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1999 Honda Civic Si: The First (and Best) VTEC Screamer

I will freely admit to being a Honda fanboy, albeit one in a pudgy and somewhat graying package. Ask me what the best Civic was, and I’ll answer without hesitation: the 1999-2000 Si coupe. In ’99, Honda finally gave in and put the 160-horsepower B16 engine in the Civic.

I’ll save you the pedantic speech about why a B-series engine is the best thing that could ever happen to a Civic owner with no disrespect to D-series owners, as I’ve got a D16A6-powered CRX. What set this B-series apart was the VTEC system. See the 1991 Honda Civic models for sale near you

VTEC is Honda’s variable valve-timing system, and it wasn’t really new in ’99. Honda had been fitting the screaming-high-rpm version of VTEC to the Integra GS-R since 1992 — and by the mid-1990s, VTEC was already doing mundane duty boosting the midrange torque of the Honda Accord’s F22 engine. (Yeah, I’ve got one of those, too.) You could get a Civic with VTEC — the EX — but it wasn’t the best Honda had to offer. Honda had been denying U.S. fans the high-end Civics they sold in other markets.

Here’s the problem with cool-sounding cars that we clamor for in America: Often, when they do finally come to the States, the results are disappointing. Turbocharged 3-cylinder 2-seat microcars sound awesome, but who among us wants to spend the next 3 years driving a smart fortwo?

But it wasn’t like that with the Civic Si, which was every bit as good as we hoped it would be. The engine had an 8,200-rpm redline, and it had that beautiful VTEC kick: Somewhere around 5,500 rpm, the cams changed to their high-power profile, the engine gave a mighty snarl, and the car just took off, running for its 8,000-rpm redline.

In a way, it was like a secret club, because at low rpm, the B16A2 is pathetic. It maxes out at 111 lb-ft of torque, which is pitiful. Most of us can spit harder than that. One wonders how many people who weren’t in on the secret dismissed the Civic Si as a lethargic wonder, simply because they were too gutless to rev it to the sky.

The Civic Si’s genius went well beyond the powertrain: Honda found the perfect package to house this magical engine. The sixth-generation Civic was still a pretty minimalist car, and aside from unique wheels and (optional) bright-blue paint, there wasn’t much to set the Si apart from lesser Civic coupes. It was the perfect way to frame the Civic’s powertrain, just as art galleries tend to hang their masterpieces on plain white walls. Keep the decoration to a minimum, and let the artwork — in this case, the engine — stand on its own. And what about handling? Well, let’s just say that Honda didn’t have to do a whole lot to the Civic’s chassis to make it back up that engine.

Honda built the awesome Si coupe for 2 years. And then they stopped.

When the seventh-generation Civic made its debut for 2001, they had finally embraced the U.S. appetite for high-powered Civics. The new Si came with a European-style 3-door hatchback body — and this time, it had a 2-liter K-series engine, which traded a sky-high rpm for the low-end torque missing in the ’99-’00 Si.

"No, no, no!" we all screamed. "Wrong, wrong, wrong!"

How can I put this delicately? The seventh-gen Civic Si… well, it was bad. Not only did it lose the high-rpm thrills, but the cheaper MacPherson strut front end couldn’t hold a candle to the sixth-generation’s double wishbones. Once again, Honda had displayed a complete misunderstanding of its younger fan base. The likes of the ’99-’00 Si would never be seen again.

Or would it?

I’m of the opinion that the eighth- (’06-’11) and ninth-generation (’12-’15) Civic’s Si versions were pretty good. Both had around 200 hp, came exclusively with manual transmissions and combined the high-rpm antics of the ’99 with low-end torque that, if pressed under torture, I will admit improved drivability.

Still, there’s no denying the brilliance of the ’99-’00. A couple of years ago, I took a quick spin on a closed airport in a somewhat dodgy one that a friend and colleague had just bought cheap. It was every bit as good as I remember the original being — and that, to me, is the sign of a brilliant car. Find a 1991 Honda Civic for sale

MORE FROM OVERSTEER:
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The Oldsmobile Aurora: When Oldsmobile Tried to Stand Out

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