Nearly the Civic we want.

by John Pearley Huffman

It’s tough to appreciate the 160-horsepower, five-speed Civic Si in full knowledge that there’s a 200-horsepower, six-speed Civic Type-R already coming off the same British production line. It’s not that the Civic Si is a bad car (it’s quite good), but that there’s something better out there and that for some reason… we don’t rate it. The Civic Si will get the respect it deserves, but the Type-R would be an icon among America’s Honda-crazed youth.

So Honda doesn’t trust us with the good stuff. We can handle the blow to our ego; God knows this nation has suffered worse slights than that. But how good is the pretty good stuff we are allowed?

Unlike any other Civic

The 2002 Civic Si isn’t really like any other Civic for sale in the U.S. It’s the only hatchback being sold here, it shares no sheetmetal with any other North American-market Civic and, while the Si’s basic structure, all-independent suspension and floorpan is common with other Civics, it also shares those pieces with the also-new-in-2002 Acura RSX. The Si in fact gets its 160-horsepower, 2.0-liter, DOHC, 16-valve “i-VTEC” four and four-wheel disc brakes from the base RSX and rides on the same 101.2-inch wheelbase. Since the ’99 and ’00 Civic Si was a coupe, the hatchback’s return harkens back to all the previous Civic S and Si models between ’83 and ’95 that were all hatches, and this is a nicely drawn, sweetly detailed hatchback that has the structural heft of a beryllium atom.

But the exterior’s goodness pales in comparison to the interior’s excellence. With surface textures that are more RSX-ish than Civic-like, and contemporary design details, the Si’s innards are among the best on any car at any price. The dash is straightforward and intuitive with black-on-white instrumentation and switchgear that reacts with tactile grace. It helps if you have an unwide butt when aiming it into the front seats but they provide superior support during aggressive driving and integrated side airbags are available.

This Si’s wheelbase is, by Civic hatchback standards, long and the body’s long roof makes for an overall roomy environment with a relatively accommodating rear seat and a generous cargo hold. That cargo expands when the 60/40 split rear seat is folded forward, and it folds forward without removing the head rests. Except for the disjuncture where the dimpled texture of instrumentation’s hood meets the rest of the dash’s grain, this is an outstanding interior design.

But it’s the shifter that grabs any observer’s attention, since it’s not between the seats but sticking out of the dash. Since all Sis are five-speeds, this is an arrangement that needs to work for the Civic to be a livable car at all. It works splendidly. The driver’s hand barely needs to move from the leather-wrapped, three-spoke steering wheel to reach the shifter and, of course, that hand finds a shifter whose quality is exactly as good as all other Honda shifters (which is very, very good). Beyond that, with the shifter off the floor, there’s room for a center console that swallows up to 10 CDs and incorporates twin cup holders. Dash shifters aren’t really new (Citroën’s 2CV has had one for decades), but they’re rare. After experiencing the Si dash shifter, the logic and appeal of the arrangement is obvious.

Not quite RSX

The Si shares its engine with RSX, but first and second gears in the Si’s transmission are more closely spaced than in the RSX, and the Si’s 4.764:1 final drive ratio is more aggressive than the RSX’s 4.389:1 – and like the RSX, the Si has no limited slip differential. The Si has a slightly thicker (25.4mm) front stabilizer bar than the RSX (23mm) or RSX Type-S (24.2mm) and a slightly thinner (15.0mm) rear stabilizer than both (both 19.0mm) but offers the basic arrangement of modified MacPherson struts up front and double wishbones in the back. In fact, says Honda, the Si’s suspension is tuned identically to the Civic Type-R, though the Type-R wears 17-inch wheels and the Si gets P195/60R15 tires on 15-inch alloys. The Si also shares its electrically-assisted, speed variable power steering with the Type-R, but it doesn’t feel as precise as the more traditional hydraulic system on the RSX.

Considering the Type-R suspension, it’s no surprise that the Si’s ride is stiff under most conditions. And considering the modest tires, it’s also no surprise that ultimate adhesion is also modest. The Si wants to push its nose, but it can be balanced with the excellent brakes and quick steering. On certain surfaces this car transmits quite a bit of tire noise too. If there’s ever been a car that cries out for better and bigger tires it’s this one. Considering how many owners are likely to mount just such rubber, they ought to ship this car on cheap steel wheels and recaps so there would be no guilt involved in throwing them away.

At 2.0-liters, the Si’s engine is the largest engine in the history of Honda Civics and that fundamentally changes the character of the power. Previous Si motors needed to wail in order to generate much thrust. The 2000 Civic Si’s 1.6-liter DOHC engine, for example, was also rated at 160 horsepower but it had to spin 7600 rpm to achieve that and its torque production maxed out at just 111 pound-feet at 7000 rpm (your little sister gave you more powerful titty twisters when you were a kid). The new Si’s engine, in contrast, makes its 160-horsepower at 6500 rpm and pumps out a full 132-pound feet of torque at just 5000 rpm. The i-VTEC variable valve timing system is of the subdued variety in this engine and when the timing transitions, it does so smoothly and almost imperceptibly. The 2002 Si’s engine is a confident, quiet every day driving companion, more attuned for commutes than race track heroics. Performance should be slightly better than the 8.2-second 0-60 mph clocking reported by Edmunds.com for the 2000 Civic Si, with less drama doing the deed. And the sound from the chrome twin-tip exhaust could be more inspiring.

Modest goals, modest price

With prices starting at about $18,000, the Civic Si represents solid value considering its comprehensive equipment (power windows, power moonroof, a decent stereo), but it also faces a market far more competitive than just two years ago when the last Si was on sale. And the market will only get more crowded as new players like the Ford SVT Focus join the fray. Honda’s sales goals for the Si are, however, modest -- just 15,000 hatchbacks during 2002. That’s down from about 20,000 examples of the 2000 Civic Si coupe.

There are probably already at least a dozen shops in California figuring out how to bolt turbochargers, superchargers and/or nitrous systems to this new Si. Because even if Honda doesn’t think we’re grown up enough to handle the Type-R, there are plenty of people here who do.

 

2002 Honda Civic Si

Base Price: $18,000 (est.)
Engine: 2.0-liter in-line four, 160 horsepower
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Wheelbase: 101.0 inches
Length: 165.6 inches
Width: 53.1 inches
Height: 43.2 inches
Weight: 2744 pounds
Fuel economy (cty/hwy): 26/30 mpg
Standard safety equipment: Dual front airbags
Major standard features: Power windows, anti-lock brakes, moonroof, air conditioning
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

 

Copyright © 2001 by the Car Connection

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