, is a long way from classic long hood, short deck sports car look. ``Honey, I shrank the Odyssey'' - it's almost a micro-minivan. No exterior panels are shared with any other Civics. If there are any reservations as to its sport nature, they are dismissed by the HFP body kit. While perhaps mild by Los Angeles street racer standards, the front air dam, side sills, and rear visor spoiler are virtually the definition of the contemporary hot-hatch sport-compact look. The aero kit performance look is further enhanced by the lowered stance and plus-one seventeen-inch wheels spoked alloy shod with low-profile tires, which are much more than merely cosmetic options.

COMFORT: If the Civic Si's exterior is unusual for a sporty coupe, don't complain. There is a remarkable amount of useful space inside, and it's easily accessible thanks to the hatchback body style. And there is no doubt as to its sports intent - the high-backed, bolstered front seats are meant for serious driving, and hold the driver and front passenger in place very well. Color is anything you want, as long as it's black cloth with red stitched trim. That motif carries over to the thick-rimmed, leather-covered steering wheel. Placement of the shift lever, coming out of the bottom center of the dash, is unusual, but not merely a styling gimmick. It's very close to the steering wheel, for fast hand access, and features exceptionally short-throw linkage, almost as short and quick-shifting as the Honda S2000. This is where race cars with sequential-shift gearboxes had shift levers before the widespread use of electronic ``paddle shift'' controls. There are plenty of convenient storage spaces scattered throughout the car, and the rear seat is split to fold for more cargo ability. Large items fit that easily through the hatch won't fit through a small trunk opening. Rear-seat passengers are not an afterthought - the front passenger seat is spring-loaded for easier rear access, and once there, there is good room for two medium-sized adults. A nearly-flat floor makes the center position more tolerable. The HFP package includes imitation carbon fiber trim for the dash and air conditioning vents.

SAFETY: Front and rear crumple zones, side-impact beams, and four-wheel antilock disc brakes are standard safety equipment on the Civic Si.

ROADABILITY: In standard trim, the Civic Si is a nimble yet comfortable sport hatchback. With the stiffest structure yet for any Civic hatchback, its MacPherson front, double-wishbone rear suspension is tuned relatively softly in standard trim, in the European manner, for an excellent combination of comfort and handling. The HFP package adds larger, lower-profile tires and stiffer springs and shocks for better adhesion. Ride height is lowered by about an inch. The result? Even better turn-in and more cornering power, with very flat cornering. And the ride, although firm, is never punishing, even over poorly-paved roads. Brakes are the standard Si antilock discs all around, and work very well.

PERFORMANCE: The HFP package includes no engine modifications, but none are really needed. The Civic SiÕs 2.0 liter engine is larger than the 1.7-liter engines found in other Civics. Add i-VTEC variable valve timing, which adds continual intake cam phasing to the VTEC variable valve timing and lift system, and you get 160 horsepower at 6500 rpm, with 132 lb-ft of torque at 5000 rpm. ThatÕs the same horsepower, but at 1000 rpm less, and considerably more torque - the most ever in a Civic, actually Š at 2000 rpm less than was produced by the previous-generation Civic SiÕs 1.6-liter engine. The new SiÕs larger, less highly-tuned engine actually has good low-rpm torque. But, typically of Honda engines, it like to rev. Drive it fast, and youÕll get well-acquainted with the electronic rev-limiter, as the four-cylinder twincam 16-valve jewel has a healthy midrange and power does not fade at the top. It goes from a classic four-cylinder growl at low revs to an insistent shriek near redline. Excellent linkage to the close-ratio five-speed gearbox heightens enjoyment further.

Honda's entry in the ``factory tuner'' market is the Civic Si with HFP sport package.

2004 Honda Civic Si HFP

Base Price		            	$ 19,070
Price As Tested			        approximately $25,000
Engine Type		            	dual overhead cam 16-valve aluminum 
				        alloy inline 4-cylinder with i-VTEC
			            	variable valve timing
Engine Size		            	2.0 liters / 122 cu. in.
Horsepower		            	160 @ 6500 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)		            	132 @ 5000 rpm
Transmission		            	5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length	            	101.2 in. / 165.7 in.
Curb Weight		            	2782 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		        17.4
Fuel Capacity		            	13.2 gal.
Fuel Requirement	            	91 octane unleaded gasoline
			            	 for best performance
Tires			            	 P215/45 WR17 Yokohama ES110
Brakes, front/rear	            	 vented disc / solid disc,
				         antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear		         independent MacPherson strut /
				         independent double wishbone
Drivetrain	            		 front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		                 26 / 31 / 28
0 to 60 mph		             		         7.5  sec

Side airbags 						$ 250
Destination charge					$ 490
HFP Package                             approximately $ 4,000 plus installation includes:
                                        HFP pre-assembled shock and 
                                        strut system, HFP 17-inch alloy wheels, underbody spoiler kit,
                                        rear hatch spoiler, interior trim, HFP badging, silver engine
                                        cover, P215/45 R17 tires