New Si Stands Above New Civic Array

2012 Civic Honda Review

Red Honda Civic Si

2012 Honda Civic Si Review:

When somebody asks if you like Honda Civics, just say “Si.”

For reasons known best to Honda, the designation for the sporty model of the Civic in this alpha-numeric world is the “SI,” except that instead of using two capital letters, Honda uses a lower-case “i,” making it “Si.”

Whatever, the Civic Si commands a hearty “Si!” to anyone who experiences it. The Si is both fun to drive and surprisingly economical when it’s driven aggressively. Which is easy to do. It can even overcome any lingering disappointment the regular 2012 Civic may have caused by making only very subtle styling tweaks, with none of the high-tech advances in engines or transmissions to keep up with the competition.

Silver Honda Civic Si, Rear corner

The Si is both fun to drive and surprisingly economical when it’s driven aggressively.

Since the 2006 Civic made a radical styling change, the new car didn’t really need major reshaping. The powertrain, however, is an aging story in the non-Si Civics. Honda’s legendary VTEC variable valve-timing system put the Civic a notch up on everybody since introduced in 1991, leaving the competition striving to make up the deficit ever since.

For the 2012 model year, the Civic’s competition has intensified. New Ford Focus and Fiesta, and Chevrolet Cruze, plus the revised and repositioned Volkswagen Jetta, a new Nissan Versa, and a much-improved and entirely redone Hyundai Elantra lead the charge. Not only have some or all of them caught up in technology, some have gone beyond, with features such as direct injection, and coordinating new 6-speed transmissions to better-dispense the power.

In the face of all that, the 2012 Civic stayed with the same, but aging, 1.8-liter engine, with 16 valves and a smooth but unexciting single overhead-camshaft design, and the same smooth but limited 5-speed stick or 5-speed automatic. That combination delivers 140 horsepower and 128 foot-pounds of torque.

The previous Si model was an impressive departure, coming in coupe and sedan, with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with dual-overhead cams and a tachometer redline of 7,800 RPMs. It was the ideal small but overachieving engine. Some complained that you had to run the revs up to get at most of the power; my impression was that you could run the revs up, because they soared to such race-car-like levels. Honda was ahead of what other companies are only now trying to implement, and yet Honda has abandoned it.

The new Si uses the 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, which serves in single-cam utility in the Accord, and turns potent in upscale Acura’s TSX. In fact, the TSX used to have a 2-door coupe brother, called the RSX, and it was a fun-to-drive little screamer. But when the 2006 Si came out with the same engine, plus traction control, for significantly less money, the company wisely closed down production of the RSX.

The 2012 Civic Si uses the TSX version of the 2.4, which turns out 201 horsepower at 7,000 RPMs, and 170 foot-pounds of torque at 4,300 RPMs. For everyday drivers, Honda proclaims the “new” engine has “more power,” when in reality it has only four more horsepower than its smaller and higher-revving predecessor. Ah, but the best news is that the larger engine has 170 foot-pounds of torque are an increase of 31, or 22 percent.

When accelerating or taking off hard, it is torque that propels you, not horsepower. The horsepower number, impressive as it may seem, measures the engine’s power when you’re off and running, but at low-end, torque rules. That’s why diesel engines, even small-displacement diesels with meager horsepower figures, can pull so much and accelerate so hard — their torque figures are very high.

The Si also has its own suspension and a revised transmission, which means that while the normal Civics must make do with 5-speeds in both stick and automatic, the Si has a smooth-shifting 6-speed manual — the only gearbox available. So if you’re shiftless, forget it.

Honda deserves both praise and criticism for the Si transmission. For some reason, Honda, which has a rich road-racing history, insists on installing drag-racing-close gear ratios, so while the engine might have wonderful flexibility, you run out of revs so quickly you find yourself upshifting again, over and over. A wider-ratio gearbox would allow drivers to fully enjoy the engine’s flexibility while shifting less, and it also would spread out to allow you to cruise at freeway speeds of 70 or so while turning so few RPMs that your fuel economy would be surprisingly high.

2012 Honda Civic Si

The Si is, however, a fantastic performer when driven hard.

