Payne: The racy Honda Civic Si just wants to have fun

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

They say the transportation future is autonomous. That’s hard to believe as long as there are cars like the 2020 Honda Civic Si.

At just $25,000 the athletic, tech-tastic Si is a gateway drug for young auto enthusiasts.

One fling through Hell, Michigan’s twisty roads and you’ll be intrigued. A day at a parking lot autocross and you’ll be in love. A race-circuit track day and you’ll become a soapbox evangelist for the joys of the stick shift.

I’ve been in the bag for the Civic Si since I bought a 2006 coupe with an i-VTEC engine that revved to 8,250 rpms. The four-banger let out a full-throated wail over 5,600 rpms that would wake the dead. My two 20-something sons learned to drive on a track in that car and they, too, are hopeless auto addicts.

The glorious 2.0-liter, 197-horse VTEC is no more, a victim of the nanny state and its emissions agenda. But the 2020 Civic Si is a worthy successor to my 2006 hellion.

Only Honda engineers know what an evolution of my screaming i-VTEC would be capable of today (210 horses? 220?) But the smaller 1.5-liter turbo hamster wheel that debuted two years ago is a remarkable machine that puts out 205 horsepower.

Where the VTEC had to be rowed hard above 6-grand to find its torque band, the turbo has grunt aplenty at 3,000 rpms. Turbo lag is minimal off corners, and by the time the hamsters get to 6,000 they are out of breath. Gone is the glorious music of that 8,000-rpm i-VTEC — but, hey, U2’s days of writing epic Irish anthems like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” are behind it as well.

Yet they’re still writing hits. So is the Civic Si.

The joy of this car is the Nürburgring-tested chassis, a remarkable tool in a $25,000 car. I marvel at the sophistication of mainstream vehicles compared to their luxury betters — the $35,000 Ford Mustang HiPo that imitates a BMW 3-series, the $40,000 Kia Telluride that looks like a $70,000 Audi Q7. So, too, the Civic Si.

Underneath the racy boy-toy styling of the Si — I swear the initial design drawings were rendered in crayon — is a remarkably mature front-wheel drive package with limited-slip differential, magnetic shocks, electronic steering and the best manual shifter this side of a Porsche.

I flung the Si through the writhing esses of Circuit of the Americas race track in Texas, expecting the front-drive car to push like an offensive tackle on a corner sweep. But my red athlete rotated with remarkable ease and encouraged more throttle. Though not nearly as athletic as the asphalt-sucking $90,000 Mustang GT500 I tested two weeks ago at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the Si was no less fun to drive through the twisties. Its chassis stayed glued to apexes, brakes biting hard lap after lap.

Brakes have been the bane of my existence in my $57,000, rear-wheel-drive Tesla Model 3. They overheat after just two hard laps on track, smoking and smelling like a bonfire. Yet, with only a performance pad upgrade (same as my Tesla), the brakes on my $25,000 Civic never flinched around the demanding 3.5-mile COTA course.

A 2020 Honda Civic Si sedan and coupe race through the Circuit of Americas' high-speed Carousel turn in Austin.

Honda Performance Development president (and accomplished driver) Ted Klaus tried to explain this to me. Let’s just say it’s magic.

Even as I wrung its neck, the Si treated me with hospitality. The bolstered cloth seats (red-accented for the updated 2020 model) are so good I never gave them a thought until now, and the notchy six-speed is intuitively positioned for quick shifts. I flogged both sedan and coupe versions (giraffes like me will prefer the sedan, as it's easier on the neck, but the rear seat is easy on long legs.

What makes the Si so worthwhile is how — when you’re done dancing with it — it is quite willing to be a progressive daily driver.

Standard on the Si is Honda Sensing (even standard on the entry-level, $20,680 Civic), the brand’s radar-enhanced safety suite that includes self-driving features like adaptive cruise-control and automatic emergency-braking. Civic’s adaptive cruise-control allows easy highway cruising or an extra security blanket in stop-and-go traffic. I can even attest the emergency braking works, thanks to some rapid closing maneuvers under braking at COTA.

The competition in the compact segment is relentless, however, and the Civic’s interior feels dated compared to spiffy new entries like the Hyundai Elantra and Mazda 3. Despite a nifty digital tach, Honda’s graphics are small and steering controls plasticky. With a major Civic update looming in 2021, expect upgrades.

What is not lacking is Honda’s signature passenger-friendly interior. No one does consoles like Honda. Big-brother Pilot SUV has the best center console in ute-dom and the Civic makes a case for best compact car console.

An infotainment tablet sits high on the dash for easy viewing, which in turn opens up storage below for keys, French fry boxes and Apple CarPlay connectivity. A deep, versatile center console features sliding cupholders.

As regular readers know, I’m a hatchback fan, and the Si comes only in coupe and sedan flavors. The trunk space is ample, but I prefer Civic Sport and Type-R hatchback variants for better cargo access. With sporty hatch competitors out there like Mazda 3 and Golf GTI, the Si will lose some customers willing to pay for their convenience.

But with its racy styling, glued handling and standard features, the Si is a peerless $25,000 performance value.

While Detroit makers have abandoned small cars, Si and company offer new buyers an entrée to driving fun. To lure shoppers, the 2020 model is distinguished by its body-colored eyeliners under the new LED headlights — and wicked, black wheels that contrast with a Skittle bag full of flavors from Rallye Red to Crystal Black Pearl to my favorite, Tonic Yellow Pearl.

Speaking of value, Si can also be had as a $52,000, slick-tire shod, roll-caged SCCA racer when you want to taste even more g-loads on track. That’s what gateway drugs lead to.

The 2020 Honda Civic Si lacks the high-revving, screaming i-VTEC engine of previous generation Sis — but its taut chassis makes it the best handling Si ever.

Autonomous car future? I think it just got pushed back another generation.

2020 Honda Civic Si

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan and coupe

Price: Base $25,930, including $930 destination charge 

Powerplant: Turbocharged, 1.5-liter inline-4 cylinder

Power: 205 horsepower, 192 pound-feet of torque  

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.3 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 137 mph

Weight: 2,889 pounds (coupe); 2,906 (sedan)

Fuel economy: EPA mpg, 26 city/36 highway/30 combined 

Report card

Highs: A blast to drive on track or off; versatile console

Lows: Interior style lags competitors; lacks hatchback utility

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.