The 2017 Honda Civic Si Is A Love Letter To The Manual Transmission

(Images: Raphael Orlove)
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The 2017 Honda Civic Si is not the fastest car you can get for about $25,000. It is not the most powerful or the best handling. A Ford Focus ST would beat it in a drag race, a Mazda Miata would take it in the corners and a Subaru WRX would likely do both. But there is one thing the Civic Si has that’s better than almost any other car at any price range, and it has six gears and sits next to the driver.

(Full disclosure: Honda needed me to drive the Civic Si so badly it dropped one off at our office in Manhattan with a full tank of gas for a weekend.)

I’ll get right down to it: if you’re expecting the Civic Si to be the Diet Coke version of the snarling, 306 horsepower, Nürburgring-conquering, patently absurd in the best possible way Civic Type R, you are going to be disappointed. It’s far closer to the regular Civic than it is to any hardcore performance machine.

That’s not meant in a bad way. I have been incredibly impressed with the new generation of the Honda Civic, which launched as a 2016 model and made the ubiquitous compact actually relevant again. While bigger than any of its predecessors, the latest Civic is practical, full of useful technology and even reasonably engaging to drive in its own right.

So the Si version, which has been around in one shape or another (sometimes really another) since the 1980s, takes that basic recipe and makes it all a little bit better and more fun. And it does so with one of the best six-speed manual transmissions you can get right now, anywhere.

That short-throw manual is the sole gearbox option here. No automatic, no CVT. That’s a good thing, and that red trunk badge should immediately identify the car’s owner as someone who still believes in human driving.

Other tweaks include the front fascia, center exhaust, Si badges, a rear spoiler, 18-inch wheels and a helical-gear limited slip differential which keeps the car stable through hard acceleration. And the Si comes in a coupe or a sedan, the latter being what we had.

Beyond that, it’s all Civic—you’ll either hate it, or… I guess, just like it. I haven’t met many people who say they love the aggro-cyborg looks of the current car. And while I don’t mind it because it’s distinctive, I can’t say I think the design will age to be a timeless classic.

Like its Si predecessors, front-wheel drive is the only way you can go here. That’s kind of where most similarities with the old cars end—the Si has always been known for a great manual gearbox, but in the past they’ve been hooked up to high-revving naturally aspirated motors you had to gun to the stratosphere to get anything out of. You had to get that VTEC to kick in! And that meant doing some pedal work.

Not so much here. Now the Si has a 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the same as the one in the other Civics, but uprated to 205 horsepower and 192 lb-ft of torque. Here, it gets the job done and makes the Si reasonably quick, but far from actually fast.

It’s a little gutless at low revs before delivering a nice linear mid-range punch to a 6,500 RPM redline. (More on that shortly.) It’s good for traffic pulls and highway runs, because squeezing out power is far less work—or fun—than it was before. It is direct even if it lacks character.

Thing is, I could say the same about almost every other small turbo four these days. They all kind of just behave. They all certainly sound the same, more or less; the new Civic Si makes an anonymous, industrial, artificial-sounding whooshing noise in the cabin. There’s nothing especially inspiring about it. It’s a turbo engine that’s decent, and that’s really it. One day, we will remember engine sounds as the first casualty in our losing war for the future of cars.

I don’t want to get bogged down in that “I miss the old Honda” mindset, because that discounts truly great cars like today’s Type R and the new NSX, but yes, on this car I do miss howling VTEC redline runs. That’s what made the Civic Si distinctive; in trading that for turbo power, the car’s been made more like every other sporty compact car now.

The good news is you get to work all that power with the stick shift, and that does separate the Civic Si from its rivals. This is, very simply, one of the best manual gearboxes you can buy right now, at any price.

It’s a tight, short, crisp six-speed with a perfectly weighted shifter for precise throws. It feels like something out of a far more special car than a humble Honda sedan, but then again, this is what Honda has always been really good at, from stuff like the original NSX and S2000 trickling all the way down to normal cars like this one.

As a result, many of the best of the current crop of manuals just feel not-quite compared to this thing. The shifter is also heavier and less balky than the manual you can get in the base 2.0-liter Civic thanks to a shorter linkage. I’ve driven both and there are clear differences between the two that leave no doubt as to which is better.

It was a joy to use. It made me look forward to driving the Civic Si, even when its power and noise and redline were far from overwhelming. It’s the killer app for this car. I also love that it’s the only way to own this car, that it shows manuals are still relevant to some of us.

I don’t have great things to say about Honda’s infotainment system or the Civic’s frustrating lack of climate control or stereo volume buttons—something that’s been fixed on newer Hondas—except to say it works with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The former saw pretty much continual use during my three-day test, and it’s a vastly superior alternative to most OEM systems.

The Si struck me as a good, pragmatic, everyday car that happened to be enjoyable every time I took it out, and a lot of that was thanks to the stick. As the autonomous-crossover apocalypse looms over us, I’m certainly glad it’s around. My tester started at $23,900; it had no options beyond the generous standard equipment like satellite radio, a 10-speaker “premium” audio system, a limited slip differential and Honda’s lane watch right-side camera (which I continue to be a huge fan of), putting the final price at $24,775. Not bad for all you get.

Even if it’s not the most hardcore or competitive car in its class, for what it is, it happens to be very good. And unless you’re willing to splurge nearly $40,000 on a Type R, this is the Civic to buy.