2017 Honda Civic Si Review – Civic Maximus

Long before he launched a reasonably successful solo career, and long before he took time out of his busy day to personally criticize my musicianship, Victor Wooten was already recognized for his unique and astoundingly proficient technique on the electric bass guitar. Some time around 1990, an interviewer asked him how much time he devoted to learning new instruments. Just for perspective, it should be noted that this was very much the era of Prince and a few other musicians who, like Stephen Stills and Walter Becker before them, would often record anything from a demo track to an entire album by playing all the instruments themselves, using hired hands to fill in the gaps on the road.

Wooten gave the interviewer his characteristic cocked-head pause before replying. “Instead of putting time into learning other instruments,” he noted, speaking slowly as if to a child, “I take that time… and I put it into learning my instrument.” There’s a lesson here, if anybody cares to learn it. Don’t waste your time doing things badly.

In the paragraphs that follow, I will attempt to convince you that the Civic Si is eminently superior to its more celebrated Type R sibling because it adheres strictly to Victor Wooten’s advice. The Type R attempts to supersize its platform’s basic capabilities to the point where it can do battle with everything from rally-reps to ponycars, but the Si pursues the much cheaper, much less ambitious path of being simply the best Civic possible.

Its success in doing so is beyond any contradiction.

I found myself behind the wheel of an 862-mile black Si sedan courtesy of an old friend who had spent a long decade with a MkIV GTI before finally saving up the money to try something new.

“I thought about a new VW,” he confessed, “but I didn’t want to reward the company for some really crappy behavior on their part.” The color was a conscious choice, driven by the fact that he’d noticed significant paint chipping on the nose of his older brother’s white 2016 Accord Sport virtually from day one. All I could say in response is that the next car to be painted correctly in any Honda plant outside Japan will be the first one.

Also conscious: his choice of the sedan. At just a shade under six feet tall, he found the coupe to be short on headroom. Not that the four-door is much better; when seated comfortably I had about half an inch between my head and the trim surrounding the moonroof. At least there was plenty of shoulder space on both sides and a distinct sense of separation from one’s passenger. It’s odd to think of this car as a Civic, insofar as it feels bigger than any Accord built before the turn of the century.

This not-so-little car’s black-with-red-stitching interior scheme, however, is a direct tribute to the 141-inch, truly modest 1983 Civic 1500S that came in any color you wanted so long as it was either one of those two. The seats by themselves are worth the $3,000 price bump from the EX sedan, offering an admirable combination of support and space. The Type R likes to beat you over the head with how JDM (yes, I know it’s built in Swindon, calm down and kindly return to snuggling your waifu pillow) and race-inspired and hardcore it is, but this Si feels merely special and is all the better for it.

The three-spoke steering wheel is rather outrageously contoured and seems to want to enforce nine-and-three hand position, but if you keep your fingers loose and don’t wrap your thumbs it’s just fine with ten and two. Cruise control is operated from the right spoke and stereo controls are on the left. The gearshift is mounted as far forward on the center console as possible and can be flicked through its short throws with an afterthought’s worth of effort. The electronic parking brake is down and to the left, across from a “Sport” button and two slightly crooked button blanks.

On startup, the LCD center screen flickers through a brief animation before welcoming you to the car. Selecting Sport and turning off stability control will each provide a brief display in the center of the speedometer that occupies most of the screen. The engine is barely audible, even in Sport mode. Indeed, this is a suspiciously quiet car on the move, offering a level of insulation about halfway between my Accord EX-L V6 and the newest Acura TLX.

Is it fast? Not really. No way you’ll hang in a drag race against an Ecoboost Mustang or a V6 Accord. Yet in comparison to those cars it feels remarkably light on its feet and inertia-free. The sensation is of a car without much weight or much power, just enough shove for the task at hand. As you’d expect from a modern light-pressure turbocharged four, there isn’t any real sense of a powerband, just that characterless twist from one side of the relatively short tach to the other.

