An excellent car with one troubling flaw
We’re big fans of the Honda Civic; there’s no use trying to hide that. Even competing against sparkly new redesigns of the Toyota Corolla and Mazda3 in a recent compact sedan comparison, the three-year-old Civic came out on top. We also thoroughly enjoyed our year-long loan with a Civic Type R, which stole first place in a hardcore hatchback comparo against a Subaru WRX STI Type RA, Volkswagen Golf R, and Ford Focus RS. There’s still plenty of room for a Civic Si.
Before Honda decided we Americans were finally worthy of the almighty Type R, the Si was the hottest Civic we had. Now it represents an enticing middle ground between the turbocharged standard Civic and the razor-sharp Type R, and a financially attainable one at just $25,930 USD.
What’s not to like? The 2020 Civic Si is quick, practical, cohesive, and accessible, but it has one significant flaw that might keep me out of the driver’s seat.
First, I need to touch on all there is to love about this sweet little sport sedan. There are a few changes for the 2020 model year that improve on an already likeable platform.
New LED headlights and foglights, both from the Civic Type R, look premium and illuminate the road better than the old projectors. The revised infotainment setup from last year’s update features a physical volume knob and physical fan speed buttons; much appreciated for easy adjustment on the move. There’s a 6 percent shorter final drive ratio that Honda says improves acceleration feel (more on that in a moment) and standard Honda Sensing active safety features that are disappointingly absent in other compact sport sedans like the Jetta GLI.
Beyond those new features, tacking Si onto the end of your Civic order brings serious hardware improvements to the standard Civic. The 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder makes 205 hp and 192 lb-ft of torque (up 31 hp and 30 lb-ft over the Civic Touring), there’s a limited-slip differential between the front wheels, and two-mode adjustable suspension. Huge side bolsters on the front seats will hug you almost as much as those in the Type R, and the Si is exclusively offered with three pedals and a stick.
Despite the shorter final drive ratio, the 2020 Civic Si is no quicker than the 2019 example we tested earlier this year. This new car hit 60 in 6.8 seconds—0.2 slower than last year’s car—though it completed the quarter mile in the same 15.1 seconds at a slightly higher trap speed.
The Si actually has shockingly similar straight-line acceleration numbers to the Civic Touring, which does a 6.8-second 0–60 sprint and a 15.2-second quarter mile, but the real benefits are on the figure eight. Thanks to grippier summer tires and the front differential getting more power to the ground, a figure-eight lap in the 2020 Civic Si takes only 25.4 seconds. It’s over a second faster around that course than the standard car.
Even with stability control that isn’t fully defeatable and steering that doesn’t communicate midcorner bumps as well as we’d like, the Si is a blast in the corners.
Away from the track, the effects of the limited-slip diff are still apparent. The car will only ever understeer if you provoke it. I could feel this differential shuffling power between the front wheels to deliver peak traction as I was exiting sharper turns, much more so than I did with the diff in the hot Jetta. As soon as the front wheels are pointed toward the apex, mashing the throttle will tug the little Civic out of the corner and get you pointed toward the next. There were even a few cases where I found myself exiting a corner quicker than I expected, though I noticed no difference in acceleration feel with the revised final drive.
Differentiation from the standard car is always obvious behind the wheel of the Si. The short-throw shifter’s petite shift knob fits well in the hand, and shifts feel mechanical and direct. This is as satisfying a transmission as you’ll find. I adore these seats, too—I found myself holding the steering wheel less tightly than I normally might because the seats were holding me in place and I wasn’t relying on the wheel for stability.
The standard setting for the adjustable suspension felt to me like it had just enough body movement to feel compliant and give a sense of weight transfer. There’s a fluidity in this chassis that reminded me of our Alfa Romeo Giulia long-termer. I didn’t find much use for the stiffer setting, nor the associated Sport mode that pipes more of the admittedly decent synthetic engine sound into the cabin and lights the gauge cluster in red.
Although it’s appreciated on a car at this price, Honda’s adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and automatic emergency braking systems don’t feel as polished and foolproof as those from Volvo, Tesla, or Cadillac. The adaptive cruise required more intervention than most, but Honda gets extra points from us for making it work with a manual transmission and including it as standard. (Take that, Porsche!)
What I don’t love about the Civic Si is a little issue called rev hang. It’s something that has plagued the turbocharged Si since its debut, and it truly bums me out.
When I say rev hang, what I mean is that when you let off the throttle, it takes a long time for the engine speed to drop. Doesn’t seem like something to make a fuss about, but make a fuss I will.
A lot of the joy of driving a car with a manual transmission, for me at least, is rev-matching. Gear ratios match engine speed (revs) with the speed at which the car rolls along the ground. When you change gears, up or down, it’s important when you let the clutch back in that the engine speed matches the new gear for smooth driving and limiting wear on the drivetrain.
Upshifting smoothly in the Civic Si is an exercise in frustration. The revs drop so slowly that if you were to wait for the engine speed to match the next gear, you’ll spend at least a second with each shift. It’s an unfortunate characteristic that mars the greatness of the transmission and results in uncomfortable shunts of forward movement as the clutch engagement forces the engine down to speed. Not only is it difficult to drive smoothly, it made me feel like an irresponsible car owner putting unnecessary strain on the driveline.
It’s especially disheartening after my recent weekend in the naturally aspirated, rev-happy, VTEC screamer that is the 1999 Civic Si.
In this new car, road test editor Chris Walton felt only a partial connection between the gas pedal and the engine, and I think I know why. As much as we enthusiasts want a throttle that snaps open and snaps shut for immediate engine response, more gradual transitions are what result in better fuel economy. (I’ll acquiesce that the 2020 Si returns an impressive 26/36 mpg (9/6.5 L/100 km) city/highway.)
It feels to me like the Civic Si has some lag in its drivetrain—not turbo lag, but throttle lag. It takes a moment, even at higher rpms, to feel any response from this engine when your foot comes on or off the throttle. Normally, vicious rev hang can be corrected with a lighter flywheel, but a little forum digging reveals that this throttle lag and the resultant rev hang, are in fact software issues, not hardware issues. That means it’s a problem that can be mostly solved with an aftermarket tune, but it’s still incredibly frustrating.
Imperfect, Still Great
So the 2020 Civic Si is a zippy, satisfying, affordable compact sport sedan with a significant flaw. Does that mean you shouldn’t consider one? Absolutely not. The rev hang is something to keep in mind on a test drive, but it won’t bother everyone the way it bothers me, and if it’s the one thing between you and a Civic Si, budget an extra couple hundred dollars and fix it with a tune.
This is a car whose benefits way outshine its few drawbacks. It’s one of the best inexpensive performance machines on the market.
|2020 Honda Civic Si (Sedan)|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$26,130|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||1.5L/205-hp/192-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||2,899 lb (61/39%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||182.8 x 70.8 x 55.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.8 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||15.1 sec @ 93.9 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||106 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.95 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||25.7 sec @ 0.69 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||26/36/30 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||130/94 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.65 lb/mile|