- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

Since its introduction a quarter-century ago, Honda's Civic has set the bar ever higher for its small-car competitors. It's been a leader in pollution control, fuel economy and durability.

Over the years, the Civic has evolved from a minicar that today would be reserved for crowded Third World countries into a best-selling modern compact that is big enough, and sophisticated enough, to serve as a young family's only automobile.

As a used car, its low price and enviable reputation for quality has attracted legions of young people, who tinker with its engine and customize its coachwork to suit their own tastes. It's the favorite of teens and 20-something street rodders.

On occasion, the Civic has ventured into high-performance territory or at least as high performance as you can get with what is basically a compact economy car. When it does so, it attaches the Si designation to the hot model.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Si was embossed on various models of the Prelude, the Civic and the Civic's two-seat sibling, the CRX. Of late, the Si has been both here and gone.

However, it's back for 2002, oddly enough on the two-door hatchback version of the Civic, which Honda had dropped earlier because of lagging sales. Now the Si is the only Civic with a hatchback, and it mostly looks like the older economy model, although the front view bears some resemblance to the Honda Odyssey minivan.

That's probably a good thing. Most of the uniformed posse in the V-8 Ford Crown Victorias will not suspect that your unassuming little car can rip off a zero-to-60 acceleration time in eight seconds, more or less.

That's where the fun lies. The Civic Si is powered by a 2-liter four-cylinder engine that sends 160 horsepower to the front wheels through a five-speed manual transmission. It's the only transmission offered, so shiftless aficionados will have to learn about clutches or shop elsewhere.

The engine is similar to the standard power plant in the Acura RSX, a two-door sport hatchback from Honda's upscale division. Although not as high-revving as some of Honda's other engines, the Si pulls strongly throughout its rev range.

It benefits from the five-speed manual gearbox, which shifts with the speed and greased ease of a worn and well-oiled pump shotgun.

The shifter is a bit off-putting at first. Instead of poking up from the console in the usual manner, it juts out of the dashboard at a cockeyed angle right where you'd expect the stereo or climate controls to be but it feels so natural in operation that you wonder why somebody didn't think of such a setup sooner.

For the driver and front passenger, the Si's interior is a friendly and inviting place to spend long afternoons, especially on twisting mountain roads. The front seats, cloth-trimmed with red piping on the test car, are as supportive and comfortable as any you could find anywhere. They're as good or better than many of the aftermarket sports seats favored by racers and hot rodders.

In fact, you'd probably end up with less strain and fatigue after a day in an Si seat than you would in the perches in most high-bucks luxury cars.

The surroundings are similarly pleasant. There's a nice three-spoke steering wheel, and the dash is done up in black vinyl and plastic that looks like aluminum or titanium. Big rotary controls work the heating and air conditioning, and a stereo with a single-play CD player nestles in the dash. There's no tape player.

The only negative note is one of those blank plugs in the dash opposite the emergency flasher switch. Supposedly, such blanks are supposed to house switches for accessories, but it's hard to imagine what you'd put there. So the plug just sits there as an ugly scar on a pretty dash.

Although the Si has a flat floor, the back seat has limited room and lags far behind the front seats in comfort, even with two aboard. There's a seat belt for a third person, but all three better be rail-thin. As usual in a hatchback, the seats fold down for extra cargo.

Following Honda's usual practice, the Si comes fully equipped. Its $19,460 price tag includes a motorized sunroof, cruise control, power windows and outside mirrors, remote locking, air conditioning and the aforementioned stereo. The only option, for $250, is side air bags.

Of course, there are eager suppliers waiting in the wings for owners who want to personalize and customize their conveyances, as well as make them go even faster but too many appearance items could defeat the Si's economy-car disguise.

You wouldn't want that. Or would you?

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