Jaded scribe of wheeled wonders that I am, I’ll have to admit I was a bit excited to see Honda’s pocket racer version of the Civic, the Si coupe, show up on the Digital Trends’ list of test cars. I’ve got a soft spot for the Civic since I used to own one – a 1975 3-door hatchback, one of the first of the Civic lineage.
Honda’s reliable reputation and the straight forward, simplified nature of the Civic Si had me smiling while driving…
The little “CVCC Civic” (it was just like this one, except mine was white) had a unique blend of utility, performance and driving fun that seemed more common in those early days of Japanese imports.
With its diminutive stature and cuddly styling, it wasn’t a very manly car, but while my buddies were wrenching on their broken-down manly rattle-traps, I was out courting sorority debutantes or playing Rally Racer in the hills around Eugene, Oregon in my reliable – and quick – little Civic.
So what’s changed in almost 40 years of Civics from Honda? Actually, not much. Well, the price is a bit higher at $24,800 as tested.
Keep it simple…
The 2013 Honda Civic Si coupe is a hoot to drive and like its great-grandpappy CVCC, it remains a focused, fun machine with a minimum of unneeded stuff added on.
Slide into the ground-hugging but nicely shaped and bolstered driver’s seat and you instantly know this isn’t your grandma’s friendly Civic people-mover. A huge analog tachometer is front and center below the top of the steering wheel arc while in the distance, a large digital speedo is flanked by a small data screen on the right and VTEC/rev indicators on the left. It’s one of most simple, focused and well-designed dashes I’ve seen.
The simplistic philosophy seems to run through the car as you put the key in and give it a turn (no push-button starter here) and the 201hp 2.4 liter four spins up immediately, all without the aid of turbochargers, hybrid power or ECO/Sport buttons.
Depress the lightly-sprung clutch and slip the 6-speed fully manual transmission into first gear and it’s go time. Goose the gas in first gear and the front wheels chirp as dual traction control warnings blink nervously in the dash, reminding me to behave. Of course, that little nanny can be sent home with a button push if drivers choose.
Phone paired, music up, windows down, sunroof open and my right foot itching for some curvy roads, the Si bounces along on the crumbling streets of Portland’s inner city as I make my way through traffic to my favorite test roads beyond the West Hills. While the suspension is certainly taught, it’s better than some other boy-racers I’ve driven and has just enough small-bump absorption to keep the ride somewhat civilized in the city.
To the right of the steering wheel, a large touch-screen surrounded by faux carbon fiber cants toward the driver and displays the usual bits: navigation, back-up camera, phone ops, what Celine Dion song I’m singing along to (I KID!) and so forth. Phone pairing was a snap and overall, the touchscreen is responsive and simple to operate, unlike the bloated system in an Acura I recently tested. Even the voice recog system seems snappier. More is not always better.
As traffic thins out and the roadway climbs into the hills, I put a bit more pressure on the gas pedal and the Si eagerly charges forward, shifts coming quickly on the slick gearbox as engine howl fills the cabin. Sure, paddle shifters are great, but there is still a lot to be said for the intimacy and naked simplicity of a stick shift and a clutch pedal. You just have a much better idea about what the power train is doing.
Steering feel was very good with excellent feedback coming through the well-shaped, leather-wrapped tiller. The Si doesn’t use a new-think, numb electronic steering system that everyone (including Honda) is moving to. Rack and pinion FTW, although it has a power assist, of course. I think that used to be called “power steering.” I understand carmakers wanting to use the mechanically disconnected electronic steering system as it simplifies building the car for disparate markets, but that disconnection is the problem – there’s just not enough feedback and so far, I don’t feel any carmaker has the system fully figured out yet.
A nice tech touch the Si does have is the small data screen placed to the right of the speedometer but still very close to the driver’s eyeline. A steering wheel button toggles through different choices including gas mileage, music selection source and title, a nearly blank screen save time and temperature and a fun screen that shows engine power output by percentage. Climbing through Portland’s urban canyons, the engine gauge never went much past 50 percent and the Si was going plenty fast.
Powering through familiar S-curves and smoothly banked turns in the North Plains area outside of Portland, the Si is in its element, the tight chassis keeping the car flat while the tach swings to the right and the engine load indicator climbs. The little four pulls just hard enough to entertain as it sweeps through the powerband but never feels out of control or like it’s going to get you into Big Trouble.
