Review and photos by Laurance Yap
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Chicago, Illinois – Arguably the car that started the whole tuner-car craze in North America, the Civic coupe had, over the last few years, lost some of its street-cred thanks to its use of a strut front suspension (unlike the old Civic’s advanced double-wishbone set-up), a 1.7-litre VTEC engine that was outgunned by much of the competition, and styling that was an awkward mix of angles, compared to the elegant curves of the coupes that proved so popular through the early nineties. The outgoing Civic was, in every way, a better car than the one it replaced, but it lacked that spark of race-bred intensity that made the older models so attractive to tuners and racers alike.
Well, it’s back with a vengeance. While the new Si Coupe may still be strut-suspended, it handles better than any Civic coupe that’s gone before it. On the challenging curves of the Autobahn Country Club track near Chicago (a private course for car enthusiasts), not only did the new Coupe exhibit more grip than you’d likely ever need on public roads, but also demonstrated a level of balance and stability that wouldn’t be out of place in a BMW. The slightly dulled responses of the old Si (and indeed, the old SiR hatchback) are gone, replaced by instantaneous turn-in, razor-sharp steering, and impressive body control, no matter how badly surfaced the corner you’re carving is. The brakes respond immediately to a mere brush of the pedal, and remain fade-free pretty much no matter how hard you drive. Best of all, jump out of the gas for fun in the middle of a corner, and the rear end comes around a few degrees in a gentle, entertaining little wag.
Most impressive of all is the new drive-train. With 197 horsepower from a fairly high-strung 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine – essentially the same one used in the Acura RSX Type-S – the new Si is a rocket. With but 139 lb-ft of torque available, this is an engine you have to rev to go fast, but that’s no problem, because it rips straight up to the 8000-rpm redline with a silken snarl that makes you want to wind it up it again and again. Thanks to a super-slick six-speed manual transmission, your opportunities to rev it up are more numerous than before, and thanks to a helical limited-slip differential, putting that power to the ground through the front wheels has never been easier. Wheels and tires are now 17-inch as standard on the Si, and an even more aggressive 18-inch set-up is available as an option; gone are the days of fast, but under-tired Hondas spinning their front wheels to oblivion.
While the new Civic Coupe’s styling could hardly be called electrifying, it’s certainly more distinctive – than the previous model. A single line flows up from the front bumper over the hood and windshield, terminating in a truncated tail. The stance, thanks to those big wheels and tires, is aggressive, as is the car’s face, with its big lower air intakes and squinty eyes.
As we’ve come to expect from Honda, build quality, even on the pre-production cars we were driving, is simply superb, with most of the panel gaps so tight that they aren’t even measurable.
If the new Si has one shortcoming, it may be its interior. While it’s impressively practical – there’s storage space for a whopping 25 CDs in the centre console, storage bins everywhere, and impressively well-made, it may be just a little too weird for the driving-enthusiast types that the Si is targeted at. The more general public the regular Civic is pitched at will probably love the digital dials, the two-tier instrument panel, and the deep dash, but their gadgety feel seems a bit out of touch with the aggressively pure driving experience (that said, these days, buyers of cars like the Si were raised on video games, so I may well be wrong on this).
No complaints, though, about how the new interior actually works. Not only is it roomier, more useful, and better-made, but the tightened location of all of the primary controls – the high-set shifter is but a hand’s reach away from the thick, three-spoke steering wheel – gives the new Si an added feeling of intimacy and immediacy. The digital rev counter takes a bit of getting used to (it, like the high-set speedo, can disappear if you’re wearing polarized sunglasses) but it flashes like an S2000 as you near the redline.
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Secondary controls may look scattered, but are actually within easy reach, and very easy to use; the Si now comes standard with a thumping 350-watt 7-speaker sound system with a subwoofer and MP3 capability.
The original Civic Si became a performance icon not only because it was terrific fun to drive, but also because it represented great value. If Honda can keep the price of the new 200-hp Si under $25,000 – a price that the old 160-hp Civic SiR hatchback eclipsed while not finding as large of an audience – it’ll not only have a winner on its hands, but it’ll return itself right to the top of the sport-compact heap.