Friday, February 17, 2012

Review: 2012 Honda Civic Si Coupe: It's what's inside (the engine bay) that counts

2012 Honda Civic Si coupe - Subcompact Culture
The Civic Si coupe has a great engine and admirable handling, but its looks don't do it for me. Photo by Curtis Reesor.
The Honda Civic Si has a reputation that precedes it. The car has become synonymous with words like quick, agile, high-revving, and sporty. However, the Civic has always been, well, a Civic. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But it’s never been a drop-dead looker (at least not from the factory). And every time a new Si model comes out (the model was introduced in 1986), people bitch about it losing its roots. It’s almost as if that’s what you’re supposed to do when it comes out. It’s too big. It’s too heavy. It doesn’t rev like the old ones. It’s too pricey. But year after year, Honda continues to offer this tarted-up version of the Civic, and the most recent version still has that original Si driving spirit. It’s got a great engine, it handles fantastically, it’s a hoot to drive, but it’s not the best looking girl at the dance.

Let’s hop right to the good stuff: Honda has taken its 2.4-liter i-VTEC engine (via CR-V, Accord), bumped up the power, and shoehorned it into the Civic. It’s the oldest trick in the hot-rodding book, and it almost always works. The engine is typical Honda smoothness, and makes 201 horsepower and 170 ft./lbs. of torque. While Si models of the past had small, low-torque engines that revved to the stratosphere, the larger displacement engine in the ’12 makes useful power throughout the engine’s range—no need to rev the piss out of it to make power. And although it might not rev to 9,000 RPM, it still cooks well past 7,000 and it sounds amazing. Purists be damned: This larger engine is a gem. Don’t worry, you can still hear the VTEC crack open, which is a wonderful thing. In case you were wondering, fuel economy is EPA rated at 22 city, 31 highway on premium fuel.

2012 Honda Civic Si Coupe - Subcompact Culture
A limited-slip differential, great handling, and a precise transmission make the Si fun to drive. Photo by Curtis Reesor.
Coupled to this 2.4-liter four-pot is Honda’s exacting six-speed manual transmission. Without exaggeration, it is one of the best shifting transmissions I’ve ever felt. The precise short throws let you flick the car up and down the gear spectrum, and clutch engagement is where you’d expect it. Gearing is well thought out, too; power is on tap just about everywhere you’d want it. Helping to keep power in check is a limited slip differential which, naturally, helps the compact coupe in the corners.

Speaking of, the Si is a blast to drive enthusiastically through the twisties. Cornering is flat and steering is spot-on and very well weighted. The ride never feels too harsh, either. It cruises equally well on the freeway, too. The 17” wheels and 215/45/17 all-season tires offer up good grip, while the four-wheel disc brakes with ABS stop the car promptly. There are points, however, that you’re reminded that you’re not driving the Si of yore. This Civic feels big because it is big. At 176” long, it’s only 8” shorter than the last generation Accord coupe. Which is ironic because I think it somewhat resembles an Accord coupe. Its shape looks long thanks to large front and rear overhangs—something that’s not often associated with a sporty look. The car’s front and rear are tapered; the overall look just doesn’t do it for me, racy red paint and all. In fact, both Mercedes and I thought it almost resembled a fish for some reason. The proportions seem awkward. From a front 3/4 angle, the rear looks too heavy. There’s an unsightly amount of fender gap in the wheel arches, accentuated by the 17” wheels and tires. The Si could be at the front of the line for cars that should be lowered. No matter how much I wanted to love—even like—the car’s looks, I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy its styling. It’s just not for me. Then again, the Civic has never been known as a sexy car, no matter which trim level. The Civic coupe is one of only two compact front-drive coupes available these days (the other is the Kia Forte). Nearly all other manufacturers have moved to the sedan or hatchback bodystyles.

2012 Honda Civic Si interior - Subcompact Culture
Overall interior design is good, but some materials, such as the dashboard and door panels, feel lacking.
The interior is a mixed bag for me. I like the overall design. Not overly futuristic, but not too bland. Not a huge fan of the digital speedometer, either. The seats are great, and provide ample bolstering and support while retaining comfort. There is ample room front and rear, and the trunk is sizable. The leather-wrapped steering wheel feels good in your hands, and the shift knob is exactly where it should be. However, being that the shift knob is mostly metal, it’s also the world’s coldest shift knob (and likely a hot one in the summer). Other interior notes include aluminum pedals and a power moonroof.

The controls are easy to use, from the climate control to the multi-function trip computer. This computer will display all kinds of things from outside temperature, to fuel economy, to a power gauge for the engine. At the upper left of the instrument cluster, there’s a series of LEDs that light up as you rev engine. There’s even an LED to show when VTEC has kick in … yo.

The Civic Si had a very good seven-speaker, 360 watt sound system that handled all of my bass-heavy music with ease. This Si had the optional navigation unit, which is 100% touch screen based. Its graphics looks a bit Atari-like and it’s not the most intuitive, but it worked well once I figured it out. Ditto that with the Bluetooth connectivity.

Unfortunately, like other ’12 Civic models, some of the interior materials feel lacking. The door panels, for instance, feel thin and can be flexed with the push of your hand. The dashboard’s plastic feels hard and hollow. It all looks good, but it’s not as nice as Hondas in the past.

This Civic Si stickers at $24,475 including $770 in destination. There were a couple of things I thought the Si would get at this price: HID headlights and a proximity key (the ability to not use a key to get in the vehicle, just have it in your pocket), for example. While neither is crucial, many of the Si’s competitors offer these features at similar prices.

2012 Honda Civic Si Coupe - Subcompact Culture
The rear has a tapered look and a lot of overhang, something I don't find sporty. Photo by Curtis Reesor.
The latest Si continues the legacy of a bland-looking car that is anything but bland to drive. The car feels fast, drives sporty, and sounds wonderful. If you’re shopping for a car with an engaging driving experience and don’t break the bank, the Civic Si coupe should be on your short list. That is assuming you can live with the looks and can look past some of the interior details. The engine and transmission alone make this car, and its mechanical attributes are what will make the sale at the end of the day.


Duke said...

Is that cruise control settings on the bottom left of the steering wheel? Looks like it would be a tight fit and I don't even have meaty paws. And I can vouch for the metal shift knob problems. My Yaris came with one and I ended up replacing it with a leather knob from a Tacoma because I got tired of carrying around a towel in the summer to drape over it when I parked.

I may be one of those "purists" but I can't help but think that I'd rather have a 5th gen DX hatchback in mint condition over this fatboy any day of the week. At this point, why even call it a Civic anymore? Other than being FWD and having an H on the wheel, there's absolutely nothing in common with what made the Civic a legend to begin with. If only the Fit didn't look like a miniature 90's Odyssey...

Kevin T. said...

It looks a bit too much like the Saturn ION coupe!

Chris said...

Great review. I agree on the looks - not a fan of the new coupe. I think I'd go with the sedan if I were in the market.

nlpnt said...

Yeah, the red coupe's styling just isn't worth passing up the sleeper potential of a sedan in a neutral color.

It's a shame Honda didn't go 5-door this time around, or maybe put this engine in a Fit.