Civic-Minded Public Shows Honda the Way


Car enthusiasts--victims of daring undoers since 1910 when under-braked Vanderbilt Cup racers were killing more spectators than drivers--were not surprised when Honda stopped making the ultra-frisky Civic Si coupe. After all, it was quick, fun, inexpensive, sexy, risky, youthful and all those other things wasted on the young.

The 1996 denial, of course, only increased young America’s--particularly young California’s--pursuit of and passions for tame cars with wild engines. These land-speed lovers did exactly what their dads did in the ‘40s with 1932 Ford coupes and flathead V-8s. They grabbed all the white-bread Civics they could find, lowered them, reworked the suspensions until they rode like planks, overstuffed them with super and turbocharged horsepower and added a new era to the history of hot rodding in the U.S.

In the short years since, the half-pint Civic, already the nation’s best-selling subcompact, has become the sweetheart of the performance aftermarket fraternity. There’s even a fresh lexicon transforming the language of yesteryear’s daddy-os to today’s homeys, with “phat” or “da bomb” being a particularly cool Civic and “hooptie” a beater that would “spank” no one at street dragging.



Honda, in its wisdom, has taken a serious look at this scene and decided that if you can’t squash ‘em, better supply ‘em. Hence the 1999 Civic Si, an encore car and rocket-powered roller skate that at $17,500, with 160 horsepower waiting to be uncorked, is probably the phattest Civic of ‘em all.

Honda, in its political correctness, hasn’t gone the way of all formula mini-muscle cars that cavort at midnight on PCH and Mulholland. No tailpipes yawning wider than coffee cans. No optional letterman’s jacket covering a nitrous oxide bottle in the trunk. No airfoils, no wheels from Ernie’s Alloys, no epidermis of decals and few visuals to distinguish this Si in track shoes from an EX in sensible pumps.

Except for a small badge here, 15-inch wheels, side sills and one very special color (Electron Blue) that beg us to beware of little dogs wearing chin spoilers.

The serious distinction, of course, is with the Si’s mechanicals. Thanks to the miracle of variable valve timing and pairing overhead cams--plus inducing some very heavy breathing from the throttle body and intake manifold--Honda has managed to squeeze 100 horsepower per liter from a 1.6-liter four-banger transplanted from the placid but extinct Del Sol. Compare that, say, to 80 horsepower per liter from the Porsche Boxster.

The double-wishbone suspension, stabilizer bars and springs have been tuned and thickened for stiffness and high spirits. A very precise, short-shifting five-speed manual is the only transmission you get. Disc brakes--10.7 inches up front, 9.4 on the rear--will bring the Si to rest quicker than it took to get to speed. Which is 6.8 seconds from zero to 60 mph with a lusty snore escaping from the enlarged but not oversized exhaust.


It’s all the right equipment, of course, for carving an impudent passage around Neons and Miatas during a day at the club races with you beneath the helmet--if only because you can spool up the engine to 8,000 revolutions per minute while they can’t.

Yet despite its hustle, the Si is remarkably patient at low speed, handles with the docility of a conventional Civic and gives no clues to the Tabasco in its tank.

Obviously, this car will never appeal to those born to the gruff manners of cast-iron chunks from Michigan that belch 400 horsepower and can chirp tires in sixth gear.

But for those in their surfer years, for those who prefer their driving to be more dollops of fun than lumps of bruising fury, Honda’s Si is a new ideal. Si, si.

Times automotive writer Paul Dean can be reached via e-mail at