First drive: 2017 Honda Civic Si Sedan & Coupe [Review]

Honda\'s sporty subcompact returns.

If you're a car enthusiast, your reaction to the announcement of a new Civic is probably something along the lines of, "That's nice; now, what about the Si?" Even those with no interest in sport compacts are aware of the nameplate. After all, "Si" has been part of the enthusiast lexicon for decades, appearing with nearly every generation of Honda's bread-and-butter compact.

It's different this time, though. Yes, Si is back. Yes, it's available as both a coupe and a sedan again. Yes, Honda is offering it with the sort of chassis and powetrain upgrades we've come to expect from the brand. However, Si is the big dog in the Civic lineup no longer. A shadow looms--an aggressively styled, 306-horsepower, track-ready shadow--in the Honda Civic Type R.

With that monster book-ending the top of the range, is there still space for Honda's venerable performance nameplate? We spent some time at the company's revitalized proving grounds in Mojave, California, to find out.

Two sizes fit allAs in previous generations, the 2017 Civic Si is available in two flavors: coupe and sedan. Both the Civic coupe and sedan grew a bit dimensionally compared to the cars they replaced, so as you might expect, the same is true of the Si. However, thanks to modern materials and construction, both are lighter than the cars they replace, despite being longer and wider. Only the vertical dimension was reduced: The coupe is 0.3 inches shorter than before, the sedan a full inch.

What's more noteworthy is that the coupe and sedan are nearly identical in their key measurements. They share a wheelbase now (which means the coupe's wheelbase is actually quite a bit longer than its predecessor's), so while the coupe's overall length is shorter overall, it's less cramped in the rear than the old one. We were able to seat a 6'1" driver behind himself with only minimal fiddling.

In addition, while coupes frequently gain weight over their four-door counterparts to account for lost structural rigidity, the 2017 Civic Si coupe is actually 17 pounds lighter than the sedan. The base curb weight of the coupe is just 2,889 pounds; the sedan, 2,906.

Box-checkingYou'll note that we have not mentioned a hatchback at any point so far in this write-up. Unfortunately, that's because there is no Si variant of Honda's new five-door Civic. Why? Well, it's complicated. Honda's staff offered several explanations, from the cost of producing and importing from England what they expect would be a very low-volume variant, to the notion that the hot-hatch role should be left to the Type R. We're more inclined to believe the former argument than the latter. If Honda really believed the demand existed, we're confident a five-door Si would be available.

As a consolation prize, Honda offers the five-door Sport variant--a stripped-down, manual-transmission model with a slight power bump. It feels like a bit of a hollow gesture, but it's better than nothing.

If you're familiar with the Civic lineup, you'll note that this brings the total number of available engine options to five. Standard models are available with the two-liter, naturally aspirated four; the 1.5L turbocharged engine is available in three different tunes (Base, Sport and Si); and the Type R is powered by a turbocharged two-liter unit.

SiLet's start with the engine, then. The 1.5L turbo-four has been tinkered with a bit, giving it a new output of 205 horsepower and 192 lb-ft of torque; that represents a 25-horsepower increase over the Sport hatchback and 31 over the standard tune of the 1.5L. As is tradition, the Civic Si is exclusively a front-wheel-drive model, and power gets to those wheels by way of a six-speed manual transmission outfitted with a helical limited-slip differential.

Arguably, the Si's power bump is really its least-interesting differentiation. The honor of stand-out upgrade goes to the suspension, where Honda is employing two-mode adaptive dampers. The dampers are tied to the Civic Si's two drive modes ("Normal" and "Sport"), with the latter narrowing the tension and compression ranges of the adaptive system for sharper, more precise response. The Si also gets bigger brakes, a beefier electric power steering system, stiffer anti-roll bars, upgraded bushings and some shared rear suspension components with the Type R.

There are changes elsewhere too--some more subtle than others--to complete the package. The Si gets a unique, higher-flowing exhaust with a rather trick perpendicular muffler layout. Despite the T-shaped orientation of the system, Honda says it flows 23% better than the standard Civic's exhaust, and the 90-degree flow direction into the silencers allows Honda to mount the outlet in the center of the rear bumper without compromising performance or sound.

Inside, the Si also gets unique seats (well-bolstered and heated) and a short-throw shifter. Content-wise, the Si is essentially loaded. The larger touchscreen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay is standard, along with a moonroof and premium audio. Think of it as a Touring model of the base Civic in terms of features, only without the leather or built-in navigation (you'll have to rely on your smartphone for that). The only option is a set of summer performance tires with which our test models were equipped.

Looking elsewhereSo that's how the Si stacks up against the rest of the Civic lineup. What, then, of its competitors? Depending on how you look at things, you can take a narrow or broad view of the sport compact segment. If we restrict the playing field to only those models in the same size class with front-wheel drive, the obvious stand-outs are the Volkswagen GTI and the Ford Focus ST; widen the scope a bit and the Hyundai Elantra Sport and Veloster Turbo are in play. Honda is even willing to consider the Subaru WRX a competitor, despite its all-wheel-drive powertrain and significant power advantage.

