2002 Honda Civic Si new car reviews

During 1999 and 2000, while the compact car performance phenomenon was gaining incredible momentum, the Honda Civic Si was at the top of the game. Thanks to its 8000-rpm red line, double-wishbone suspension and $18,000 price tag, an Electron Blue Civic Si pretty much summed up the scene. So, what did Honda do for 2001?

Nothing. Honda released an all-new Civic for the 2001 model year, but the lineup didn't feature their sporty Si-badged model. Although many enthusiasts enjoyed driving the all-new Civic, they just weren't excited by the new car. Increases in headroom and new arm rests may be much appreciated by the masses, but the rest of us missed the high-winding engines and tight suspensions of past models. With no sign of twin-cam engines or performance-tuned suspensions on the menu, the Civic was no longer the hottest compact out there.

Unfortunately for Honda, the compact scene didn't stand still while they were taking a breather. The Subaru Impreza WRX, Mazda Protegé MP3, Dodge Neon R/T, Toyota Celica GT-S, Acura RSX and VW GTI all stepped up to vie for a piece of the same pie. The forthcoming Nissan Sentra SE-R, MINI Cooper S, Toyota Matrix and Ford Focus SVT should only make the scene ever more crowded.

Honda strikes back for 2002, however, using a popular formula to build a neat performance car: combine a fairly small body with a fairly powerful engine. In this case, Honda starts with their U.K.-built, three-door hatchback model and adds their new 2.0-liter, 160-horsepower i-VTEC engine to create the 2002 Civic Si.

New, Stiff Platform

In response to customer demand, Honda went back to the three-door hatchback as a starting point for the new Civic Si. Since the manufacturer's current U.S. lineup does not include such a body style, they had to go to Europe for a source.

As one might expect, the new car has quite a strong European flavor to it, from the fender-mounted side marker lights to the large, triangular headlights. The short nose teams up with a rather expansive-looking passenger compartment to give the new car an Old World look; remove the tell-tale "H" logo from the nose, and the new Civic Si could easily be mistaken for the latest offering from Ford of Europe, Peugeot or Citroen. Lowered and fitted with the right wheel and tire package, the new Si could probably easily impersonate an FIA World Rally Car.

The online Civic community hasn't really warmed up to the new sheet metal, but in Honda's defense, most of the past Civics looked a little awkward at first sight. After a bit of time, and certainly after the installation of some sportier springs and wheels, their looks tend to grow on us.

The new car's body features some sportier details, including a chin spoiler and mesh-style grille from the Type R, an even meaner version of the latest Civic that is only available in select Japanese and European markets. A roof spoiler has been perched atop the rear hatch, while the rear bumper features a lower skirt. Under the skin, as on Honda's recently-introduced Civic coupe and sedan as well as the Acura RSX, the 2002 Si uses an all-new chassis that features a MacPherson strut front suspension. According to Honda, the new design provides better packaging while matching the performance of the double-wishbone suspension of the previous Civics.

Several enthusiasts have criticized Honda's decision to use struts on their new cars, but we haven't found any fault with them in stock condition, even during laps on the race track. While this is not a pure racing-type setup, remember that BMW, Porsche, Toyota and many others have all built excellent-handling cars that employ strut suspensions.

The rear end of the new car features Honda's Reactive Link double-wishbone suspension. The setup doesn't require a trailing arm, which allows engineers to use the space for the exhaust system, yielding a flatter cabin floor. The "tunable" parts of the suspension-the springs and dampers-come from the Civic Type R.

Those suspension parts are bolted to a totally new, stiffer unibody that Honda says is 95 percent stiffer than the previous Civic hatchback. Honda says bending rigidity is up by 22 percent, and using high-tensile steel in various gussets and cross members of the body structure saved 44 pounds. Also like the new Civic coupe and sedan, Honda has tightened up the body clearances in the 2002 Si: Where the 2000 Civic Si features body gaps in the 3 to 5.5 mm range, the new car's gaps measure .5 to 4.0 mm.

Even though the body is small on the outside, the car isn't exactly a lightweight, checking in at 2744 pounds. While heavier than the previous Civic Si model by more than 100 pounds, the new car is in the same weight class as contemporaries like the Sentra SE-R (2743 pounds) and Protegé MP3 (2725 pounds). It's also 50 pounds heavier than the similarly-powered Acura RSX.

The wheel and tire setup nearly mimics that of the most recent Civic Si, as the 2002 model uses a 195/60R15 all-season tire mounted on a 15x6-inch aluminum wheel. Like most past models of the Si, the wheels are on the plain and small side, but then again, they're probably the first thing most owners will replace. The front brake discs remain 10.3-inch diameter units, although the rears have grown to measure 10.2 inches across. For the first time on a Civic Si, ABS is standard equipment.

Engine Room

Like the bodywork, the engine is totally new for 2002. An all-aluminum, 1998cc, twin-cam, inline four cylinder powerplant featuring Honda's new i-VTEC technology, the new engine is similar to the one that powers the Acura RSX but features balance shafts and a few other small differences.

For several years, Honda has been using their Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control-commonly known as VTEC-to change the valve lift, timing and duration to effectively combine economy, performance and drivability.

