You've got 20-grand to spend on a compact car, and the last thing you want is a dumpy, dreary, lost-in-the-crowd commuter car. The automakers have already seen you coming; and, boy, have they got just the thing-a special-edition hot-rod version of a car you might otherwise dismiss as a mere econo-car.
With regard to Honda and Hyundai, the pocket-rocket arms race in 2005 matches Honda's Civic Si against Hyundai's Tiburon SE V6. Comparably equipped, these cars are less than $26 apart in sticker prices that barely exceed $20,000. But that $26 obscures a world of difference between each manufacturer's interpretation of what it really takes to be special.
I used to hate Hondas for being so darn perfect. So affordable; so fuel-stingy; so environmentally correct. So like the nerdy boy up front in science class who always knows the answers before the teacher even finishes asking the questions. Have some fun, why dontcha? Let your hair down; chirp a tire; break a speed limit from time to time. For crying out loud.
And so, as if in perfect sympathy with my sentiments, Honda devised the Civic Si, a three-door sporty coupe based on the Civic econo-car platform. And now I hate Honda all the more for making me love this car so. For crying out loud.
This car, which looks like an errant space pod on terrestrial leave, is one of the most fun cars on the road today. Its 2.0-liter inline-four uses computerized variable valve timing (iVTEC) to deliver 160 hp. And that power comes on like a firecracker at very high rpm (6,500). Yes, that's less punch than Tiburon's, but the Si also weighs almost 250 pounds less. The enhanced nimbleness is striking.
Oh, and there's only a five-speed gearbox in the Si, too. But...it's a gearbox to die for, and dash-mounted at that. Every gear change is ultra fast, ultra smooth, ultra crisp-like an Eric Clapton solo in "Layla." The Si darts through both traffic and the backroads like a racer. Its fully independent suspension is firm and responsive; brakes are quick and precise; steering is razor sharp. I'd be the pizza-delivery guy if it meant I could spend all day in a Civic Si.
Honda equips the Si with special "racer-like" front seats that offer improved side support without the near-total confinement of real race saddles. Otherwise, cockpit design is simple, functional, unpretentious. Curiously, there's seating for five-although it's guaranteed there'll never be a cat fight for the rear-center berth. Then, there's the prest-o, change-o 60/40 folding rear seatback, which transforms a 16 cubic-foot trunk into a 36 cubic-foot cargo hutch.
It's so...so...perfect. It's the perfect little commuter that looks like no other; sprints like a motorcycle; and blazes past gas pumps with its 26 mpg/city, 31 mpg/highway efficiency. Aha! But there's a small gotcha! after all. Front airbags, only, are standard. Optional side bags cost $250 extra and no additional head protection is offered.
Just pay for the option already. So what if that puts you $26 over the cost of a Tiburon SE V6? What a small price to pay for feeling really special.
5-pass., 2-door; FWD, 2.0-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ iVTEC, 5-sp. auto; 160 hp/132 ft.-lbs.; 26 mpg/City, 31 mpg/Hwy., w/ regular; cargo: 15.7-36 cu. ft.; as-tested, incl. front airbags, $19,835.