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Photo: Andrew P Collins
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When Honda first started breaking into the mainstream in America in the 1970s, it did so with a simple philosophy: cut down on its variations in models to the bare bones. If you got a Civic, you got a Civic, same as anyone else’s. But things are different now.

Now you are invited to buy not only the 2019 Honda Civic (as a sedan, coupe, and hatchback), the Civic Si, and the lofty Civic Type R, but also the Civic Sport, splitting down to a somewhat granular degree of how sporty a Civic you feel you can handle. The Sport was introduced as a Hatchback-only trim a few years ago, but now you can spec it as a coupe or sedan, too.

The Type R has max turbo power, max suspension, max cost, and so on. The Si has turbo power, but less, and is generally less extreme from wheels and tires up. The Civic Sport has no turbo, but gets some of the looks and suspension work of the Si. It’s not exactly an Si with no turbo, but that’s the right train of thought.

(This breakdown leaves out the Honda Insight, which is a hybrid version of the Civic with a different face and a different name.)

If you think this is all slightly too much confusion on what a Civic is, you’ll be interested to hear that Honda itself has pledged to cut down on trims and options and models as much as it can, hoping to regain some of the efficiency it had in the old days.

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But it’d be a shame if all of this rationalization cut the Civic Sport. It’s a better car than you’d think, and more like an old-school Honda than you’d expect.

(Full Disclosure: Honda invited me to come over to Malibu to briefly drive the 2019 Civic Sport and Si, eat some free breakfast and witness a PowerPoint presentation.)

The 2019 Honda Civic is largely a carry-over from the current car. The most noticeable aesthetic evolution is that Honda changed its chrome beak to black and some lower black trim strips to chrome. True fans might also notice that some of the black honeycomb has been swapped for flat pieces of plastic.

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The only update of real significance is the fact that the Civic Sport, a trim level that adds tuned shocks and rear control arms which are supposed to improve responsiveness, quicker steering, and a thicker front stabilizer bar to the base Civic, is now available on the four-door Sedan and two-door Coupe instead of just the five-door Hatchback.

(It’s worth noting that if you want a Civic Si, you can get it as a sedan or Coupe, but not a hatch.)

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Civic Sports also get 18-inch alloy wheels, an infotainment upgrade with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a better stereo, slightly nicer seats, a center-exit exhaust, leather steering wheel and shift knob wraps, and red coloring in the gauge cluster. The Civic Si might not be a diet version of the Type R, but the Sport does feel like a diet version of the Si, if that makes sense.

You can and should get a six-speed manual with the Sport, instead of the continuously variable automatic which is an extra $800, (with paddle shifters to override engine speed), but the only engine option is a 2.0-liter non-turbo that Honda claims can turn out 158 horsepower and 138 lb-ft of torque.

After a short lap around Malibu and the hills next door, it became clear that the Civic Sport is Fine. The interior feels sufficiently robust, seats are reasonably comfortable and I really like the balance Honda’s struck between what to assign a hard key to and what to bake into its infotainment system. Climate control and audio volume are always easy to find, while the computer screen responds fast enough to your requests for anything else.

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The steering feels consistent, the shifter’s very satisfactory to snap through gears with... and you need to rev the engine beyond 4,000 RPM to get any sensation of thrust out of it. Just like the Hondas of the ’90s you might have grown up with! Except all the controls feel lighter, while the whole car somehow feels heavier than its forefathers.

Today’s Civic is actually still pretty light, by the way. A manual Sport sedan claims 2,838 pounds and the Si is about half a human heavier.

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If you spent a lot of time behind the B- and D-Series engines of old Civics and Integras, and I bet plenty of people reading this did, the new Civic is kind of like driving an old Civic in a video game. The sensations are all similar, but there’s less resistance in everything.

To be honest, my only real knock on the 2019 Civic Sport on its own is the rear lower valance hanging over the center-exit rear exhaust. It comes down in slices in a way that’s cosmetically Trying Too Hard. But I guess things like that are bound to happen when designers have to go hunting for ways to punch up a three-year-old design for the youths.

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At least, that was my only complaint until I climbed into the 205-HP turbocharged Honda Civic Si.

The Si may list at $3,150 more than the Sport, but, it just pulls so much harder that the upgrade will feel worth it after one merge. And the Si doesn’t just add 47 HP and 54 lb-ft of torque. It also gets a limited-slip differential, much more supportive (and heated!) seats, a sunroof, a Sport mode button with a very tangible effect on suspension stiffness and steering weight, plus way more sporty nonsense like a shift light and throttle and brake position indicator.

Do you need a brake position indicator? No. But you’re driving a fast Honda. it should be a little silly.

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The Si’s shifter feels heftier, red stitching in the cockpit adds 10 HP

The Si even has better fuel economy ratings that the lower-power Sport. The 2.0-liter naturally aspirated Sport is rated at 29 mpg in combined highway and city driving, while the 1.5-liter turbocharged Si is rated to 32 mpg.

A very quick blast around some hilly roads gave me the same sensation of mild surprise I had last time I drove a current-gen Civic Si. It’s hard to experience the surge of the turbo and strong bite into modestly-aggressive turns without cracking a smile. The car really shines on tight roads were you get to do a lot of gear-rowing, and feel the 15-to-40 mph blast over and over again.

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The Civic Sport doesn’t really have that capability. As for why it exists, Honda’s people explained in a presentation that the Civic was a popular choice for young first-time car buyers. My read was: people who might be stretching their budget to get into a new car at all, and might actually be better off without the temptation of a turbocharger at their feet.

So the short story is, if you’re a new driver looking for a new car for short money, the $21,150 Civic Sport is a nice little upgrade over the base $19,450 LX. And I’m sure hundreds of Honda salespeople across the country will be reciting those words as this thing hits dealers. It should be an easy upsell for its Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capabilities alone.

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But if you’re after earnest practical performance, good as it is, the Sport can’t touch the satisfaction the Si offers.