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Although the 2012 Honda Civic Si is the most changed model in Honda's Civic lineup, it is also the variant with the most to lose. While the standard Civic EX-L and Civic Hybrid models represent mostly mild, safe evolutions over their previous iterations, they're basically driving appliances. One could argue, however, that the Civic Si is the soul of what made Honda great and the last remnant of a brand that built its reputation on high-revving, fun-to-drive compact cars that offered thrilling, yet efficient, performance.
I don't think this new Civic Si exactly recaptures the spirit of the previous Si models, but as much as nostalgia tells me otherwise, I'm not convinced that's a bad thing. No, for the 2012 model year, Honda seems to be taking the idea of what the Si badge means in a slightly different direction, starting with an engine borrowed from an Acura.
The Civic's small heart grew three sizes that day!
Honda has decided to dump the high-revving 197-horsepower, 2.0-liter engine of the previous-generation Civic in favor of a 201-horsepower, 2.4-liter power plant borrowed from the larger Acura TSX sedan. If you're looking at that 20 percent increase in displacement and scratching your head at the mere 4 additional peak horsepower, then allow me to talk torque for a bit. You see, the previous Civic Si was notoriously gutless for the first two-thirds of its engine's power band, only really coming alive from about 6,000rpm up to the lofty 8,000rpm redline when the Intelligent Variable Valve Timing Engine Control (i-VTEC) system triggered a sudden leap in torque output (thus spawning the Internet meme, "VTEC just kicked in, yo!").
For 2012 Honda has chosen to place a heavier emphasis on boosting and flattening the torque curve. The 2.4-liter engine now outputs 170 pound-feet of torque (31 pound-feet more than last year), but it also delivers it as low as 4,400rpm. And the new engine's redline is about 1,000rpm lower than the previous generation's 8,000rpm limit. This shift in power delivery fundamentally changes the way you drive the Civic Si. Gone are the waiting for the sudden burst of power and the paying careful attention to keep your engine speed high enough to stay above the "VTEC point" for performance driving. The new model's torque delivery is so linear across its range that you'd miss the i-VTEC system's engagement if you weren't paying attention. In fact, Honda had to put a light on the new Si's dashboard to let the driver know that VTEC has--in fact--kicked in, yo!
This new Civic Si is thus a much more flexible and more forgiving car. It's less Jekyll-and-Hyde, it's easier to drive, and it requires less effort to enjoy. It's also faster, particularly off of the line. But it's not perfect.
Honda builds some of the best manual gearboxes this side of BMW and the Civic Si is no exception. Its six-speed manual transaxle (the only transmission available at the Si trim level) slips effortlessly from gate to gate with a satisfying mechanical clunk and its clutch pedal offers just the right amount of resistance for a feeling of good engagement without being tiring. However, timing those near-perfect shifts can be difficult thanks to the engine's tendency toward "rev hang" when releasing the throttle for a shift. Rather than dropping quickly to a lower engine speed in preparation for an upshift, the Si's engine holds its speed for a second or so before dropping, which makes timing the clutch engagement for smooth shifting difficult.
You'd think that a boost in displacement and performance would yield an equal and opposite drop in fuel efficiency, but somehow Honda managed an increase in miles per gallon. The 2012 Si's 22 city mpg and 31 highway mpg estimates are 1 mpg and 2 mpg, respectively, higher than the previous generation's ratings. At the end of our heavy-footed testing, the trip computer indicated 22.3 mpg combined.
Power from the new engine exits through the front wheels by way of a standard helical limited-slip differential, helping to wrangle the increased power into grip when accelerating out of turns. Also helping with the grip situation is the sport-tuned suspension with its multilink rear end and 215-width all-season tires wrapped around standard 17-inch wheels at all four corners. (Stickier summer tires are available as a factory option, but our vehicle was not so equipped.) The seat-of-the-pants meter reports that the new Si hustles around a corner just as well as the old model, with the same neutral handling that can be finessed into slight liftoff oversteer with just the right footwork--an admirable capability in a front-drive car. All in all, it still feels like a Civic Si should--only more so.
New cabin tech package and interior
I've never really been a fan of the Honda Civic's cabin tech package, and at first glance this new model appeared to be more of the same. The maps that come with the optional navigation package look as pixelated as the previous generation and are just as difficult to read. The menus feature the same dated aesthetic and low resolution. But beneath the surface, the infotainment system is mostly new.
Digging through the menus reveals that most of the screens have been redesigned and reorganized to make browsing audio sources faster and inputting a destination more intuitive. The user interface still requires a bit of effort to learn, but it's much easier to work with than it used to be.