It's a recipe that's pretty much impossible to screw up: take one small car, insert one large engine. Add gasoline. Mix well.
Pretty straightforward stuff, but it's produced everything from Carroll Shelby's Cobra to the '32 Ford Deuce Coupe of the iconic Beach Boys song. And, in the 1990s, it was quite the thing to do with the humble Honda Civic.
You had to speak the lingo in those days, you had to know your B16s from your B18s from your H22s, and you had to be able to rattle off the chassis codes with confidence.
Fast Hondas flocked like swarms of hornets, laughed at by the guys in big-power Mustangs - right up until the lightweight Japanese pocket-rockets put the hurt on them.
There wasn't any magic to it, it was simply that a focus on efficiency had made Honda's prosaic people-mover into a light but sturdy shell that a revvy four-cylinder powerplant could transform into an autocross legend. But, with age and greater focus on safety and smoothness, the Civic got a bit middle-aged. They still sipped the gas, but the compact, nimble feeling wasn't really there.
In Frankfurt last month, I heard the head of Honda's European division get up and quote Soichiro Honda at the crowd, speaking of a return to Honda's racing roots. The company's moving back into Formula One. They're competing in the World Touring Car Championship.
They're also bringing back the legendary Civic Type R, though for Europe only. So what does this new apparent focus on handling and performance mean for the hottest factory Civic you can buy here?
It's somewhat fitting that the Honda Odyssey now comes with an on-board
vacuum cleaner, as their best-selling car looks a bit like a DustBuster in twodoor mode. It's all angular wedginess, standing out in a sea of more bulbous compact cars.
I like it a lot. If you took the wheels off and added a rocket pod or two, this machine wouldn't look out of place parked next to the Cantina on Mos Eisley. Being a Si model, this futuristic-looking machine rocks aerokit add-ons and a well-integrated rear spoiler.
HFP stands for Honda Factory Performance, and if you forget that, there's a badge to remind you on the rear trunk lid, and each of the multi-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels. You can only buy this special version in white or black, and just 200 of each colour will be sold in Canada this year.
The HFP Civic has a sport suspension that sits a little lower than the normal car, and with the larger wheels has a sleeker look. Even older folks seemed to like it, as I came back to find an elderly couple taking a closer look as it sat at the curb. "Oh!" they said in surprise, "It's a Civic!" Presumably they were wondering whether the USS Enterprise had deployed one of its shuttles.
Along with the visual add-ons, this HFP edition also has some underbody spoilers designed to reduce airflow turbulence, and comes with a set of four sticky Michelin Pilot Super Sport summer tires. More on how these functional modifications affect the car in a moment.
I did manage to fit a rearfacing child seat into the back of the HFP coupe, but only just barely. However, if you're looking at this machine as a safer but stillswift option to replace your tuned-up older Civic, then know that it can haul two adults plus kids with, well, not exactly ease - with competence.
It also took a running stroller into the entirely reasonable trunk space without too much difficulty, although with barely enough space left over for a Fruit Roll-Up. Like a regular Civic, this car still comes with split-folding rear seats.
Up front the HFP cars get red floor mats, but before you roll your eyes, this minor change actually looks pretty good, and not at all boy-racerish. In fact, next to hooligan-type machines like the Mazdaspeed3, the Civic's red and black patterned interior is borderline restrained. The seats aren't quite as laterally supportive as you might wish, and the seating position is a bit too high, but both these compromises result in better comfort and forward visibility.
Grip. Grip grip grip. There's some grip, and then there's a little more grip, and just when you think you're going to run out of grip - you guessed it - even more grip.
Priced right around the same level as the rear-drive Subaru BRZ, currently the darling of the automotive press in terms of inexpensive sports cars, the Civic Si doesn't have either the low-slung feel or tendency to tail-happiness of its lightweight rival. Adding the HFP package, however, means that it out-grips the rear-drive machine six ways from Sunday.
