by Ted Laturnus
Honda isn’t normally prone to making mistakes. Since they began doing business in North America – when? – back in the late sixties – early 1970s, they have displayed an uncanny sense of timing and marketing acumen, going from an importer of humble econoboxes and cheap motorcycles to one of the major players in the industry. The Accord, for example, has been the top-selling sedan in its class in Canada off and on for the past ten years, and their Odyssey mini-van is arguably the best vehicle of its kind.
But the Japanese company came a bit of a cropper when they discontinued their Civic hatchback, in 2000. For reasons we’re not quite clear on, the brain trust at Honda decided buyers didn’t want a hatchback anymore. Wrong. As soon as they walked away from this market, Mazda, Hyundai, Pontiac, Kia, Toyota and Suzuki waltzed in with their own hatchbacks.
Canadian model Civic SiR
But Honda seems to have had a re-think, and for 2002, have brought in a reborn version of the Civic hatchback….the 2003 SiR. Actually, the SiR is something of an encore for Honda. Its heritage dates back to 1984, when Honda released the first Civic 1500S, with added interior and exterior features and an upgraded suspension – a model that ran until 1987. In 1989, after a brief hiatus, the S evolved into the Si, which carried on in three-door form until 1993. The Si was also the first Civic to benefit from the introduction of Honda’s VTEC variable valve engine technology.
Which comes as standard equipment with the SiR’s 2.0 litre twin overhead cam engine, but with a slight difference. Sensors within the engine vary cam lift and valve operation together, depending upon engine load and rpms….what Honda call their i-Vtec system. This system also adds a new camshaft Variable Timing Control (VTC) for continuously variable camshaft phasing across the engine’s entire power band. As engine rpm builds, an actuator – controlled by an engine-control union that monitors cam position, ignition timing, and throttle position – advances or retards the intake cam, optimizing engine output and reducing emissions. The result is 160 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 132 foot-pounds of torque at 5000 rpm, smoothly delivered, which incidentally, makes the new SiR the most torquey Civic ever produced.
But what strikes me about the SiR is its European-ness. Built exclusively at Honda’s plant in Swindon, U.K., it has some nice touches, including a very continental-looking body style complete with “bee sting” roof antenna, and, inside, a shift lever mounted in the middle of the centre console, as opposed to being located on the floor. Alfa and Citroen have both utilized a similar set-up for years, and I like it. I don’t think it makes much of a difference in terms of performance or ergonomics, but it is a nice touch and a pleasant change. The SiR comes with a five-speed manual only, and Honda has borrowed technology from their S2000 sports car with the shifting linkage.
In fact, the whole car has a very “drive me” flavour about it. Acceleration is definitely brisk, but not overpowering, with little in the way of torque steer. Front suspension is Honda’s “Control Link” set-up, taken from their Acura RSX sports hatchback, with double wishbones in the rear. As well, there are anti-roll bars front and back. In Europe, if you want to keep up with traffic, these kinds of features are mandatory, and the new SiR can definitely hold its own, as we found during a rather quick in-and-out visit to Monaco. I think it could use a six-speed gearbox, but there you go. And, yes, we did get to drive the Formula One route…..at least partially.
With the 60/40 rear seat folded, the SiR also has a completely flat rear floor for ease of storage, and a rear hatch that is wider than some of its closest competitors, which include the Ford Focus and VW Golf. In order to facilitate the new rear floor arrangement, Honda has fitted an all-resin fuel tank….another first for them. Other standard equipment includes: cruise control, a/c, power windows and door locks, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, dual front airbags, 195/60R15 wheels and tires, and electrically-assisted rack and pinion power steering. Honda is particularly proud of this latter feature, having used hydraulic assist up to this point in all its North America models. And the steering is responsive, with a nice light touch.
Honda hasn’t released a firm price on the SiR yet, but, Arch Wilcox, national sales manager for Canada, says it’ll be in the “mid-twenties” somewhere. That may seem high, but the SiR is now the compact hatchback benchmark….this is a premium automobile built for those who like to drive, with a beautiful refined air about it and impeccable assembly quality. Look for it in showrooms this Spring.