For 2017, the Honda Civic Si Is a Driver's Car Once Again

Now in the shadow of the Civic Type R, the Si packs a surprising amount of fun into an inexpensive package. Now, about those looks ...

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If one were to edit the Honda Civic recipe down to only its most essential ingredients—a pantry-dinner version of Honda's classic compact car—what would make the cut? 

First to hand would be quality. The original Civic, which came to America in 1973, was neither ground-breaking nor a scorching performer, but was above all a good small car—well-built, reliable, affordable, and drama-free. Charisma is also key: even before it earned its tuner-friendly hot-hatch stripes, the Civic had a reputation as a relatively eager-to-please driver's companion among otherwise dull econoboxes. Last into the pot would be innovation, and often of the quirky variety, whether stylistic (think of the third-generation "tall boy" wagon or the hovering secondary instrument panel of the mid-Aughts) or technological, as with the clever and fuel-efficient Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion (CVCC) engine in '75 or the model's early adoption of compressed natural gas.

But since 1986 Honda has also offered a version of the Civic recipe that added a healthy dash of extra power in the form of an Si-badged variant; the resulting cars became enthusiast favorites, because an enthusiast's favorite ingredient is "more."

Of course, the new 2017 Honda Civic Si now lives in the shadow of the fire-breathing, 306-horsepower Civic Type R, a car available for the first time to American buyers and one that comes with its 07:43.80 Nürburgring lap time practically tattooed on its hood. In other words, the hardcore American buyer now has a new favorite Civic. But that hardly makes the Si an also-ran; it instead becomes the mid-range driver's option for those who don't value each of the Type R's hundred extra horsepower at $100 per. (Obviously there's more to the Type R than just the extra ponies, but whether the upgrades are worth $10,000 over the 205-hp Si's $24,775 sticker is a matter of personal taste, and depth of pockets.)

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The 2017 Honda Civic Si in action in Mojave.

It should be acknowledged that the last couple Si models were not the performers that enthusiasts hoped for. But then, the base Civics on which those cars were based weren't exactly the quality vehicles on which Honda had built its reputation, either, so it stands to reason. Just looking at the spec sheet here shows several improvements over the outgoing model: the newly turbocharged inline-four engine, while smaller at just 1.5 liters compared to the previous model's 2.4, is both more powerful (at the aforementioned 205 hp) and packs more torque, with 192 lb-ft delivered from 2,100 to 5,000 rpm; the car is lighter, too, with the coupe weighing in at just 2,889 pounds and the sedan a mere 17 lbs extra; and even the steering is more decisive, with 2.1 turns lock-to-lock compared with the outgoing model's 2.8.  

The track we used to test the Si was not a racing circuit, which would more befit the Type R, but Honda's own development course at its proving grounds in the Mojave desert—low-speed, technical, and tightly packed with elevation changes, blind crests, and cambered turns of various stripes. The better to suss a vehicle's composure. You can run the whole thing between third and fourth gears—and you'll navigate that route between cogs yourself, since the Si only comes with a manual.

Which is a shame when you realize that Honda's notoriously wonderful, snappy shifter has survived here in a short-throw six-speed—there's also a perfectly arranged pedal box complete with aluminum pedals—because you won't get to use it much, but a relief when you realize how much easier it is to stay in the Si's powerband. Max power from the the 1.4-liter turbo four hits at 5,700 rpm, so unlike a number of previous versions it doesn't require near constant-shifting to stay motivated. Plus, with a claimed 7.0-second sprint to 60 mph (it's probably faster, though), it's no scorcher, so the course's very short straight shot was more than adequate. But infrequent throws simply let us appreciate more the way the excellent chassis danced through the curves, which is to say smoothly and with an athleticism at times bordering on graceful. (However, if you happen to catch the Si off-boost—and you will happen, because it's not hard to do—the car trips over its suddenly apparent power deficiency.)

But there's a tremendous amount of composure at speed in the turns. Credit the adaptive dampers and stiffer primary suspension components like springs and bushings, mounting points, and anti-roll bars from the already dialed-in Civic, plus a standard helical limited-slip differential: the Civic Si showed both phenomenal body control and an abundance of grip, more than one would expect from a mid-level front-wheel-drive car, though the summer tires, a $200 option, certainly helped. Throw in beefier standard brakes (we had uprated aftermarket pads from Honda Performance Development for track use), surprisingly textured feedback from the electronically-assisted steering rack, and a more sensitive throttle response in Sport mode, which also stiffens the adaptive dampers while reducing power-steering assist, and you have more than the recommended amount of charisma. The Type R may have knocked it from its perch as the enthusiasts' dream Civic, but this Si is a return to form: it's a driver's car, plain and simple.

So the current car has the classic Civic charisma and the Si badge adds the needed dose of heat—but what about quality?

On the road, the chassis retains its charm with a supple and comfortable ride, in Sport or regular modes, aided by well-bolstered, comfortable sport seats. Honda has a nice trick of making wide, open swaths of textured black plastic feel somehow better than cheap, though plastic-y trim bits aping the look of carbon fiber had the opposite effect. (Note to automakers: carbon fiber is almost always an ugly choice for interior trim, even when it's real, even in the highest-end sports cars; when it's fake it's just vulgar.) The center-stack infotainment screen is large enough and bright enough—nothing to write home about—though adding numb touchscreen control for things like volume and menu is so silly and hard to use with precision that it borders on dangerous: if you have to look at the infotainment screen to change the volume or the radio station, the design fails. Use the redundant, steering wheel-mounted controls instead. Navigation is not an option, but Apple Car Play and Android Auto come standard, so adjust your data plan accordingly.

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The driver's cockpit of the 2017 Honda Civic Si.

There was a noticeable amount of noise from the front passenger seat window in a coupe model during the road-test portion of the drive, but that disappeared when we jumped into a different car. The backseat in both coupe and sedan are more than passable for a vehicle of this size, especially given the rear-sloping roofline, but so expansively and overwhelmingly dark that the red seatbelt pushers looked like a design cue meant to match the thin red contrast stitching. Speaking of design, now is time to talk about the quirkiness ingredient, because the exterior styling is nothing if not unusual. The Civic Si's profile is undeniably handsome, and has turned my head on the street more than once. But as soon as you slightly change your vantage point, things start getting weird: like a Julian Beever chalk drawing, it only works from a single perspective. The creased, folded, sometimes exploded, overall hinky design fails not from too little effort but too much; it's like they gave eight different designers complete control over their own specific angle of approach. Also, the giant, trapezoidal expanses of textured black plastic below the head- and tail lights are almost cynical in their purposelessness. The wheels and wide center exhaust are nice, though.

With the Type R, the boy-racers have somewhere else to aim. If you want everything the best versions of the Civic are known for—quality, charisma, and quirky innovation—but crave the extra kick that comes with a proper Si badge, the 2017 Civic Si is the same affordable performance-oriented small car flavor you remember from the good old days, for under $25K. It doesn't look pretty, but it's a tasty recipe nonetheless.

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The 2017 Honda Civic Si.