Why do we buy the cars we buy? There are hundreds of different reasons; looks, performance, capacity, efficiency, etc. The truth is no one buys a car because it has only one quality they like. The Alfa Romeo 8C, for example, is the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen. It’s supposed to handle like cement truck, stop like a sailboat and taking one to the ‘Ring would be only good if you appreciate being passed by everything short of a school bus. But it also has one of the best exhaust notes I’ve heard from a modern exotic car. So it looks good, and sounds good. Add to that it’s Alfa’s halo car to jump back into the U.S. market, and now it has history and purpose; 4 reasons.
But what if, instead of a $200,000 exotic, you want a fast, affordable sedan? On paper the 2010 Honda Civic SI Sedan seems like a great choice. But you can’t make that kind of decision with a spec sheet, you have to drive the car. Luckily, my friend Matt Farah, host of the entertaining and informative web show The Smoking Tire, had just finished filming his review episode with this car, and was kind enough to lend me the keys. When I climbed behind the wheel it was my job to find out what will make people buy this car. It was a lot harder than you might think…
The 2010 Civic doesn’t look too different from the 2009 model, because it’s not. The body is the same buffet of triangles, the engine is the same 2.0 Liter 4 cylinder engine, and the dash board still looks like it belongs on a spaceship. Inside is the same well-appointed, well-equipped, spacious interior Honda has become known for. The seats are bolstered yet comfortable. The cloth feels great, looks good, and will no doubt last as long as the car will. The dashboard does take some getting used to, but I actually found the digital speedometer just below my focal point to be a natural location. The only thing I didn’t like is how the giant windshield left me seeing nothing but black top. Visibility is important, but the only way to know where the corners of the car are is to use google earth and zoom in really close.
My only big complaint was the Sat/NAV system. It’s horrible. Basically, it gives you WAY too much information, almost none of which you need, the color scheme for night driving takes too long to discern, and the view is like looking at a pebble you dropped on a city schematic drawing. It looks like the flight computer on an F-16, but I’m not driving an F-16. My $100 Garmin is easier to read, use, and pay for. Some of the buttons are a bit plasticky, and probably won’t look half as good in a few years, but with numerous cup-holders, good rear legroom, steering-wheel mounted buttons for audio/cruise/NAV, and quality materials where you want them, it’s a fine space to travel in.
So, what would make this car stand out in 2010? Why didn’t I just copy and paste a road-test from last year’s Si and head to bed?
WHAT HFP MEANS
Here’s why; the Civic I was driving costs $29,000, and that warrants a Madoff-esque investigation. That’s not a lot of money to spend on a car, but for a Honda Civic it might as well be a million. The reason it costs so much was spelled out, literally, on the body of the car: HFP. HFP stands for Honda Factory Performance. Basically, Honda is offering (as many other companies are) performance parts sold through its dealerships, allowing its customers to tune their new car right on the lot. The customer gets his cool wheels and tight suspension, Honda gets more money, everyone wins. Right?
Wrong. Because in this case, HFP stands for Hugely over-Friggin Priced. Why? It costs $4,900, for which you get; 18” wheels (which look a LOT like the stock Subaru WRX wheels of ’07), side skirts, a front lip spoiler, a rear under-spoiler, lowered suspension, slotted brakes, and a cat-back exhaust. The parts add up to only $3,200, but when you have them installed by your dealer, (at dealer hourly rates) you will end up spending ¼ the price of the entire car for those few mods. And by the way, those wheels don’t come with tires, so you’ll need to start a piggy bank for those before you can drive it off the lot. Add Honda’s SAT/NAV system and you have just added $7,000 to the starting price of a Honda Civic Si. Ouch.
That would be acceptable if the HFP package was like nuclear waste in a comic book, and turned the normal Civic Si in to a fire-breathing beast capable of shaming Porsche 911s and blowing up buses. But it doesn’t. The engine is the exact same one you get in the normal Civic Si, and I’m sorry, but for this money the engine simply can’t keep up. It may run forever, rev to the moon, feel as smooth as oil on glass, all while giving you 29mpg, but it is under-powered for both the price and the competition.
In this price range the Civic Si is trying to run alongside cars such as the VW GTI, MazdaSpeed 3 and Subaru WRX, all of which handily out-power it. The Civic, weighing only 2800 lbs, is certainly quick. It darts from corner to corner like a focused bumble bee. But even the weight advantage won’t stop all 3 cars from leaving it in the dust. Plus, if you actually use those 4 doors to let people get in your car, your weight advantage is gone, rendering the engine useless.
Even dropping all the way to 3rd gear during highway passing did more as an illusion of excitement than improving acceleration. The 2.0 liter is fine in the normal Si, at the normal price, but if you want to charge 250+hp dollars, you better provide 250hp. So for a $5,000 premium, you get a car that is exactly as fast as the normal Si. It was going to be a long day…
“Well, maybe that suspension can make up for the engine’s shortcomings.” I think the suspension was trying to explain its merits to me in morse code, because it sent every bump and crack those tires touched right into the cabin. The car took a beating on anything but the smoothest of freeways. Small bumps would send a solid shudder through the whole cabin, and while no squeaks were heard at the time, I was curious to see if that was still true after, say, 40,000 miles. Despite the shudders, the car stayed positively planted. In high-speed corners the car made me feel like each wheel was bolted to pavement.
It was incredibly stable, yet nimble as well. On the freeway it felt as stable as a 4,000lb sport-sedan. On tighter corners, body roll was minimal and nothing ever upset the chassis. It may have sounded like someone was hitting the frame with a rubber mallet, but the feeling from the wheel was nothing but complete control. It handled great, but the ride would likely get old for daily use. And cars like the GTI have proven you don’t need springs made of brick to take the corners fast. Today we can have our cake and eat it too.
And that is the problem with the Civic Si HPF, it doesn’t let us do either. Civics are great all-around cars for the money. The Civic Si will take you to work on Monday, carry your friends around Friday, and hold everything you need to go Auto-Xing on Sunday, all while offering 29mpg to boot. And for $22,000, that’s fine. This is where the Civic Si has lived and succeeded for years. But once you step across that $24,000 line, you have to raise your game, and Honda simply hasn’t. For that kind of money you can have a Subaru WRX, which is equally well-equipped inside, but also gives you omnipotent AWD and some serious go (265hp). If you don’t want to sacrifice any fuel-efficiency, for $23,664 a VW GTI will happily take you anywhere you need to go at a frugal 31mpg, and backs you up with 200 ft-lbs of torque. And neither of these cars force you to sacrifice comfort or utility.
Frankly it feels like Honda has been passed by. The competition in the entry-level sport sedan market is fiercer than ever, and Honda simply hasn’t given its fighter big enough guns to be competitive. The 2010 Honda Civic Si is a very good car. It’s built well, it’s economical, comfortable, agile and even in standard trim it has everything you need. And at $22,000 it’s competitively priced. If you want a 4 door car that is pretty good at everything, this is a good choice. The question you will face, however, is are you willing to spend a few more dollars for a car that does all those things even better? I would.