Car Review: Honda's Hot New Civic

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The Civic Si

Not many cars have dual personalities: you're either a family sedan, a racy roadster, a minivan that no degree of swishy styling will sex up. Of course, carmakers try their best to convince consumers otherwise, producing performance editions, limited editions, two- and four-door flavors of the same model. It's done for the same reason we have Cherry Coke and a gazillion spinoffs of Law & Order — everyone wants to maximize their "brand value." And this is especially true if you're in a capital intensive business like auto manufacturing, and your products stay on the market for years before they're refreshed.

So one wonders: how many sales Honda will be able to squeeze out of the 2006 Civic Si, a sporty version of the basic model, featuring a 197-hp engine, 6-speed manual transmission, rear spoiler and other attributes dear to Gen-Y tire screechers? The basic Civic, after all, is one of the few cars that appeals to two distinct types of drivers: parents and teenage boys. In its basic form, it's a mom-mobile riding an unsinkable reputation for reliability and good fuel economy. But for more than two decades it's also been a hot youth car, often seen prowling urban drag strips, tricked out with oversized wheels, spoiler, turbocharger—one of the original pocket rockets. For the 2006 model year Honda redesigned the Civic and it's already off to a heady start, winning Motor Trend's Car of the Year award. It's also moving upmarket and will no longer be Honda's entry-level car, a slot to be occupied by the forthcoming Fit.

The high performance Si has come a long way since the 80s, when the first generation arrived with a 91 h.p. engine, as dated now as Boy George singing Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? The new one is larger and more powerful than its predecessors, features a reinforced body structure and comes equipped with an i-VTEC engine that, with a 197-hp engine, provides a 37 h.p. boost over the 2005 model. It shares the coupe body style with the basic Civic, a vast improvement over the unloved hatchback it replaces. Indeed, everything about the new Si appears more aggressive, from the wider body stance to the lower suspension, angular headlights and larger exhaust. Honda didn't skimp on the performance technology either, including a limited-slip differential, double-wishbone rear suspension, front and rear disc brakes and electronic brake distribution—all standard equipment. Reviewers for clocked 0-60 MPH in 7.2 seconds, quite respectable for a car with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine.

During three days of testing, driving to Maryland from New York City and back, I found the car delightful. The cockpit felt roomy, featuring a sprawling dashboard and plenty of leg room (though adults in the rear felt squashed). The racing-inspired seats never gave us back problems. We appreciated touches like a leather-wrapped shift-knob and audio controls on the steering wheel. The car's navigation system was a breeze to operate and the seven-speaker 350-watt audio system, equipped with XM satellite radio, had us rocking as we zipped out of tollbooths. Driving down windy country lanes the car cornered beautifully and handled more precisely than you'd expect from a front-wheel drive setup. Of course, to be an Si fan means loving short-throw manual gear shifts and the squeal of a high-pitched engine in the cabin. It also entails trading a smooth ride for the rattling experience that comes with a sport-tuned suspension.

The only real issue for buyers is why they'd want an Si when they can get an Acura RSX for roughly the same price or less. Load the Si with options and you're looking at $22,300, $2,000 more than an RSX and just $1,000 less than the more powerful RSX Type-S. As Honda's luxury brand, Acura might want to think about distancing itself from the rapidly approaching Civic. For the generation growing up on Gran Turismo, though, a tricked-out Si will probably still be a great ride.