This is particularly noticing in the wet - gee, do you think that'd be an important consideration for the West Coast? - where the Civic's sticky rubber and mechanical helical limited slip differential help it get off the line without the embarrassing one-tire fire that front-drive sportsters are so often prone to.
Manual-transmissiononly, the HFP has one of the best shifters out there, though the feel of the clutch and steering might be too light for some tastes. Still, fling it down through a couple of corners, and find that it's an incredibly easy car to drive quickly.
The 2.4-litre fourcylinder makes 201 horsepower right at its 7,000 r.p.m. redline, with a solid 170 foot-pounds of torque coming in down low at 4,400 r.p.m. Unlike previous hot Hondas, that means you don't need to wind out a screaming fourbanger into the stratosphere, and a lazy driver in traffic can take things pretty easy as the big engine is happy to loaf along in third gear.
Dicing with traffic, the Si responded well to being short-shifted, and didn't call much attention to itself while still being decently quick. The power can't match its forced-induction rivals, of course, but there's a pure, mechanical feel to the way it's delivered, and with a proper limited slip rather than the electronic nannies of the Focus ST or the boost-limiter Mazdaspeed3, the Honda somehow felt livelier.
Revving it up, therefore, turns out to be quite the treat. A somewhat cheesy gauge off to the left lights up a red LED indicator when Honda's VTEC variable valve timing kicks over into power mode, and then counts forward to four yellow lights until you bounce right off the rev limiter.
Extracting that full 201 h.p. takes a bit of work - as the Civic's free-revving powerplant doesn't run out of steam in the higher rev ranges, there's the feeling that it should rev even higher. And, in fact, perhaps a little sadness that it doesn't - some of the engine's character has been sacrificed here to give it that day-to-day torque that's so handy.
Taken all together, the HFP Si rewards all the standard front-wheel drive tricks from left-foot braking through to extracareful throttle application on corner exit and a bit of trail-braking going into the curve. It's quite good fun, though perhaps a little less body roll could be wished for.
However, in the rain, the very slight factory softness allows the car to settle and simply carve through, while the combination of the helical limited slip and the smooth progression of the power lets the Civic really carve up the turns. You could really annoy the driver of some expensive, overpowered machinery in this thing - just the sort of stuff a hot Honda is supposed to be good at.
As a top of the range car, the Si comes packed with satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity, GPS-based navigation and a decent premium stereo. Everything's easy-to-use, if not perhaps directly comparable to nextgeneration systems coming out in models like the Mazda3, but there's a high level of on-board equipment here to enjoy.
If you're worried that the steeply sloped rear glass is going to cause visibility problems, then note that Honda's excellent multiview rear camera is standard on all Si models.
Heated seats are standard, as are a power moonroof and aluminium pedals. The multifunction display screen shows everything from fuel economy figures to an instant-read gauge of how much power the engine is producing.
Premium fuel is required, but the Civic Si doesn't gulp it. Even with the spirited driving that it encourages, the official figures of 10.0 litres/100 kilometres city and 6.4 l/100 km highway
are not far off. Compared to how thirsty turbocharged cars can be when in-boost, it's quite acceptable.
Grippy handling; frontwheel drive year-round practicality; high level of standard equipment.
Small rear seats; too-light steering; seating position a bit high.
The checkered flag
Just the extra grip the standard Civic Si could use. A proper mechanical driver's car.
Subaru BRZ ($27,295)
A set of tires would transform this rear-drive lightweight as well, but then you might lose some of that chuckable, lightweight character that everyone seems to enjoy so much. It's sharper than the Honda, and more fun as well. The seats are better too.
However, even though the BRZ has a 2+2 configuration, it's not really practical. The Civic has coupe looks, but still has much more usable space, and with a set of snow tires becomes an entirely usable winter vehicle. The Honda's larger engine and more available torque is also considerably better at the cut-and-thrust of stop-andgo traffic.
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