From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.
In this installment, Street Talk puts the spotlight on the darling of the import tuner set – the Honda Civic Si.
Something of the poster child for the import tuner movement, the Honda Civic Si has long been prized for its performance, reliability, tunability and style. Even bone stock, this sprightly Civic usually satisfied those looking for kicks behind the wheel. Eager acceleration, athletic handling, supportive seats and subtle styling tweaks round out this pocket-rocket’s impressive credentials.
The feisty first edition
One could argue that Honda’s first sporty Civic was the Civic S of 1983, but we’re putting the spotlight on the sportier and more significant “Si” variants, the first of which debuted for 1986. Boasting fuel injection (hence the “i”) and other engine tweaks, the debut Civic Si had a noticeable bump in power output compared to other Civic hatches – its 1.5-liter four packing 91 horsepower versus the 58 to 76 horses found in its siblings.
Ninety-one horses may not sound like much, but in a car that weighed only about 2,000 pounds and running through a five-speed manual transmission (no automatic available), it was enough to send the Si to 60 mph in about 9 seconds flat. Twisty roads provided the most fun, as the light and nimble Civic Si also had firmer suspension calibrations, upgraded tires and front sport seats, the latter with pronounced side bolsters for added lateral support when attacking the curves.
Redesigned for 1988, with smoother body lines, standard fuel injection across the line and a double-wishbone suspension system at all four corners, the 1988 Civic took a leap forward in sophistication. Notably, that suspension design, shared with Formula One race cars, did a fantastic job of providing sharp handling along with a firm yet comfortably controlled ride. There was no Si for that year, but it returned in 1989 with a 1.6-liter high-output engine sending 108 horses to this Civic’s front wheels.
More power and performance
The next generation Civic debuted for 1992 and the Si, like the other Civics, got a little bigger and heavier. It also got more power, its 1.6-liter mill cranking out 125 horsepower. Honda’s new VTEC (Variable valve-Timing and lift, Electronic Control) system was the chief reason this little engine made such big power. VTEC essentially allowed the engine to be efficient at lower rpm, while allowing it to breathe deeper at higher rpm for increased performance. By now, the Civic Si could hit 60 mph in about 8.4 seconds.
Where did you go, Civic Si?
When the Civic was redesigned for 1996, a key member of the team was missing; indeed the Civic Si would be absent from the lineup for three years. Finally, for 1999 the Civic Si returned, this time in the handsome, crisply-chiseled coupe body style and sporting 160 horses, good enough for a low 7-second 0-to-60 mph time and a quarter-mile ability in the mid-15-second range. Those are seriously quick times for a naturally-aspirated (not turbocharged or supercharged) four-cylinder-powered compact car. Sadly, this sharp Civic Si coupe was produced just two years, 1999 and 2000.
For 2001, a new Civic lineup arrived, sans Si. The following year, 2002, brought back the Si. Now based on the European Civic hatchback, this Civic Si’s breadbox styling, softened suspension calibrations and tamer power delivery all conspired to make it a disappointment to those fans of the harder-edged Si Civics that came before. Indeed, this automotive writer recalls driving a 2002 Civic Si at the racetrack and wondering if someone had sprayed Armor-All on the tires’ tread, as their lack of grip and propensity to slide made for a somewhat entertaining but frustrating time around the track.
Although the engine was upgraded slightly (same horsepower but more torque), this Civic Si tipped the scales at nearly 2,800 pounds, so performance was about the same as before. And while the power delivery was more linear than before, it just wasn’t as exciting as it lacked the pronounced “VTEC” kick at higher rpm the older car had. A cool feature was the car’s manual shifter, which sprouted out from the lower portion of the center stack, Rally car style, putting it close at hand.
Back in the game
For the Civic’s 2006 redesign, the Civic Si came back strong. Although the styling was a bit odd, with its massive windshield and resulting stubby hoodline, the Si seemed to have returned from a summer at fitness camp and to its earlier, sporty self. A taut, buttoned-down suspension, sticky tires, quick steering and a more aggressive V-tec kick once again made the Si a hoot.
Engine displacement now stood at 2.0-liters while output rated nearly 200 horses (197 hp, to be exact). And with an added gear in the manual gearbox (now six speeds versus the previous five), this Si could sprint to 60 mph in a factory-claimed 6.7 seconds. The quick-revving engine would take on a seriously urgent demeanor once the tach’s needle swung past 6,000 rpm, a potent rush that lasted right through the 8,000 rpm redline.
For 2007, Honda introduced a four-door version of the Si, making this little firecracker more attractive to enthusiasts needing a more accessible and usable back seat. A rare sight is the limited-production 2008 Mugen Si sedan, which featured a stiffer, track-tuned suspension, larger (18-inch) wheels, a performance exhaust and styling tweaks that included a big rear wing.
The most recent full redesign of this icon took place for 2012, when the Civic family received more sculpted body styling and unfortunately a cheapened interior that irked consumers and car critics. That prompted a refresh the very next year that brought styling tweaks and more importantly, upgraded interior materials and added standard features for all Civics, including Bluetooth and a rearview camera.
As far as the Si, 2012 brought a larger (2.4-liter) engine with 201 horses. Although the bigger engine boasted a fatter, more useable powerband than the last Si, it wasn’t as much fun, as it lacked that high-rpm kick that the previous Si had brought back. Handling was similarly muted, lacking the point-and-shoot personality held so dear in the past. On the upside, the ride was better as the suspension was more compliant over pockmarked pavement and freeway expansion joints.
Even folks not into the tuner scene likely know that Honda’s Civic, especially the Si version, is a favorite of folks who enjoy modifying their cars. After all, who hasn’t witnessed a slammed Civic with a rasping “coffee can” exhaust cruising the boulevard or blasting down the highway?
With massive support from aftermarket suppliers, one can turn their Civic into a capable track day weapon with a few weekends’ worth of wrenching. Installing stiffer springs and dampers, thick anti-roll bars and larger yet lighter wheels with high-performance rubber are popular upgrades. Then there are the quarter-mile enthusiasts, who, via forced induction (turbocharging or supercharging) and perhaps nitrous oxide injection, can turn a Civic into a 12-second drag strip terror.
Editor’s note: Advance Auto Parts is ready to help Civic enthusiasts out with a large selection of quality parts and accessories. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.