The Si is, however, a fantastic performer when driven hard. I had the chance to drive two different Si models of the 2012 Civic for a week each. One had the navigation system and was fully optioned while the other was more basic. Both of them were modestly priced rockets — the Si Navi carried a sticker of $24,675.

Both of them make the ultimate use of the Civic’s unique instrumentation. Also a target of criticism, it is flawless in actual efficiency. As you look through the steering wheel, you see a large tachometer. When you look above the steering wheel, as you would when you look at the highway ahead, a thin horizontal panel houses a large digital speedometer readout. Yes, you can easily find your fuel gauge and any other needed items, but in real performance-oriented driving, the tach measuring engine revolutions is all-important, and the speed is naturally very important, and while some digital gauges make me nervous, the Civic’s is readily useful and useable.

Fuel economy required close scrutiny, because there are a lot of competitors that will get well over 30 and even top 40 while still being fun to drive, and I was skeptical about the Si’s capability from that standpoint. I had recently driven a Honda Fit, smaller and less powerful, with a 1.5-liter engine and a 5-speed stick. It turned 3,800 RPMs when cruising at 70 or 75, and we only got a high of 30.1 miles per gallon — not enough, anymore, for a true economy car.

I was modestly impressed when I kept the lid on the Si during a bit of city driving and a 165-mile freeway trip. While it felt like it was anxious to run stronger, my conservative discipline allowed both Si models to top 30. At 31.1, I figured the best freeway Si run was very good, compared to the smaller and more docile Fit.

But then we drove across a stretch of highway in Northern Minnesota that is among my favorite roadways. It is curving, with small undulations in elevation, and because it has been recently repaved, it offers a sustained stretch of enjoyable driving. Naturally, we don’t advocate going over the speed limit, but I always envision how much fun it would be to challenge that 65 mile stretch of lightly-traveled road at top speed.

With the road beckoning, and my moderate-driving research stowed away, I drove that highway on a day when we didn’t see any traffic, so, for scientific purposes only, I let the Si run swiftly and strong. It was a worthy experiment, not only because the Si’s engine, suspension and transmission sang in perfect harmony as I swept around a few familiar curves at 65 or 70, when the signs suggested half that would be prudent.

The breathtaking performance made me realize how difficult it is to find a car under $25,000 that can provide so much fun. Where were those cynics who can’t believe that front-wheel-drive cars can approach the true performance feel of traditional front-engine/rear-drive? I wish they had been in the back seat on our hot, but not overdone, woodland drive.

The most astounding part of the whole thing was that I had refilled the fuel tank before that drive, and while I was anticipating much less than the 31.1 mpg because of my aggressive driving, I checked the computer again. It showed that on that drive of nearly 100 miles, pushing the revs and the shift points and hurling the Si around the curves, we recorded 37.7 miles per gallon.

Driver view instHonda Civic Si driver view

Note, on the instrument panel shot, the "33.9" mpg listing. (Click to enlarge.)

That is unbelievable, but it shows that those brilliant Honda engineers who used to be the dominant force in the company’s progressive upward climb through the 1990s and the first decade of 2000, are still around. They’re just sequestered into some back room where they’re given the Si to engineer and tune to a sweet spot that works better at higher RPMs than at mundane econocar limits.

The Volkswagen GTI and the MazdaSpeed3 are two of the world’s hottest and most fun compacts, and the GTI can get surprisingly good fuel economy, while the Mazda compromises on the side of fun. The popularity of those two cars might have made some consumers forget about the Si, but if so, it’s unfortunate.

The Si can run with the best hot cars of whatever size and potency, and it is available in both the slick-looking 2-door coupe or a more subtle 4-door sedan with the same powerplant.

Naturally, the Si benefits from all the other upgrades of the new generation Civics, and the little touches such as foglights, emblems, wheels, chrome exhaust tip, and a rear bumper with an underside air diffuser are hardly items that scream that something special is coming. It is the engine-transmission-suspension hat trick that sets the Si apart, and it makes the car a blast to drive. So good, in fact, that anyone who is disappointed that some Honda models may be slipping from previous superiority, can be assured that there still remains one model that is at the top of the list. If you want it, just say “Si.”

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