Zip the engine towards redline as the road opens up and lights begin to come on in the small V-TEC panel to the left of the speedo. The first is a red light that comes on at about 4,500 signifying the V-TEC system has activated. V-TEC varies the timing and duration of the valves above each cylinder to allow in more air and fuel, increasing power (and decreasing gas mileage, but that concern is long gone). With V-TEC online, the Civic surges forward ever faster as all 201 horsies get galloping near the 7,000rpm redline. In normal city driving, V-TEC simply lies in wait, letting the engine breathe for more torque and better mileage. But out here in the boonies, it has the Si charging out of corners and blurring phone poles on long straighaways.
Just below the red V-TEC light, a sequence of yellow lights activates as the engine nears redline and maximum power. These “shift lights” function as peripheral reminders to grab the next gear without having to take your eyes off the road and check the tach. It’s a great taste of race car stuff, making it easy to hit the shifts through a section of second and third gear switchbacks and maintain peak power.
Some understeer from the front-wheel drive system gives a few sphincter moments in tighter, more technical corners and different tires may make a difference, but overall the Si is a corner-straightening fun machine that makes you wish you lived next to a racetrack – or some lightly-patrolled country roads (ahem).
If Honda were to gift this car with 50 more horsepower and all-wheel drive, it could be a next-level sporting machine and my license would be in serious trouble, but it would also likely loft the price too far above the affordable level it’s at now. Maybe someday.
Missing a beat
After snaking through my test route, rain begins to fall and I venture back to the interstate to head home, the Honda’s engine droning along at 2500rpm in 6th gear (or lower) as traffic piles up, but at least the small MPG monitor in the dash panel says I’m turning each gallon of dinosaur into 31 miles of travel. Bored with the traffic, I powered up the 7-speaker audio system and it was only here that I felt let down by the Si.
… A hugely fun car with some practicality thrown in. Sharp but subdued in appearance…
Although the stereo was described as having 360 watts of power driving seven speakers including a subwoofer, low-end response from the system seems to be missing the lower two or three octaves available to human hearing – even after jacking the bass level up. Folk music sounded good, except I’m not a real big fan of folk music, at least not for more than a song or two that I already know. Clarity and definition above the shallow bottom end were decent until the volume reached about ¾ of the way up the scale at which point it distorted badly – even while listening to a CD.
For a car aimed directly at the youth market, this is a big miss. After being spoiled by the booming power of the stereo in a competitor, the Hyundai Veloster, there’s no excuse for Honda to cheap out or miss the performance mark on this key ingredient.
At least they hit the right notes on the look of the Si. While the tuner car kids might add some ground effects, replace the lights and tack on a silly rear wing, none of that is needed.
The black and brushed metal 17-inch alloy wheels on our test car looked great while the car’s chiseled lines had a dash of swoop thrown in – but nothing over the top. This is Honda after all, the only car company that apparently can make a supercar (the old NSX) somewhat sterile and boring. But that’s not the case here.
There’s no blunt front end with a big ground-hugging street racer grille or crazy fender flares. This machine looks borne of a wind tunnel and a stylist over the age of 30, which it probably is. Even the back end looks purposeful, not stylized, with a tucked-in hatch, no-nonsense taillights and the barest hint of a spoiler. A single exhaust outlet vents spent gases to the atmosphere, there’s no need for the extra weight of a dual-pipe ego inflator – so there isn’t one. Only a simple red Si badge front and back along with the three bare metal control pedals betrays the car’s true intentions.
The black cloth seats with the “Si” logo embossed in red were comfortable and manually adjustable – just how I like it. I actually squeezed four people into the car at one point, although the back seats were occupied by a 6-year-old and a person of shorter stature (5 foot 3) and as it was, that was about perfect. Don’t count on transporting your NBA player friends in the Si’s rear quarters.
True to its roots
The 2013 Honda Civic Si is a hugely fun car with some practicality thrown in. Sharp but subdued in appearance, I nonetheless got several positive comments on the car’s looks.
Out on the road, the immediate response of a normally-aspirated Four hooked up to a manual transmission was in sharp contrast with some other turbo-charged, auto/semi-manual equipped cars that seemed to take a moment or two to electronically decide what it was I was asking it to do and then sometimes made a mess of it.
The zippy engine, refinement, great looks, comfy ergos, Honda’s reliable reputation and the straight forward, simplified nature of the Civic Si had me smiling while driving – and reminiscing for my old ’75 Civic. If only I could find a slightly used Si for $800…
- Peppy four-banger has just enough juice to thrill
- Peppy four-banger can probably be hopped up on the cheap
- Great-looking, great sounding
- Love that dashboard
- Audio system falls far short of competitors and expectations
- A bit of understeer during more technical corners
- Taut ride on smooth country roads translates to a bumpy ride in the city