Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: April 27, 2019
The standard Honda Civic is a box of joy and playfulness wrapped in a thin veneer of affordability and sensibility. Not only was it one of our favourite cars of 2016, but we enjoyed its communicative steering, rigid chassis, and radical but daring good looks, so much so that we couldn’t stop recommending it to our friends and colleagues.
But that recommendation was only merited on the standard Civic and not its higher performance brethren. The topic of today is the Si, a storied badge that stands for accessible performance without breaking the bank. As the middle child in the lineup and sitting below the Type R, the Civic Si is a stark reminder that we don’t need outlandish horsepower figures to have fun on the road. With modest outputs and a modest price tag, it’s a performance-oriented and involving vehicle that is available in both a two-door coupe and four-door sedan. But it’s sorely lacking the special sauce that we have come to expect in this heated $30,000 segment, especially when fierce competitors like the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Subaru WRX are begging to steal your money.
The Civic Si uses the same engine as the Civic EX-T and Touring trims, a 1.5-litre turbocharged inline-four, but the Si beefs it up with bigger turbos and better exhaust flow, leading to a power bump of 31 hp and 25 lb-ft. Total output is now 205 hp and 192 lb-ft. That power is routed through a short-throw six-speed manual (the only transmission choice available) to the front two wheels. The Civic Si also weighs less and is more rigid than the outgoing model. It’s fitted with a sports suspension, variable electric-powered steering rack, two-mode adaptive damper system, helical limited-slip differential, larger front brakes, and wider 18-inch tires. All that for $29,000? Adaptive dampers for heaven’s sakes - that’s a bargain in and of itself already.
But the big game changer here is that turbocharger. Not only does it add more power but said power comes much sooner in the powerband. Where you had to rev the outgoing Si until its lungs exploded to get any ounce of power, the new Si has much more grunt on the left side of the tachometer. The four-pot engine wakes up once you hit 2,500 rpm, and doesn’t let go until its steamy redline. Sure they could have added more power, perhaps a detuned 2.0L from the Type R, but that might have upset the inherent balance of the chassis that Honda desperately wanted to keep.
Disappointingly and this is where I feel the Si begins to fall apart, the 1.5L engine doesn’t rev as quickly or as dramatically as before. The relationship between the gas pedal and forward acceleration feels somewhat delayed and disconnected. With the outgoing Si, the revs would quickly rise and I could rev-match and shift in a smooth and quick transition. Now instead of jabbing the pedal, I have to hold it for an extra second before the revs rise up to the desired RPM. The turbo lag is frustrating when driving aggressively and it’s not something I’m willing to get accustomed to, especially when the 2.0-litre turbo-four from the GTI is completely lag-free and instantly responsive. I would have gladly taken a slightly larger displacement, naturally aspirated motor instead of a turbocharger here, and given up usable torque for a more linear and engaging powerband. Sure, the beefier low-end is more useful in most driving scenarios but nobody is buying an Si to go slow and ebb its life away in traffic. These engines were meant to be rung out and driven hard at their limit. That’s what I thought the Si badge meant anyways.
On the bright side, the short-throw shifter is a sweet companion. It’s well-defined gates, polished aluminum knob, and forgiving clutch make it a beginner-friendly vehicle, much more so than the GTI or WRX. The clutch bite point is easy to find but the Si can prove initially difficult to drive smoothly until you get used to letting the revs hang a little before shifting. And with the gas pedal spaced rather far forward from the brake pedal, heel-and-toe shifting isn’t ideal. There is no automatic rev-matching here either.
Alas, the largest downside of adding a turbocharger is the exhaust noise, or the lack of it. The Civic Si sounds more like a muffled lawnmower than a performance machine. Even on ignition, the Si lets out but a faint whisper. The same goes for the Civic Type R. Failing to stir any sort of emotional appeal, the exhaust is discouraging to say the least, especially once you’ve heard the noises (real or not) coming from the rivaling GTI or Veloster N. Even the Subaru WRX sounds pleasing in comparison and that’s not exactly a motor I’d call auditory bliss either. You can check out our Exhaust Notes video to hear the Si for yourself.
