In the United States, it seems as if the Honda Civic is enjoying as much of a presence on our streets and highways as the (old) Volkswagen Beetle did in the 1960s and 70s. The latest generation of Civic especially. It's interesting how both cars are/were affordable, well built, efficient, and rather odd looking and really caught on in a time when fuel prices were rising rapidly.Be that as it may, the most recent Honda Civic Si is hardly comparable to the Volkswagen Super-Beetle "Sport" of the early 1970s which had nothing more than blacked out chrome accents and a different steering wheel. Honda took what is basically a sensible, economic, family sedan and put 197hp engine in it, a lot of 'racy' interior materials, added 17 inch wheels... then tuned the whole chassis at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Even the GTI needs to beware.
The first thing you notice about the Civic Si, like all of the latest generation of Civics, is how odd it is to sit behind the wheel of one. The bottom of the windshield disappears below the horizon of the dashboard like the sky over the vast plains of the mid-west. There seems to be acres of dashboard which is only broken up by some clever sculpting and the two-tier instrument panel. When looking at it from the outside, it all seems rather absurd. But when you sit down in the stiff, heavily bolstered sport seats, it all falls right into your line of sight perfectly. The steering wheel, as well as the red-accented instruments - which are a combination of digital and analog - is quite reminiscent of a video-game. Perhaps a bit over done.
Fire up the 2.0 litre DOHC VTEC four cylinder and the Si's tasteful sport exhaust reminds you that this Civic is more about excitement that economics. (I emphasize 'tasteful' so as not to give the impression that it comes from the factory with a "fart-can" exhaust) Mated to a six-speed manual gearbox that is about as slick as the industry produces, and you have one hell of a drive-train under the hood. Under acceleration, this engine effortlessly revs and the VTEC system doesn't even switch cam profiles till about 6000 rpm. But when it does, you certainly notice it. There's a distinct change in sound and you can feel the extra pull as if winds out even further to 8,200 rpm. The rev-limiter kicks in at 8,300. All of this is good for 197 hp. The catch however, is a lack of torque - a problem which has always plagued Honda engines. That's not to say it's severely bad though. The car is, after all a 2-litre, which even when not driven hard, gives it a distinct power gain over lesser Civics and certainly over those from the past. I found it took a little getting used, but not much. Mostly it just involves a bit more use of the gearbox.
The clutch has near perfect weight to it and the brakes are also excellent. Steering is very responsive, though the electric power steering (a feature only on the Si) is a tad artificial feeling at parking-lot speeds. If I may use the video-game analogy again, it's like a force-feedback gaming wheel.
The transmission - well, it should be studied by all car companies for its smoothness and precision.
The chassis and suspension are quite stiff and road surface imperfections are definitely noticeable, The low-profile tires on 17 inch alloys no doubt add to this as well, though it's still a fine cruising car on the highway. This car does handle damn well. It's very responsive and confidence inspiring with barely any body roll. And after all, let's keep in mind this is a fairly good sized sedan compared to something such as a Mini Cooper.
One area which will have to wait to be tested is of course how it can handle winter driving. It's pretty much certain that a set of extra wheels and tires will have to be swapped on when the snow begins to fall. The low-profile Michelins just aren't going to make it in North-West Pennsylvania.
Fit and Finish:
Honda fit and finish was never bad. In fact it's always been very good and generally above-par for the auto industry as a whole. Ergonomics have always been good and overall lasting quality too. This new Civic is certainly no exception and actually, Honda ha
s really stepped it up a notch. Say what you will about the interior styling, but the quality and the materials are first rate. Now having said that, is it like a contemporary Volkswagen? No. There are some hard plastic bits here and there and the occasional big gap in some pieces, but one probably won't have to worry about the glove box door of the Honda falling off without a fair fight.
Outside the panel gap is pretty much perfect and the
paint is free of orange-peel. It may not seem like that should even be considered on a modern car, but take a good look at a new Chevy Cobalt or something like that. As for the styling, well it personally reminds me of something Citroen of Renault would make. It's an odd package, but it works very well. Despite what seems like a very small trunk lid, it's luggage capacity is quite cavernous and dare I say, even rivals my old Saab 900s.
It's a Honda.
Though with this particular car, it's a bit early to comment on how well it's holding together, I must say that having grown up around Hondas I can attest to their superb quality at an affordable price. Forgive me if I sound like a Honda spokesman, but I really do think they build a damn good product. If this Honda is anything like the my dad's daily driver '88, '92, and '96 Civics were, then it should be just fine.
Whether you like it or not, or feel like it's a car for frat-boys in their early 20s, the Civic Si really is a hell of a good package. It's great fun to drive (especially for a $22,000 sedan) yet still very practical (especially in 4-door form) and, if driven sensibly, very economical. I'm first and foremost a European car enthusiast, but this is a damn respectable offering of a Canadian built car from a Japanese company.