- The 2020 Honda Civic Si is the most recent iteration of a car that’s been around for decades. It’s a sporty vehicle with all of the practicality of a compact car.
- The Si comes in a sedan and a coupe, and starts at $25,200. It doesn’t have many optional add-ons to up the price much further.
- Only one powertrain is available on the Si: a 205-horsepower engine and a six-speed manual transmission.
- The Si is a great car, both in how enjoyable it is to drive and in its styling. But it does have the woes of entry-level vehicles, such as elements of the interior that just feel cheap.
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My spouse and I stood in our driveway looking at the 2006 Honda Civic that might soon stop calling this home. Yet another prospective buyer from Facebook Marketplace had shown up, fueling our running bet on whether they’d ask how to shift the car out of park.
“Oh!” said the person they brought. “It has a manual transmission — that’s so cool!”
The photos showed the shifter, but you’ll quickly learn on Facebook Marketplace that a lot of folks don’t look at the photos. They were probably the fourth person to stop by that week to see the 2006 Honda Civic, which had to go after my spouse impulse-bought a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata (also on Facebook).
The actual buyer, though, slumped at the thought of needing to learn to drive the car they were buying — especially after they’d stalled it five times at a stop sign during their test drive. They took it home only at the insistence of their companion, who couldn’t wait to impart some knowledge.
A few weeks later, after a whole lot of pounding on its clutch pedal, they texted my spouse to say they were loving the car. It was an ending I saw coming from the moment they signed the papers: a by-chance new fan of the manual transmission.
Years after my own conversion and a few weeks after I’d spent some time with the new Honda Civic Si, the saga reminded me just how amazing it is that in 2020, when buyers overwhelmingly choose SUVs and automatics over small cars and manuals, you don’t have to roll up to someone’s driveway to find a Civic with a stick. You can still get one new at the dealership.
But the 2020 Si isn’t just a Civic with a stick. It’s a damn-good Civic, from how it looks to how it drives.
The 2020 Civic Si, the latest incarnation of a long tradition
Honda’s Si badge — that’s “sport injection,” despite the lowercase “I” — has been around for decades. It’s the normal Civic, but sportier. With an “injection of sport,” if you will.
For car enthusiasts, the Si is one of those go-to vehicles. If you want a $35,000 V8 with a manual transmission, you go for a Ford Mustang. If you crave the crown jewel of affordable yet impractical sports cars and have an extra space in the garage, you go for a Mazda Miata.
If you want good, cheap fun right off a dealer lot for $15,000 less than the average price of a new car, you go for the Si.
But the Si isn’t the kind of car most Americans go for. Only about 2% of vehicles sold in the US these days have a third pedal, yet the Si doesn’t come as an automatic. Crossovers and SUVs are killing the small-car market, yet the Si remains a small car. The average price of a new car is nearing $40,000, yet the Si costs about $25,000.
The Si fills a void in between dedicated sports car and practical commuter ride, a car light on interior goodies and engineered for fun — a segment that’s shrinking as automakers cut small cars and kill manuals in favor of transmissions that require less attention.
The Honda Civic Si, in other words, has all the attributes most modern car buyers shun. Yet it’s still here, and we’re thankful.
Details and safety ratings: Pay attention to the headlights
The 2020 Si starts at $25,200, which is $4,400 more than the base-model Civic. There aren’t too many features to add on, either.
The only powertrain option is the turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 205 horsepower and a six-speed manual transmission. Honda offers the Si as a coupe and as a sedan, but is killing the coupe across its Civic lineup after this model year. The Si itself will also take a break in 2021, returning when the new-generation Civic arrives in 2022.
A limited-slip differential and sport mode come standard on the Si, as do Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, a push-to-start button, and headlights that turn on and off automatically. The parking brake is electronic, whether you like it or not.
Also standard are adaptive cruise control, a collision-mitigation braking system, lane-keep assist, and lane-departure warning in the Honda Sensing safety suite, as well as heated front seats and dual-zone climate control, so you can crank the temperature down to 65 degrees while your passenger hangs out at 78.
Both the 2020 Civic coupe and sedan, which I tested, have top crash ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The only trouble comes with the Si’s headlights, which got the organization’s worst safety rating because of excessive glare. Honda later updated the headlights to create only “some glare” and get an IIHS top rating. But that means you’ll have to pay attention on the lot, since the old cars are still for sale: Si models built from December 2019 onward have the new headlights, and you can often find out when a car was built on the inside of the driver’s door.
What stands out: an incredible drive that won’t bankrupt you
The Civic Si, like many cars of its nature, is pretty much the full package for someone who wants a new sporty car that won’t require choosing between said car and ever having a hope of retiring. (Choose retirement. Cars are just cars.)
In a roughly $26,000 package, the Civic Si comes with the tech and safety comforts a car needs along with all the fun a buyer might want. With its four doors and trunk big enough to fit at least two humans (or, to be less ominous, two humans’ worth of groceries for a couple of weeks), its sporty driving characteristics are balanced out by the fact that you could easily use it to bring home new furniture.
Shifts are effortless. The light clutch pedal doesn’t push back or provide much tension, but that doesn’t matter. The lack of resistance and ease of shifting just feels right. You want to drive the Si, and it wants to drive with you.