Why does Honda feel good about these comparisons? For starters, the Civic Si undercuts the curb weight of its closest competitor (The GTI) by 125 pounds, with nearly 400 separating the Civic Si and the Subaru WRX. The Si also boasts some other mechanical advantages, such as a limited-slip differential (no-show on the Focus, Elantra and Veloster; requires a higher trim level on the GTI) and adaptive dampers. Of the Si's competition, only the GTI offers the latter, and you're going to be digging deep into your pockets if they're a priority.

What the Civic gives up to all of its key competitors, however, is horsepower. Yes, it has an advantage over Hyundai's offerings, but even the base GTI offers 210 horsepower (the number jumps to 220 with the Sport model, where you'll also find a mechanical limited-slip differential). The Focus ST, despite its open differential and extra weight, peaks at 252 horsepower with its overboost feature. Heavy or not, the WRX offers 268.

This all means that the 2017 Honda Civic Si has to make a case for itself by being leaner and meaner, but that's not the whole story. What the Civic really has going for it is value. It undercuts the Focus ST by more than $500; the GTI by nearly $1,700 (bear in mind, you're not getting a mechanical limited-slip differential or adaptive dampers in a $26,000 GTI).

On the roadAs we set out in the Civic Si, two things became immediately apparent: First, the Si is very much a Civic; second, the Civic may be too impressive for its own good.

The former realization was the dominant one. We give credit to Honda's adaptive dampers, which offer a smooth, pleasant ride combined with excellent response when the going gets interesting. We found ourselves toggling back and forth between the Si's two available drive modes, trying to sniff out the differences in real-world driving. The most apparent are the steering and throttle response, which shouldn't come as any surprise. We actually found the "Sport" steering just a tad too twitchy for our tastes on open roads, but switching back to "Normal" left us longing for the lost throttle response. Unfortunately, there's no customizing the Civic Si's drive modes; they're all-or-nothing. We found we could live with the more intrusive steering of "Sport" more readily than we could live without its punchiness, and ultimately left it on more often than not.

The latter realization came a bit more slowly, but no less convincingly. That the base Civic is already quiet, composed and comfortable were all points in the Si's favor, as the adaptive system allowed Honda to maintain the mainstream car's more premium levels of comfort without sacrificing the sportier edge Si buyers expect. The seats, despite their aggressive look, aren't anywhere near as confining as the Focus ST's Recaro sport seats. In fact, they reminded us quite a bit of the GTI's cloth buckets.

But there's another side to that coin. The base Civic (in turbocharged guise) seems to encroach on the Si more than it maybe should, with its 30-horsepower deficit feeling smaller in the real world than it looks on paper. A lot of that is down to the nature of modern turbocharged engines. At anything but full-tilt, there's just not much of a difference.

On the courseThe instant you turn in to the first corner of a road course, the differences that seemed so small on the street are greatly amplified. Honda had us on the handling course at its proving grounds, giving us access to a test track boasting some mean turns, downhill braking zones and nasty transitions.

Our track cars were equipped with upgraded brake pads to allow for repeated lapping in the nearly-100-degree heat of the California desert. These pads are available from Honda, so while they weren't stock, strictly-speaking, they're not difficult to source, either. With that addressed, we found the next-weakest link in the Si formula to be its tires. While the standard summer compounds offered predictable grip, ample communication (they were downright talkative in the corners, even with the windows up) and what felt like plenty of margin for error, their limits came on relatively quickly.

That's not a knock against the car, really. While they may be summer tires, the Civic's optional performance compound isn't really intended for the rigors of track use. This is a Civic, not a Z06, and the same is true of anything else you're buying in this competitive set.

We also got the chance to drive the coupe and sedan nearly back-to-back, and we were surprised to note that the sedan does actually feel a bit bigger when you're hustling. We seriously doubt it has anything to do with the inconsequential weight difference, but we'd be inclined to believe that the distribution of that weight over the sedan's increased length plays a role.

TangiblesOur complaints with the Civic Si were few. Being who we are, we would have loved to have more power at our disposal. It's hard to say what the "right" amount would be, as front-wheel drive and big power outputs tend to remain ever at odds with each other. Every manufacturer claims to have found the Goldilocks figure (Honda and Volkswagen seem to be the most stubborn in this regard), but the Mazdaspeed3 and Ford Focus ST left us spoiled.

If we could change anything else, it would be the Si's clutch feel. We found the somewhat numb pedal of the base car came over relatively unchanged here, leaving us hunting for the engagement point. That these quibbles were the stand-outs should tell you quite a bit about the 2017 Honda Civic Si.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe 2017 Honda Civic Si is a fantastic all-around car for the performance enthusiast, but occupies an ever-narrowing niche in the sport compact world. It's a compelling choice in a segment where it's difficult to make a bad one, but we wonder whether Honda's own alternatives may crowd it out.

2017 Honda Civic Si base price, $23,900; as-tested, $24,975Performance summer tires, $200; Destination, $875

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd; interior photos courtesy of Honda.

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