Their new "intelligent" i-VTEC system takes the concept another step forward, using constantly-varying intake camshaft timing to further increase engine output while keeping tabs on exhaust emissions. Depending on the engine's cam position, ignition timing and throttle position, the car's Variable Timing Control actuator advances or retards the intake cam over a 50-degree range. Basically, it's like having a computer-controlled, real-time adjustable cam gear on the intake cam.

Other new features inside the 2002 Civic Si engine include a no-maintenance timing chain-no more fears about snapped timing belts-as well as a conventional engine rotation. The new engine rotation may make engine swaps a little tough between the new car and earlier Honda products, but it does open the door for other makes to be powered by Honda engines.

All of this technology helps produce 160 horsepower and 132 lb.-ft. of torque. Those numbers may not be as impressive as some other Honda engines, but remember that this car is designed to meet the 2004 Low Emission Vehicle II standards and 110,000-mile service intervals. Also, the car will carry a price tag in the $18,000 range when it goes on sale this coming March, putting some pretty impressive engineering in the hands of the masses. (Official prices are to be announced at a later date.)

Like all previous copies of the Civic Si, the 2002 model only comes with a five-speed manual transaxle. A short-stroke linkage is used to keep the shifts short and positive, while the shifter itself is mounted "rally style," sticking right out of the dashboard. The final drive ratio measures a "sporty" 4.764:1.

Honda transmissions have always shifted well, but the new Civic Si unit takes smoothness to a new level, thanks to a lower shifter level load employing triple-cone synchronizers on first and second gears. By comparison, the 2000 Civic Si has double-cone synchronizers on second gear and single-cone units on all others.

Interior Appointments

The Civic Si has always featured a useful, yet practical, interior, and the latest version of the car is no different. Honda says the hatchback body gives the car enough cargo room to hold two full-size suitcases, and we have always found the Civic Si to have enough carrying space for our needs.

One of the few shortcomings of the 1999 and 2000 Civic Si-the flat, not too sporty seats-has been fixed in the new car. Lifted from the overseas-spec Civic Type R, the new Civic Si's seats are wide, well bolstered and comfortable. They look cool, too.

The rest of the interior is typical Civic fare, featuring plenty of well-designed storage areas, great visibility, a driver's dead pedal and logically-placed switches. The black-and-silver motif should go well with any of the exterior colors, and the red stitching on the steering wheel and seats reminds us of the much-loved Acura Integra Type R. Black-on-white analog gauges tell the driver what's going on, while the beefy three-spoke steering wheel also comes from the Civic Type R.

According to Honda, increasing the height of the car by 60mm provides 25mm additional inches of headroom while raising the hip points of all seating positions by 25 mm, giving the new Si a driving position more like that of the Ford Focus than the del Sol.

Driving It

Okay, enough talk about specs, how does this new car drive? Short answer: Pretty much like a Honda in that it's smooth, predictable and fun. L ike most every other Honda product we have tested-whether new or old-all of the controls fall easily to hand. Need the windshield wipers? They're located on the right-hand steering column stalk. Lights? Check the opposite stalk. All of the radio and climate controls are easy to find, too, but that's not necessarily why people will be buying this car.

The new engine is pretty impressive, and the boost in torque nicely offsets the increase in weight. This engine is a little less rev-happy than the previous one, however, as redline has moved south to 6800 rpm and there isn't nearly as much of an extra boost when the VTEC kicks in. On the other hand, there isn't as much of a need to keep the engine speeds near the upper end of the spectrum. Is the engine smooth? Of course.

The rally-inspired shifter may look a little odd, but it's convenient to use and works quite well. The shift action is as good as anything we have driven from Honda, whether inspired by rally or not. If anything, it makes past Civics feel a little odd.

The seats are nice, period. That was our biggest beef with the last Civic Si, and we're glad to see that Honda has fixed the situation. Outward vision, once you're perched in those seats, is excellent. A large, expansive dashboard yields a panoramic view.

On a rain-soaked Seattle International Raceway, where we received our introduction to the car, the Civic Si was tossable through the turns and quite light on its feet, while the new engine pulled eagerly toward redline-maybe a bit too eagerly, as we encountered the rev limiter several times. The new-for-2002 anti-lock braking system also saved us more than once.

Since the track was slick, we weren't able to perform 0-60 acceleration and braking runs, although we hope to have those numbers soon. Honda says the new car should run with the old one, performing the 0-60 sprint in about 7 seconds.

Looking for a more expert opinion? RealTime Racing team owner and multi-time champion Peter Cunningham was on hand, and he got to drive the track under dry conditions.

"Handling-it really hit the nail right on the head," he explains. "I was very impressed." Peter says he found the car's balance to be great, and incorrectly guessed the car's weight at closer to 2500 pounds after several full days of on-track testing. "It carries its weight well," he reasons.

As for the front strut setup, Peter had no complaints, especially considering the car's intended use in the real world, where packaging issues are a concern. He says the spring rates felt good, too.

Like us, he found the shifter odd but effective, located right where the driver needs it. "It is a little weird because it is different," he says. He also found himself hitting the rev limiter quite a bit, but notes that on the race track, the new car is often going faster than you think.

Will it make a good race car? None of us can predict the future, but we all found it to have no more weaknesses than any other previous Civic Si-all of which have gone on to become successful in autocross, road racing and professional endurance competition. As Peter said, "it's all good."

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