The Si won’t awe you with speed, even with the turbocharger’s help. Its 205 horsepower isn’t enough to make any compact sedan into a land rocket, because even “compact” sedans are heavy. The Si is meant to be fun for what it is: practical, from its body style to its 30-mpg combined fuel-economy rating.
The car looks the part too. The red accenting all over its black interior makes you feel at ease when you step inside, ready to go, no matter how far you’re going. The carbon-fiber-like accents are a nice touch. The circular shift knob fit perfectly in my palm.
The Si has the Goldilocks of steering wheels, not too thin and not too thick. It was just big enough to wrap my hands around comfortably, but not big enough to be burdensome in a vehicle that’s supposed to feel somewhat nimble. Its infotainment screen is intuitive to use, unlike many modern systems, and its turn-signal camera feeds fill blind spots whenever engaged.
The Si is driver-centric. The focal point of the gauge cluster — the driver’s main view — is the giant digital tachometer with a numerical speed reading under its arc, because it’s more enjoyable to watch the revs bounce up and down than it is to see a speedometer hold at the speed limit.
That’s what the Si is all about: being enjoyable, from the drive itself to all the things that factor into it.
What falls short: the less obvious drawbacks of an economy car
The Civic Si is still on the cheap end of the new-car market, meaning it comes with many of the woes of an entry-level interior.
Cloth seats like the ones in the Si can be a plus, for some. They won’t start to wear and crack on the edges like leather, and they can be made to look nice with a little bit of contrast stitching and a pattern.
But cloth in the Si is everywhere. On the door panels. The armrests. The places other cars use hard materials instead of soft, absorbent ones. The problem isn’t with the cloth itself, but with any grime it might pick up. You’ll start to see marks on the armrest and the doors, and have no clue where they came from. Sure, it’s an easy clean, but that doesn’t make it not annoying.
The seats are weak and bouncy, particularly in the back. Hop behind the driver and be reminded of that couch you purchased for your first apartment — temptingly inexpensive, but sure to wear down after a few years.
The rear fold-out armrest is like that too. Pull it out of its little socket in the middle seat, and you won’t get a stiff, stable spot for your arm. You get a thing that will bounce off the seat bottom about three times when pulled down, then come to a limp rest against it, unable to hold itself up, let alone your arm.
There’s a lot of legroom in the back of the Si, but the overall view isn’t fancy. It almost feels like a different car than it does in the front seats, where the red-and-gray accents leave you with a sporty vibe. In the back, it’s just a lot of flat black.
Adding to the economy feel are the car’s yellow-tinted interior lights and hollow-feeling accents, like the hard black lining on either side of the shifter. It might look nice and neat in photos, but tap it with your finger a few times and it feels just a little too cheap.
Don’t look (or tap) too hard, though, and you’ll be OK.
That’s the case with most disappointments on the Si: If you don’t look too hard, they won’t bother you. The issues aren’t intrusive, and they’re easy to set aside when you remember that this isn’t a car anyone buys for fanciness. It’s a car people buy to have a blast in, with a new-car warranty and without spending a lot of money.
In that respect, it does its job more than all right.
How the Si compares to its competitors: It’s all a matter of preference
The Civic Si is the middle tier between the regular Civic and the full-blown Civic Type R, which comes with 306 horsepower, a six-speed manual, and starts at $36,995. It sits in a crowd of other manual-transmission front-wheel-drive cars vying for the same customer.
There’s the Volkswagen Golf GTI with a $28,595 base price, and before it fell victim to Ford’s plans to eliminate passenger cars, there was a Ford Focus ST — also the middle tier between the base Focus and the all-out performance version. Prices for Hyundai’s performance trims sit on either side of the Si’s MSRP, with the middle option, the Elantra N-Line, starting at $23,500, and the top option, Veloster N, starting at $27,600.
The John Cooper Works is Mini’s offering, and it starts in the $33,000 range. Mazda and Toyota don’t have performance variants for their competitors, but the 168-horsepower Corolla hatch starts at $20,290 and the 186-horsepower Mazda 3 hatch only has a manual on its top trim, which starts at $27,500.
In terms of looks alone, the new Mazda 3 hatch and the Veloster N win out in this crowd. But the Mazda 3 sacrifices performance for a “premium” feel, while the Veloster N and Golf GTI bring more performance than the Si at the cost of a higher MSRP.
But the market for these cars is competitive, and each buyer is going to have a different set of wants. If this is your niche, take all of them on a test drive and see which you like the best.
Our impressions: a car we don’t deserve
Many buyers who go for automatics likely feel the same way the buyer of my husband’s Civic did. Why learn to do something most cars handle just fine?
We’ve shown, at least in America, that our tastes generally aren’t for cars like the Si or its counterparts. We’re into big crossovers with enough room for the kids and enough cup holders for the lattes, and we want transmissions so smooth that we forget the car is even shifting from one gear to another.
But for the few who venture toward a clutch — reluctantly or not — cars like the Si remain, with their small statures and very obvious gears that need to be manually changed, catering to that 2% of us who still want to buy a new car with that funky third pedal.
That’s a choice we’re lucky to have, even if only a few of us know it.
This story has been clarified to better reflect the nature of the Si’s turn-signal camera feeds.