Crucial Cars: Honda Civic Si

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without. In this installment, we put the spotlight on the darling of the import tuner set – the Honda Civic Si.

2012 Civic Si

2012 Civic Si

Something of the poster child for the import tuner movement, the Honda Civic Si has long been prized for its performance, reliability, tenability, and style. Even bone stock, this sprightly Civic usually satisfied those looking for kicks behind the wheel. Eager acceleration, athletic handling, supportive seats, and subtle styling tweaks round out this pocket-rocket's impressive credentials.

The feisty first edition

1986 civic si

1986 civic si

One could argue that Honda's first sporty Civic was the Civic S of 1983, but we're putting the spotlight on the sportier and more significant "Si" variants, the first of which debuted for 1986. Boasting fuel injection (hence the "i") and other engine tweaks, the debut Civic Si had a noticeable bump in power output compared to other Civic hatches – its 1.5-liter, four packing, 91 horsepower versus the 58 to 76 horses found in its siblings.

Ninety-one horses may not sound like much, but in a car that weighed only about 2,000 pounds and running through a five-speed manual transmission (no automatic available), it was enough to send the Si to 60 mph in about 9 seconds flat. Twisty roads provided the most fun, as the light and nimble Civic Si also had firmer suspension calibrations, upgraded tires, and front sport seats, the latter with pronounced side bolsters for added lateral support when attacking the curves.

So-so successor

2006 Honda Civic Si

For 2001, a new Civic lineup arrived, sans Si. The following year, 2002, brought back the Si. Now based on the European Civic hatchback, this Civic Si's breadbox styling, softened suspension calibrations, and tamer power delivery all conspired to make it a disappointment to those fans of the harder-edged Si Civics that came before. Indeed, this automotive writer recalls driving a 2002 Civic Si at the racetrack and wondering if someone had sprayed Armor-All on the tires' tread, as their lack of grip and propensity to slide made for a somewhat entertaining but frustrating time around the track.

Although the engine was upgraded slightly (same horsepower but more torque), this Civic Si tipped the scales at a comparatively chubby 2,800 pounds, so performance was about the same as before. And while the power delivery was more linear than before, it just wasn't as exciting as it lacked the pronounced "VTEC" kick at higher rpm the older car had. A cool feature was the car's manual shifter, which sprouted out from the lower portion of the center stack, Rally car style, putting it close at hand.

Back in the game

For the Civic's 2006 redesign, the Civic Si came back strong. Although the styling was a bit odd, with its massive windshield and resulting stubby hoodline, the Si seemed to have returned from a summer at fitness camp and to its earlier, sporty self. A taut, buttoned-down suspension, sticky tires, quick steering, and a more aggressive V-TEC kick once again made the Si a hoot.

Engine displacement now stood at 2.0-liters while output rated nearly 200 horses (197 hp, to be exact). And with an added gear in the manual gearbox (now six speeds versus the previous five), this Si could sprint to 60 mph in a factory-claimed 6.7 seconds. The quick-revving engine would take on a seriously urgent demeanor once the tach's needle swung past 6,000 rpm, a potent rush that lasted right through the 8,000 rpm redline. That's some really respectable performance that offered a lot for tuners to work with, squeezing more horsepower and torque out of the little engine.

For 2007, Honda introduced a four-door version of the Si, making this little firecracker more attractive to enthusiasts needing a more accessible and usable back seat. A rare sight is the limited-production 2008 Mugen Si sedan, which featured a stiffer, track-tuned suspension, larger (18-inch) wheels, a performance exhaust, and styling tweaks that included a big rear wing.

Fourth generation: '88-'91

1991 Civic Si

1991 Civic Si

Redesigned for 1988, with smoother body lines, standard fuel injection across the line, and a double-wishbone suspension system at all four corners, the 1988 Civic took a leap forward in sophistication. In fact, some car experts and enthusiasts say that this model year is what really started the Civic Nation. Notably, that suspension design, shared with Formula One race cars, did a fantastic job of providing sharp handling along with a firm yet comfortably controlled ride.

