People seem to understand that the 1999 (and 2000) Honda Civic Si is special. In the rare instance that a clean one pops up for sale, these 20-year-old economy cars can sell for close to the cost of a 2017 Honda Civic Si. We drove the nicest ’99 Si left on Earth to find out if it’s really worth the hype.
“Nicest on Earth” is a bold claim, but I’m pretty confident it’s founded here. This 1999 Honda Civic Si is mint, bone stock, the best color (Electron Blue Pearl), and when I fired it up... had just a hair over 200 miles on its odometer.
That’s no typo–the car has been hibernating in some SoCal storage facility since shortly after it was built. “Honestly I didn’t even know we had this thing” one Honda executive told me when I asked about why it was imprisoned for so long. So why bring it out now? “Should we just keep it in the basement or let it spread joy? We’re hoping to create future connoisseurs” Honda’s Assistant VP of Public Relations Sage Marie said to me with a smile. Good answer.
I think Honda’s staff really did forget that this Civic, along with ’99 Prelude SH and a ’09 S2000 CR I’ll tell you about later, were living in their vault until somebody realized how hot these cars are now. Whatever the reason, I was not about to turn down the chance to relive my adolescence and let everyone know just how good a ’99 Si still is.
(Full disclosure: Honda let me drive this and a couple cars at a media event celebrating the manual transmission and the company’s heritage. Out of respect for these irreplaceable artifacts, I only drove each for a short period.)
If you’re just tuning in to the world of modern classics or sport compact cars, the 1999 and 2000 Honda Civic Si, known as the EM1, was a big moment for the practical performance scene. Unlike every U.S.-market Civic Si before it, the EM1 came with a dramatically more impressive powertrain than the regular-ass Civics it shared dealership lot space with.
The 1.6-liter four-cylinder B16A2 is rated to 160 horsepower, a freaking icon of volumetric efficiency even by today’s standards, and has a terrifyingly fast redline of 8,000 RPM. You have to rev the car that high to make it move too, because Honda’s VTEC system doesn’t wake up and feed the car its maximal dose of air and gasoline until 5,500 RPM.
The engine was designed with that dual personality to boost performance without sacrificing efficiency for low-rev commuter duty. Crossi the VTEC threshold is not like stepping into a new dimension of speed, as forum-lurking fanboys might suggest. But it does add drama to the way the car drives and produces a distinctively exciting note.
Today, just looking at a blue EM1 hurts my heart with nostalgia. It hurts my body for the same reason. Would you believe I’ve been in more crashes in one of these, in this color, than I can comfortably count?
Without getting too sidetracked or self-deprecating; suffice it to say that one of my high school friends had a beautiful blue Si and we put it through every common abuse that makes “good ones” so hard to find today. The car was tastelessly modded, carelessly driven and finally pulled out of a guardrail one time too many for the insurance company’s liking and mercy killed at a local wrecking yard. My friend could only afford an ancient, dilapidated first-generation Acura Legend to replace it. A car which, frankly, he probably should have been given at age 16 in the first place.
I’ll never forget ceremonially, tearfully removing the Skunk2 shift knob from the bent and broken EM1. He screwed it onto his Acura, where it still failed to add HP or cheer us up.
So with that in mind, I was determined to return Honda’s museum-quality EM1 without so much as a bug stain on it. But, of course, I still had to make it sing. For science.
The first thing I was surprised by was that I didn’t remember was how light the doors feel. The whole car only weighs about 2,600 pounds, a big part of what makes it so much fun to drive, and that’s apparent before you even fire it up.
Looking across the stubby, undecorated dashboard and simplistic buttons made me appreciate how basic cars from this era really are. The HVAC looks like a child’s toy. There are so many button blanks. The seats, which barely bolster you enough to comfortably take a turn at parking lot speeds, are covered in this odd fabric that looks like the screen of an old antenna TV stuck between channels.
The roofline barely accommodates a six-foot person with a big haircut, I mused as I fumbled for the sunroof control. “Oh yeah,” I chuckled to myself as I remembered it was located near the driver’s knee. Of course.
Pushing the button-easy clutch, I defiled the 200-mile car by starting it for presumably only the fifth or sixth time in its life and rowed the shifter to first. The throw is decisive, but long.
Puttering out of the parking lot took me back, though. Back to high school. Back to when this car was “newish” and being driven recklessly home from the first The Fast And The Furious movie. Touching the fabric center console armrest and door handles felt like picking up a childhood stuffed animal from mom’s attic.
By the time the car got to its normal operating temperature I was just coming up on the bottom of Angeles Crest, a long and legendary snake of turns through the mountains north of Los Angeles.
This is where I learned that, 20 years later, the ’99 Civic Si is still voracious. Leaning in to the throttle I heard, and felt, VTEC engage with the waa-WAH that had turned me on so many times in my early driving days.
The excitement was still there for sure. The sensation of speed... eh?
One-hundred and sixty horses were a lot for this kind of car in ’99 and like I said earlier, still a lot for 1.6 liters. But it’s pretty modest today and basically anemic compared to what you’ll find in a new Honda Civic Si. Fumbling with the gigantic steering wheel, I guided the car into a corner and felt the whole light body sway and rock as I linked turns together.
Riding high RPMs in third gear was enough to make Angeles Crest a thrill ride at right around the speed limit, but mostly because of how dramatic the car felt and sounded and tilted. Not how fast I was actually going.
The Civic Si has a distinctively mean exhaust note, a delightfully responsive throttle and decisively direct steering feel. It’s a wonderful piece of automotive history and a true pleasure to drive.
But then I drove a 2018 Honda Civic Si. And fam, you’ve got to understand something before you go spending $20,000 on a 20-year-old used car–the new one whips the EM1’s ass in every appreciable way.
The old car’s wire-driven throttle, pure hydraulic steering and complete lack of traction control create a magical driving experience but the new car’s shifter feels snappier, the seats are snugger, turning is tighter and the whole hard-driving experience is objectively superior.
I consider myself tragically nostalgic and if you are too, driving a mint-condition EM1 will be everything your heart has imagined. But for fun, I can’t deny it, today’s 205 HP Civic Si is a worthy evolution and a better car to drive.
The EM1 will always have a piece of my heart, and they’re pieces of history worth worshiping. But today’s car enthusiasts should be happy to know that affordable practical performance still exists in showrooms.