Shame, really, because the gearbox is on par with the very best and it deserves better. There’s an additional problem in the form of “rev hang”. On light throttle, or none at all, the engine is reluctant to let go of its spinning inertia, which spoils fast shifts both up and down. This is a hoary and unpleasant characteristic of manual-transmission cars which have been optimized for emissions testing, and it’s the sort of thing that could probably be sorted by COBB or Hondata in a jiffy at minimal additional risk to the planet’s polar bears.

My 20-mile test loop offered me just a couple of chances to try the limits of the front tires, but I can report that the Si is a fault-free and remarkably communicative example of the traditional front-drive hot hatch/sedan/whatever. There’s a limited-slip differential but there’s no real trickery evident in the way it operates. Just toss the car into the turn and stomp the throttle when the front tires calm down a bit. You’d have to be an authentic idiot to spin the Civic Si but neither is it a dead-nosed pusher the way the fourth-generation Golf was. It would be a faithful and easily mastered companion for a recreational trackday, though I suspect the brakes are going to be a little soft in traditional Honda fashion.

A couple of quick lane changes on the freeway confirmed my impressions of this not-so-little sedan as nimble but fundamentally benign. If you are a long-time Honda driver and enthusiast, you will recognize the dynamics from the Civic side of the family and not the Integra side. For an additional nine thousand dollars the company will be delighted to sell you the Type R, which has all the complexity and temperamental nature of the darkest Swiss chocolate compared to the Si’s Hershey bar.

The rest of the car is typical new-gen Civic. Most of the infotainment controls are capacitance-operated touchpads to the left of the screen, which is ridiculous. The driver temperature knob is right where you’d expect the volume knob to be, while the volume control is a slider that requires effort to find. It’s utterly ridiculous. The rear seat is flat, low, and long-bolstered, offering plenty of space that is clearly stolen from the trunk.

Only the wheels, a low-flying rear spoiler, and a few instances of fascia exuberance visually separate the Si from the EX sedan. The argument for buying the former over the latter is easily made: it’s faster, it looks nicer, it is more fun to drive, and if history is any guide it will retain most or all of its sticker price difference in the resale market well into its second decade of existence. The only reason to buy an EX, or a Sport hatch, over this Si would be if your dealer is facing a shortage of stock, a situation which will almost certainly occur as the word gets out on this car’s considerable merit.

The question then becomes: Why buy this over a Type R, which has received enthusiastic reviews both on and off the SCCA circuit? Simple, really. The Civic Type R is a brilliant and capable car but its real-world pricing puts it smack-dab against the V8 ponycars.

In the long run, you’d rather have a V8, and that goes double if you’re going to mod the car at all. Next to something like a Camaro SS 1LE the Type R might as well be a toy. This competitive positioning is an artifact of short supply and will change two or three years from now when Hendrick et al put them in the papers for $29,999. Right now, however, I don’t think it makes much sense to spend that much money on a front-wheel-drive hatchback that is stressed to the gills in track use where, by the way, it consumes fuel at twice the rate displayed by a 450-horsepower Corvette.

The Civic Si, by contrast, has virtually no effective competition at the price of $23,900 plus destination. It contains no hyper-valuable consumables and the engine will probably outlast Taylor Swift’s career. Fuel economy is, frankly, staggering — my test car averaged 38.7 mpg over its short lifetime of urban commuting and my test loop mileage was better than 36 mpg despite long periods of full-throttle operation. Expect it to wear like iron and retain value like a Krugerrand. The day you list it for sale, the resulting email flood will temporarily break the Internet.

The Type R is a Civic that is remarkably good at doing multiple things: autocross, open lapping, commuting. It’s kind of like Stephen Stills, who could do pretty much everything required for a pop album. The Civic Si, on the other hand, is almost perfect at being a Civic. It is the Victor Wooten of Civics, a stellar performer that doesn’t worry about Mustangs or Bimmers. It is recommended without hesitation.

[Images: © Jack Baruth]


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