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Since 1986, the Civic Si has waved Honda's flag brightly among affordable sport compact cars. Before Honda ever ventured upmarket with the Acura NSX or S2000 roadster, the Civic Si was its chief overture to gearheads, attracting disciples on the strength of its manic, high-revving engines, taut handling and telepathic manual gearboxes. A generation of enthusiasts -- including me -- were born and raised on a steady diet of Si models.
Honda rested on its small-car laurels for a while, though. And over the last decade, the entire Civic range grew frayed around its edges as new rivals stepped up with more power, improved technology and sharper handling. Thankfully, Honda finally roared back when it introduced a new 10th-generation Civic line for the 2016 model year.
As a whole-cloth redo, today's Civic is once again well executed from grille to taillights, with smart packaging, able handling, enviable efficiency and modern (if fussy) styling. And this year, the sportier Civic Si is back to battle models like the Hyundai Elantra GT Sport, Ford Focus ST, Mini Cooper S and Volkswagen's evergreen GTI.
In a marked departure from past iterations, this 2017 Si is the first to employ a turbocharger. Powered by a higher-output version of the 1.5-liter four-cylinder found in many ordinary Civics, the 2017 Si musters the same 205 horsepower as its predecessor, but it does so in a completely different way.
Turbocharging helps deliver more power lower on the tachometer, along with a bigger slug of torque — 192 pound-feet — so you don't have to rev the bejeezus out of it to achieve strong acceleration. That's excellent news for around-town drivability, but it comes with a price: Whereas previous Civic Si models sounded and felt special because they revved sky-high like a motorcycle, this car's engine checks out at humdrum 6,500 rpm. It's a perfectly well-behaved engine, it just isn't as charismatic as its predecessors.
On the plus side, EPA fuel economy estimates are solid, at 28 miles per gallon city and 38 mpg highway -- and they're achievable results in the real world.
Overall, though, the Si's powertrain fails to feel significantly peppier than a regular 1.5-liter Civic Sport -- 0-60 mph happens in around 6.5 seconds, at which point it's staring at most of its competitors' taillights. And whereas Honda was once legendary for its manual gearboxes, the short-throw shifter in the Si is merely good, nothing more. The clutch's engagement also isn't as linear as one might hope.
Available as both a front-wheel-drive two-door coupe and a four-door sedan, the Si is recognizable thanks to its more aggressive front fascia shared with the Civic Sport hatch, 18-inch wheels and prominent center-exit exhaust. Sedans are treated to a spoiler, while coupes like my Rallye Red test car brandish a look-at-me rear wing.
Still, the Si appears only slightly more pugnacious than garden-variety models -- today's 10th-generation Civic already looks so brash that perhaps Honda didn't feel the need to push the envelope with this model's aesthetics. In fact, it's arguably less assertive visually than the five-door Civic Sport hatchback (a bodystyle unavailable in Si-strength) with which it shares its front fascia.
For those watching their weight, the Si has gone on a diet versus its forbearer, with coupes tipping the scales at 2,889 pounds and sedans registering 2,906 pounds (before options). That's commendably light for a new car in this day and age, and that lack of mass helps pay handling and efficiency dividends.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Honda has nailed the Si's ride and handling balance. Its MacPherson strut front and rear multilink suspension keep the body nicely flat in corners, yet it's not so stiff that chassis composure wilts in the face of railroad crossings and potholes. Much of the credit goes to new adaptive dampers -- a first for the Civic Si.
Thumbing the standard Sport button not only conjures up more aggressive throttle and power steering response, it firms the shocks for improved handling. Combined with a helical limited-slip differential and thicker anti-roll bars, the Si is certainly a more capable handler than other Civics. But you don't always feel it on the street -- you really need a road course such as the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan, to tell the difference.
Good news, though: You don't have to be at a racetrack to enjoy the Civic Si's nicely done cabin, snugly supportive seats and solid brakes. Upsized to 12.3-inch rotors front and 11.1-inch rear, the little red Honda's binders are strong, with good feel and fade resistance. Even on the track, the brakes were never the weak point in this Si's handling; that was the car's all-season Goodyear Eagle Sports. Honda offers summer rubber as a modest $200 option, which is nice, but the Eagles are solid enough for street use.
Compared with even the standard Civic, the Si's options list is disappointingly light on dashboard toys and advanced driver assist systems.
Inexplicably, unlike mainline Civics, you can't get a head unit with navigation. Instead, a touchscreen stereo mercifully incorporates Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but at the price of middling audio fidelity and, annoyingly, no volume and tuning knobs.
Odder still, you can't pony up for Honda Sensing, a worthy umbrella of safety features including lane departure warning, lane keep assist, forward collision warning and adaptive cruise control -- features that are at least available on other Civic models, if not standard. You can't even get a set of proper high-intensity headlamps.
In the end, equipment deficiencies significantly blunt the Civic Si's appeal, even with its friendly $24,775 base price (including $875 for destination). The Si is a good car, but it doesn't feel sufficiently improved versus lesser models to put up with its limited menu of available tech.
"Si" used to stand for "Sport Injected," but this time out, it feels more like "Sport-Ish." Not only is the performance and price gap between the new Si and Honda's fire-breathing Type R lamentably large, there isn't even enough daylight between the Si and other 1.5-liter-equipped Civics like the Sport hatch.
Hopefully Honda will find a way to make the Si feel more athletic -- and more special -- soon.