There was no Civic Si for that year (only the CRX Si), but the Civic Si returned in 1989 with a 1.6-liter, high-output engine sending 108 horses to this Civic's front wheels. This was the sportiest US market Civic, only available as a hatchback. The engine fitted was the D16A6 16-valve SOHC with 4-point injection and output of 108 hp (81 kW). It weighed in at 2,286 lb (1,037 kg), achieving a factory 0–60 mph of 8.1 seconds; and a quarter-mile time of 16.2 at 82 mph (132 km/h).

The main standard features of the Si trim were the power sunroof/moonroof, tachometer, passenger door mirror, color matched bumpers, dash clock, larger exhaust, front and rear anti-roll bars, 14" steel wheels with covers, and slightly deeper bucket sport seats. Originally, there was no automatic option for the Civic Si, but that changed in 1990 when it was added to the lineup.

Given its impressive speed, handling, and performance, it's no surprise that the fourth gen Civic Si had no problem attracting the race world's attention, especially in near stock SCAA autocross competitions. The ED chassis dominated the Street touring category, competing against the Mazda MX-5 Miata. Fourth-generation Civic hatchbacks became famous among Honda Civic enthusiasts due to their lightweight design and formidable suspension layout.

The Civic Si didn't see anymore noticeable changes or modifications through this generation.

Si 1992-1995

Beginning in this generation, Honda started off with some changes. The Si replaced rear drum brakes with discs and a 125 hp (93 kW) 1.6 L single-overhead cam D16Z6 VTEC engine with manual transmission. Other additions included a power moonroof with tilt, plastic wheel covers on 14-inch wheels, power side mirrors, cruise control, and a 9K tachometer with a 7,200 rpm redline.

This updated Si had a 0–60 in 7.5 seconds and a quarter-mile time of 16.3 at 86 mph and offered real pocket-rocket performance that put it in a category closer to what we're used to today.

Engine specs and performance on the Si was a bit different in some international markets through this generation, but the Si remained a force to be reckoned with no matter where you had one.

Where did you go, Civic Si?

1999 Civic Si

1999 Civic Si  

When the Civic was redesigned for 1996, a key member of the team was missing; indeed the Civic Si would be absent from the lineup for three years. Finally, the Civic Si returned in 1999, this time in a handsome, crisply-chiseled coupe body style and sporting 160 horses, good enough for a low 7-second, 0-to-60 mph time—a seriously quick time for a naturally-aspirated, four-cylinder-powered, compact car. Sadly, this sharp Civic Si coupe was produced for just two years: 1999 and 2000.

Current affairs

The most recent full redesign of this icon took place for 2012, when the Civic family received more sculpted body styling and unfortunately a cheapened interior that irked consumers and car critics. That prompted a refresh the very next year that brought styling tweaks and more importantly, upgraded interior materials and added standard features for all Civics, including Bluetooth and a rearview camera.

As far as the Si, 2012 brought a larger (2.4-liter) engine with 201 horses. Although the bigger engine boasted a fatter, more useable powerband than the last Si, it wasn't as much fun, as it lacked that high-rpm kick that the previous Si had brought back. Handling was similarly muted, lacking the point-and-shoot personality held so dear in the past. On the upside, the ride was better as the suspension was more compliant over pockmarked pavement and freeway expansion joints.

Tuner talk

Even those not into the tuner scene likely know that Honda's Civic, especially the Si version, is a favorite of folks who enjoy modifying their cars. After all, who hasn't witnessed a slammed Civic with a rasping "coffee can" exhaust cruising the boulevard or blasting down the highway?

With massive support from aftermarket suppliers, one can turn their Civic into a capable track day weapon with a few weekends' worth of wrenching. Installing stiffer springs and dampers, thick anti-roll bars, and larger yet lighter wheels with high-performance rubber are popular upgrades. Then there are the quarter-mile enthusiasts, who, via forced induction (turbocharging or supercharging) and perhaps nitrous oxide injection, can turn a Civic into a 12-second drag strip terror.

Are you an Si fan? Let us know in the comments. 

Last updated June 6, 2018