By Greg Wilson
Race on Sunday, drive to work on Monday

Attention weekend racers: looking for a car that you can take to the track on Sunday, and drive to work on Monday? For under $25,000, the Honda Civic Coupe SiR is about as close as you’re gonna get to a street-legal race-car.

The SiR is based on the Civic Coupe Si, but has a more powerful 160 horsepower 1.6 litre twin cam four cylinder engine, a stiffer suspension, better brakes, a slightly different appearance, a higher level of standard equipment, and of course, a higher price-tag. SiR’s go for $23,300 compared to the Si’s base price of $18,700.

Styling differences between the two are so subtle that you may not notice them. Careful observers will notice an ‘SiR’ chrome badge on the rear decklid, ‘DOHC VTEC’ decals on the doors, body-coloured side-sills, front chin spoiler, mesh grille, and chrome exhaust tip. The most obvious difference is the SiR’s low-profile 15 inch radials and alloy wheels.

Mechanical differences are more significant. Like the Si, the SiR has a 1.6 litre four cylinder engine with four valves per cylinder and VTEC (variable valve timing), but unlike the Si, the SiR’s engine has dual overhead camshafts instead of a single overhead camshaft, a higher 10.2:1 compression ratio, and cylinders with a shorter stroke and a wider bore. The SiR’s engine puts out a potent 160 horsepower at a screaming 7600 rpm – an amazing 100 horsepower per litre of engine displacement – and 111 lbs-ft of torque at a very high 7300 rpm. This compares to the Si’s single overhead cam 1.6 litre motor with 127 horsepower at 6600 rpm, and 107 lbs-ft of torque at 5500 rpm.

The SiR engine’s relatively high compression ratio requires the use of more expensive Premium fuel, but with highway fuel economy of 7.0 l/100 km (40 mpg) and city consumption of 9.5 l/100 km (30 mpg), the SiR is certainly no gas hog.

In addition to its more powerful engine, the SiR has standard four-wheel disc brakes with ABS (compared to the Si’s front disc/rear drums setup with optional ABS), front and rear stabilizer bars, stiffer springs, a chassis-stiffening front strut tower bar, a five-speed manual transmission with a higher final drive ratio, and quicker steering. The SiR’s standard tires are 195/55 V-rated 15 inch radials, compared to the Si’s narrower 185/65R-S-rated 14 inch radials.

SiR’s weigh about 35 kilograms more than Si models, due in part to a higher level of standard equipment. These include air conditioning, ABS, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. Other unique SiR interior features include special moquette cloth seat upholstery, amber-illuminated gauges with SIR script on the speedometer, an 8000 rpm redline on the tachometer, and open-style front head restraints.

A five-speed manual transmission is standard, but befitting its race-car image, an automatic transmission is not available.

Most of the SiR’s horsepower and torque is available in the 4000 to 7500 rpm rev ranges. About six thousand rpm, the engine lets out a high-pitched race-car-like ‘blat’, and continues unabated to 8000 rpm. Best performance is achieved by keeping the revs high, and shifting appropriately – a standard 5-speed manual shifter offers smooth, precise shifts with medium-length throws.

The SiR’s driving position relative to the controls is good, however I found that in order to depress the clutch pedal to the floor, I had to position myself closer to the steering wheel than I liked. A telescopic steering wheel or adjustable floor pedals (such as Ford is offering on some 2000 models) would help solve this problem, but neither of these is yet available on the Civic.

Handling is generally flat and predictable despite the SiR’s inherent front weight bias. The Civic’s standard double wishbone independent suspension is enhanced by stiffer springs and shocks, an additional rear stabilizer bar, and low-profile 195/55VR-15 inch radials. Responsive power-assisted steering provides quick turn-in and good on-centre feel.

The SiR’s stopping distances are very short due to a combination of standard four wheel disc brakes with ABS, 15 inch V-rated performance tires, and the SiR’s relatively low curb weight.

Of course, this kind of driving performance isn’t required during everyday around-town driving, and that’s where the SiR shines. It’s equally at home creeping through rush-hour traffic, manoeuvering in and out of traffic, slipping into tight parking spots, and cruising comfortably on the highway. I expected the SiR’s ride to be more uncomfortable than the standard Si, but was surprised to find it quite supple and compliant. At highway cruising speeds, the SiR’s engine speed of 3400 rpm at 100 km/h is higher than average, however it’s less than half of this engine’s maximum rev limit, and the engine is extremely smooth, well-balanced and quiet.

The SiR is also roomier than it looks. Front passengers have plenty of headroom and legroom, but the real surprise is the rear seat where headroom and legroom are adequate for two adults or three children. Passengers entering the back seat need to do some bending and ducking, but the front passenger seat will slide forwards automatically when the seatback is folded. Unfortunately, it doesn’t slide back automatically, so the seatback and fore-aft adjustments have to be re-adjusted.

Some improvements were made to the Civic’s interior for the 1999 model year. All Civics now have a revised centre dash layout, notably vertically-arranged rotary dials for heating and ventilation. This arrangement is easy-to- see and easy-to-reach and is probably the most ergonomically-sensible layout I’ve seen in a passenger car.

I had some quibbles with other interior features: the radio/CD player is within easy reach too, but its narrow width limits the size of its buttons. I didn’t like the SiR’s two horn buttons on the steering wheel spokes – personally I prefer a single center horn button. The center armrest/storage bin is too small and too far back to rest your arm on, although there are plenty of other storage bins including two side bins in the rear armrests.

Another quibble: the driver and passenger door can be locked with the door key on the driver’s side, but only the driver’s door can be unlocked from the driver’s side with a key. To unlock the passenger door, the driver must reach in and pull up on the locking button near the door handle.

1999 Honda Civic SiR
Standard features on the SiR include an AM/FM/CD player with six speakers, height-adjustable driver’s seat, power door locks and central locking, power windows, power moonroof with sliding sunshade, power heated mirrors, cruise control, dual airbags, and lockable 60/40 split folding rear seatbacks. The trunk is a spacious 11.9 cubic feet trunk with the standard split folding rear seatbacks in the ‘up’ position.

As a car that combines the performance of a racing car with the comfort and manners of an economy car, the Civic Coupe SiR is unique. Only its more expensive cousin, the Acura Integra Type R, does a better job of combining a race car and a road car into one – but that’s another test-drive.

Technical Data:

1999 Honda Civic Coupe SiR
Base price $23,300
Type 2-door, 5 passenger coupe
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 1.6 litre, DOHC, 16 valve four cylinder
Horsepower 160 @ 7600 rpm
Torque 111 @ 7300 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual
Tires 195/55R-15
Curb weight 1182 kg (2606 lb.)
Wheelbase 2620 mm (103.1 in.)
Length 4445 mm (175.0 in.)
Width 1705 mm (67.1 in.)
Height 1375 mm (54.1 in.)
Trunk capacity 338 litres (11.9 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 9.5 l/100 km (30 mpg)
  Hwy: 7.0 l/100 km (40 mpg)
Warranty Complete 3 yrs/60,000 km
  Powertrain 5 yrs/100,000 km

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