A THIMBLEFUL OF EXTRA POWER, a dusting of chassis upgrades. Otherwise, the Honda Civic Si and Volkswagen Golf GTI are nearly indistinguishable from humble, volume-selling transportation devices, the sort most people think of the way you do your living-room couch. That they’re objects of affection, even lust, is a tribute to the powerful alchemy that makes some cars more than just cars.
Powerful, but also fickle. Slight changes to the potion can break the spell. (See: Dodge Caliber SRT4.) Which is why the new Si is, on paper, worrisome. It’s no longer top dog, as it now sits between the Civic EX-T and the Civic Type R, while borrowing from both. And it’s turbocharged for the first time.
To test the new formula, we compared it to proven stuff, a 2017 Volkswagen GTI.
First, the obvious: The Si needs a new wardrobe. The coupe and sedan on which Si variants are based (no Si hatch, sorry) already sport the busiest, most aggressive styling ever applied to a Civic. A flimsy wing, expanses of mostly nonfunctional black mesh on the bumpers, and an exhaust tip that looks like a mail slot muck it up. Imagine an alternate universe, where the original 1985 CRX Si had been allowed to mature grace- fully, and you have the GTI, which is still faithful to Giorgetto Giugiaro’s original lines. But here’s the key: Flourishes that make a GTI distinguishable from a standard Golf—larger wheels, dual exhaust, roof spoiler, plaid-pattern seats—look as well thought-out as the rest of the design.
If the Si’s exuberance is a little forced on the outside, at least it feels genuine from the driver’s seat. The steering wheel practically hums like a maxed-out guitar amp, ready to blast even the slightest pluck of chords. Turn-in is right-now fast. Changes in the road surface, like gravel and beads of seam sealer, tingle your palms. All of the latest-generation Civics steer and handle well, but this may be the sweetest of the bunch. It’s sharper than the volume models, thanks to adaptive dampers, stiffer anti-roll bars, and optional summer tires, but has more approachable limits than the Type R. The GTI, meanwhile, is sure-footed but feels ever so slightly numb compared with the Si.
VW’s ace in the hole is its turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. The EA888 engine debuted a decade ago and has been reengineered twice, all for 10 hp (or 20 hp, if you opt for Sport trim, as on our test car). The payoff is how it delivers those horses. No soggy spots in the powerband, no hanging revs when you lift off the gas. Basically, none of the bad habits that usually detract from the theoretical benefits of a turbo four. Just a nice, fat wallop of torque.
The Si’s engine, considered purely on its merits, is just as finely tuned. The 1.5-liter turbo, a higher-boost version of the one offered in volume models, revs happily and metes out torque evenly. It pulls at lower parts of the tach that didn’t even register on old Sis. No longer are multigear downshifts required to pass an Odyssey, although the six-speed manual, light and tight as ever, makes gearchanges worth unnecessary effort.
Good engine, great handling. All’s well, then, right? Yes, but for one crucial element: drama. Incline your ear while pinning the throttle in the new Si, and you’ll discern no more than a pleasant thrum. Cruising the highway at 80 mph, the drone of tires and thrust of wind bury the engine entirely. Good news for the typical Honda buyer. Adjectives your grandpa might have used for little Japanese cars—“buzzy,” “tinny”—no longer apply. But for the Honda enthusiast, it’s like losing a limb.
The GTI rubs salt in the wound by sounding pretty terrific, even if some of the growl is actually a speaker sending good vibrations through the windshield. But the bigger reason for its engine working where the Honda’s doesn’t is that the EA888 is in a diffrent car with a different formula. The GTI’s secret spell is German refinement. It has the looks, comfort, and unflappable composure of a car costing $10,000 more. A well-behaved turbo four makes perfect sense. The Si, however, has always been about youthful energy.
An Eighties CRX Si, even bumming around town, spits angry hornets out of its pea-shooter tailpipe. The new car’s steering, handling, and gearbox all smell like teen spirit, but the engine is too much an adult.
This isn’t to suggest the Si revert to natural aspiration. Satisfying as that would be, it would render the car irrelevant. The sacred duty of the budget performance car, from the Tri-Power GTOs of the Sixties through the hot hatches of the 1980s, is to make commodity-car technology serve the desires of enthusiasts. These days, a turbo four with some 200 hp is about as common as it gets. Volkswagen, with the GTI, has made one that satisfies. We challenge the engine wizards at Honda to make one for the Si that stirs.