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2012 Honda Civic Si Coupe. (Honda)
2012 Honda Civic Si Coupe. (Honda)

2012 HONDA CIVIC Si COUPE

Is the Honda Civic Si coupe a good sport? Add to ...

Honda officials and apologists have reminded me over and over that “every Civic model is designed to be fun to drive” and none more so than the Si models, the coupe and sedan. So? Spin or truth?

The answer is a little of both. That said, if the 2012 Si ($25,990) is the sportiest of the Civics, then it must be judged against a higher standard than Honda’s alone.

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A racy Civic does not compete with lesser Civics, the likes of which have been widely criticized by, among others, Consumer Reports for lacklustre agility, material quality issues, a choppy ride, long stopping distances and “pronounced” road noise. No, the Si coupe is judged against the MazdaSpeed3 and others.

The latter admittedly is a four-door hatch listing for $29,940, therefore better suited for a rivalry with the Civic Si sedan (also $25,990). But in this sort of car, the Speed3 is the standard for performance at a killer price.

Of course, so do others in the head-to-head mix of Civic Si coupe versus the world. Consider: the 160-hp Fiat 500 Abarth ($23,995); the expected 247-hp 2013 Ford Focus ST; Hyundai’s coming Veloster three-door with its twin-scroll turbo that spins up 201 horsepower ($25,999); Mini’s John Cooper Works hatchback, which has 208 turbocharged horses and stickers at $36,900; and perhaps even Subaru’s WRX STi ($38,195) and Mitsubishi’s Evo ($41,998). And let’s not overlook Volkswagen’s Golf GTI ($29,375/200 hp).

Quite the mixed bag, no? But the Veloster, Abarth and GTI seem the best and fairest matchup. If that’s the case, the Civic Si’s powertrain is definitely in the game.

It’s a 2.4-litre, inline-four-cylinder engine, all aluminum, with modern dual overhead cams. Output: 201 hp. All good. But the Speed3, for one, boasts direct fuel injection and so does the VW and the coming hot-shoe Veloster. Honda, a self-described “engine company,” has not seen fit to give its sportiest Civic direct injection. That smacks of cost-cutting winning out over core values.

And you’ll need to work this four-banger to get the most from it, though that’s hardly unusual in this class. Peak power in the Civic Si comes at 7,000 rpm, which is better than the previous Si. So is the 170 lb-ft of torque at a much lower 4,400 rpm. Fuel economy? In the city, the rating is 10.0 litres/100 km, while on the highway the number is 6.4 litres/100 km. Both are solid numbers and it’s also worth noting that the Civic Si meets strict Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV-2) standards.

The better part of this package, though, is the six-speed manual gearbox. Here’s to Honda for building a compact, lightweight, short-throw shifter that does its work quickly and precisely. The clutch, meanwhile, engages smoothly and cleanly – with smooth and predictable action.

The overall chassis story is less compelling. All Civics get basically the same MacPherson strut front suspension/multi-link rear suspension, along with front and rear stabilizer bars, four-wheel disc brakes, electronic anti-skid control, antilock braking and electric power steering.

For the Si, Honda has swapped in front and rear high-performance springs, dampers and stabilizer bars, 17-inch aluminum wheels (versus 15-inch on the base Civic), larger brake rotors front and rear and alloy wheels wearing P215/45R17 rubber.

The Si upgrades make for a more entertaining front-drive car. But a handling gem? No, not at all. Good and responsive, yes. Great and engaging and exhilarating? No.

Dive into a corner with some speed and the Si will hold its line well enough up to a limit. You’ll never get to “Oh, wow” territory, though. The brakes scrub off speed well enough and that’s welcome, though unsurprising. They should. All in all, this is a nice-handling package, but nice is not exactly what you want in a sporty Honda. You want more.

As for the creature comforts, well, the cabin looks much like all the Civics. The key instrument displays are above the steering wheel, while secondary information is lower down. I am no fan of this two-tier design, but many like it and this approach does not harm the clarity of how information is displayed. Controls are arrayed in a clean and simple layout. The main criticism is the same here as in other Civics: many competitors use richer-looking materials and there is the road noise.

There are areas where the performance-oriented Si stands out from the more basic Civics, though. In only the Si do you get a sequential rev-limit indicator that lights up when the VTEC system shifts from low- to high-rpm camshaft profiles. The rev-limit indicator illuminates sequentially as engine speed rises and while a little gimmicky, it’s also visually entertaining.

Another Si extra is the 360-watt AM/FM/CD audio system with seven speakers, including an eight-inch subwoofer, plus an auxiliary input jack. And Si models have a power moonroof. The latter cuts into headroom only slightly. This coupe is pretty roomy for a compact and there is more than decent trunk room, too – with 60/40-split fold-down rear seatbacks.

Honda has been in this game long enough to know what makes a wonderfully sporty car. That fact means the Si coupe is disappointing but not devastatingly so.

jcato@globeandmail.com

TECH SPECS

2012 Honda Civic Si coupe

Type: High-performance compact, two-door hatchback

Base price: $25,990 ($1,495 freight)

Engine: 2.4-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 201 hp/170 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.0 city/6.4 highway; premium gas

Alternatives: Fiat 500 Abarth, Hyundai Veloster Turbo, Mini Cooper John Cooper Works, Volkswagen Golf GTi

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