The Civic Si may sound like a flop at this point but that really depends on where you put your values. If you heavily favour drama and auditory excitement, I’d look elsewhere. But if cornering performance is your mojo, then there’s still some fight left in the Si, because it loves rotating. When you first take the Si around a bend, it champions understeer and running wide but that all changes when you hit the “Sport” button on the center console. The dampers stiffen up significantly, the throttle responds much quicker to input, and there is a bit of weight added to the steering. It may not sound like much but these recalibrations transform the Si from a blunt instrument into a scalpel.
The Si now changes direction in a smooth but crisp manner, bites hard into corners thanks to the limited slip differential, and stays flat and buttoned down all throughout. The steering is phenomenally light at low speeds and weights up naturally and firmly as you add rotation. There’s quite a bit of feedback coming up through the wheel too. The wheels will still chirp and the steering will mumble and whirl around when you’re adding power and turning, but the overall experience is more thrilling than before. The suspension may be stiffer and potholes may be more apparent, but it was never taxing enough for me to spend another second in Normal Mode.
The design of the Si Coupe grants a love-it-or-hate-it appeal. While already progressive in the standard Civic Coupe, the Si is given even more aggression in the form of a revised front bumper, mail-slot exhaust tip, and a hefty rear spoiler to complement the full-width light bar. The design is reserved when compared to the Gundam-level Type R and I wouldn’t call either of them handsome, but the Civic Si is definitely attractive enough for its main boy-racer audience to find visually enticing.
The interior is quite the opposite. Bland and uninspiring, Honda didn’t do much to spruce up the cabin other than adding sportier front seats, red stitching, aluminum sport pedals, red lighting around the gauges, a leather shift boot, and an aluminum shift knob. The scratchy fabric they use to cover the armrest and door lining was rough enough to earn some complaints from our passengers. You’re also not fooling anyone with those fake carbon fibre panels on the dashboard.
On the bright side, the layout of controls and storage cubbies are ergonomic and accessible. Furthermore, Honda has listened to feedback and have ridden the interior of those awful haptic-touch buttons and installed actual hard buttons and volume dials on the center display. Still, it’s a step-down from the Golf GTI and its top-shelf materials and clever infotainment system. Headroom in the Si is lacking, mostly due to the lack of height adjustment on the front seats. I stand six-feet tall and there’s barely any wiggle room for my head, especially with that sunroof taking up much of the real estate.
With only a manual transmission available, Honda wasn’t able to implement their full suite of driver assistance and safety features. There is no blind spot monitoring or lane departure warnings for the Si, only a rear view camera and LaneWatch, the latter of which utilizes a camera under the passenger’s side mirror that lets you view your right-side blind spot when changing lanes. Of note, you can actually click the LaneWatch button on the signal stalk to keep the display on for an indefinite period of time.
Depending on where you hold your values and priorities, the new Honda Civic Si can be a hit or a miss. With a buttoned down chassis and newfound turbocharged power, the Si isn’t short on visual or driver engagement but it ultimately lacks the drama and excitement that made me fall in love with the rivaling Volkswagen Golf GTI. The Si doesn’t stir the pot with its muffled exhaust and distant engine and though powerful, it doesn’t feel eager to wake up from its slumber. It’s a bargain for under $30,000 but if I had to put my money where my mouth is, I’d be going home with the Golf GTI. It may be a tad more expensive but it offers just as much practicality as the Civic Si and with better interior materials, overall refinement, and enough emotional appeal to keep me coming back for more.
Model: 2019 Honda Civic Si Coupe
Paint Type: Aegean Blue Metallic
Base Price: $29,090
Price as Tested: $29,090
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,505 / 1,878 / 1,390
Curb weight (kg): 1,330
Engine: 1.5-litre turbocharged inline-four
Horsepower: 205 hp @ 5,700 rpm
Torque: 192 lb-ft @ 2,100 - 5,000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, FWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 8.4 / 6.2 / 7.4