Honda's sporty Civic Si has always been a favorite of mine, but like wine and my favorite pizza shop, the Civic Si has its good years and its bad. 2012 brings an all-new Civic, and with it an updated Si version -- so will 2012 prove to be a good vintage? Read on.
Charting the changes
Let's start with what's new in the new Civic Si: Like the rest of the Civic lineup, the Si is a bit bigger and a bit more aggressive looking. For this review, I drove the Civic Si coupe -- they still make a four-door version; thank you, Honda! -- and I love the new fastback, baby-Accord styling. Painted red, my tester looked like a proper sports car. Inside, the Si gets red lighting on the dash (link goes to photo), red stitching on the steering wheel and seats, a nifty-looking aluminum-topped shift knob, aluminum pedals, and a VTEC/shift light, which I'll talk more about in a moment.
The biggest change, however, is under the hood. Honda seems to vacillate when it comes to Civic Si engines. Quick history review: The '99 Si -- still my favorite -- had a 1.6 liter engine that was tame as a pussycat up to about 6,000 RPM, then the VTEC variable valve timing system changed to the high-RPM cam profile and the engine turned into a sharp-fanged monster. Driving it was like belonging to a secret club: If you didn't know to run the engine right to the redline, you missed out on all the fun. The 2002 Si reverted to a 2-liter Acura engine, with good low-end torque but absolutely no high-end smiles. For 2006, Honda found a nice balance with a torquey 2-liter that still managed a burst of high-RPM pull when the cams changed over.
For 2012, the pendulum has swung back a bit. The Si now boasts a 2.4 liter engine rated for 201 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque. Bigger pots make bigger torque; compared to the old car, horsepower rises by just 4, but torque is up a whopping 31 lb-ft. What's missing is the transformation at high RPMs. Remember that VTEC light I told you about? That's pretty much the only indication that you're on the high-power cam profile. There's a slight change in engine note, but you have to listen pretty carefully for it. The VTEC gauge also has sequential shift lights that tell you when redline is approaching -- a nice feature, but sort of a shame. With the old car, you did it by the seat of your pants: Wait for the burst of power, then count one, two, three, shift. When we need lights to tell us how to avoid the rev limiter, something is wrong in Si-land.
But wait, not all is lost...
So does that mean the new Si is a dud? Not by a long shot. This car redeems itself in so many ways, I can hardly count them all.
Let's go back to the engine. Even without the high-RPM hijinx, this engine has the perfect character for the Civic Si. It's quick and eager, always chomping at the bit, and has a soundtrack like a crazed sport bike. It's the gasoline-burning equivalent of a hormone-charged teenage boy.
Next up: The driveline. Once again, the only transmission choice is a 6-speed manual. (I don't think I'd want to live in a world where the Civic Si is offered with an automatic.) The short-throw shifter is heaven to use, and the clutch is the perfect compromise -- it bites firmly, yet the return spring is light enough that I didn't mind getting stuck in traffic. The piece de resistance is the limited-slip differential, something every front-wheel-drive car ought to have. It's an inherent weakness: Weight transfers rearwards under acceleration and outside under cornering, so when you get on the gas while coming out of a corner in a poweful front-wheel-drive car, the inside front wheel is unloaded and tries to spin. The LSD directs power to the wheel with more traction, so you can get all of the engine's power to the ground rather than watch it go up in a cloud of tire smoke. Some front-wheel-drive performance cars rely on their electronic traction-control systems to perform this function; sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't, but the Civic's old-fashioned mechanical LSD works every time.
Though Honda has softened up the ride a bit, the Civic Si still strikes a nice balance between aggressive handling and tolerable ride comfort. The best compromises are those that don't feel like compromises, and that's the way I'd describe the Civic Si -- it's rewarding to drive, yet easy to live with, and when in doubt it always errs on the side of mischief.
And then there's the icing on the cake: The price. The Si coupe start at a reasonable $22,975, with the sedan priced just $200 higher. The only options are Michelin Pilot Exalto PE2 summer tires ($200, take 'em if you live where the weather is nice) and a navigation system ($1,500, skip it).
Sizing up the competition
The Civic Si's chief rivals are the $24,795 Mazdaspeed3 and the $23,695 Volkswagen GTI (or the $24,265 Jetta GLI). The turbocharged Mazda is a lot faster, but it suffers from a bad case of torque steer (it pulls to the left under hard acceleration) that really impacts the driving experience. The Civic is slower but better balanced and makes better noises; it's the car I prefer. The Volkswagens are a heck of a bargain, and every bit as much fun as the Civic -- maybe even more so. They are also available with a twin-clutch automatic, which, even a stick-shift purist like me must admit, is a good alternative. The GTI and GLI feel more grown-up and mature, and make it easier to avoid speeding tickets because they aren't as averse to low-speed driving as the Civic Si seems to be. Volkswagen build quality and longevity isn't quite up to Honda standards, though. Which is the better car? Hard to say -- the VWs feels like the more sensible choice, but my inner-twelve-year-old longs for the screamin' Civic.
Bottom line: This is one of those cases where the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Compared to the competition, the Civic Si isn't the fastest, or the best handling, or the best looking. But it's fast, it's frisky, and it's a whole lot of fun, and even if the engine isn't all I had hoped for, I couldn't help but smile every time I drove it. And isn't that what racy little cars are all about? This may not be the best Civic Si, but it's still on my list of favorites. -- Aaron Gold
Read full review: 2012 Honda Civic
- Fast, furious, and fun, just what I expect from a hot-rod Civic
- Limited-slip differential makes the best of front-wheel-drive powertrain
- Affordable pricing
- Lacks the high-RPM madness of the previous-generation Si