Payne: Honda Civic’s hot rod trifecta

Posted by hpayne on June 29, 2017

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Turn One at Honda’s Mojave Desert proving grounds is a fast, left-hand 150-degree sweeper taken in fourth gear. With no obvious reference points in the featureless desert, I reel the Civic Si tester into the apex somewhere beyond my A-pillar, my right foot squeezing the gas as I dance on the edge of adhesion so I can slingshot off exit and into Turn 2 — a fast right-hander. Downshift to third. Search for another distant apex, then hard on the throttle over a blind crest. Fourth gear. Stand on the binders into a downhill, third-gear left-hander.

This high-speed roller coaster goes on for two miles, and as I learn it I never question the car. It’s an extension of my hands, a predictable tool carving unknown terrain.

The Honda Civic Si is back on my shopping list. But do I want it more than the Civic Hatchback Sport or Type R?

Truth be known, I covet them all. It’s a fine quandary Tokyo’s automaker has put us motorheads in. To which of the hot Civic triplets do we propose?

We knew this was coming. Two years ago, Honda debuted an all-new 2016 Civic compact — a wider, lower, Nurburgring-tested, Audi A3-baselined statement that screamed at the top of its lungs: CIVIC IS BACK! The passionate cry was heard by Honda-philes like yours truly who had drifted from the brand over the last decade as it pursued sales volumes and the growing SUV market.

My 2006 Civic Si is one of the best vehicles I’ve ever owned. My sons learned to race in it at Waterford Hills. An all-around all-star, my front-wheel-drive coupe was a snowmobile through Michigan winters, and an apex-carving pocket rocket when the temperatures warmed.

It’s the last Civic that interested me. Until now.

The base car’s athletic new bones were a clear statement that there was much more sinew to come. The standard Civic was statement enough, taking back the compact segment’s crown with best interior volume, biggest back seat, best base horsepower, best fuel economy, first-to-market smartphone apps, and a partridge in a pear tree. It won 2016 North American Car of the Year by a landslide.

Honda was just getting warmed up. Its performance lineup of Sport, Si and Type R is unprecedented in the segment. Ford’s terrific trio — meet sexy Fiesta ST, Focus ST and Focus RS — play across two model lines. As does VW’s Teutonic triad of the Jetta GLI sedan, Golf GTI and Golf R sisters. But only Honda brings three cars of the same model. They’re a triple threat aimed to satisfy gearheads on a budget.

The threesome’s heart and soul is the Si, Honda’s longtime fun badge.

My 2006 car was the howl heard round the world. One of only four cars at the time to milk 100 horsepower-per-liter, the 201-horsepower, 2.0-liter, V-Tec four-banger was a bullet-shaped, cab-forward Rottweiler. At 6,000 rpms, the meat of the peaky torque band, the dual exhaust would release an unholy howl. It was addictive.

Huge Lambo-like front corner air scoops dominate a face smeared with a menacing, black grille. But the air scoops are fake — an ornament since the mere 1.5-liter turbocharged engine under the hood doesn’t need to inhale like a Huracan.

But it sure tries. This miniature gem acts like a motor with twice its displacement boasting remarkable low-end torque that pulls all through the rev band to a 6,500-rpm redline. There’s none of the drama of my old four — but then you probably wouldn’t hear it anyway — so hushed is the Civic interior (even above 100 mph).

The Si comes loaded with Android Auto/Apple CarPlay, sunroof, limited-slip differential, 18-inch wheels — everything but leather and safety-assist systems — at a very tempting $24,600. That’s $1,500 cheaper than a stripped, base GTI. And ALG.com reports the last-generation Si residual value is 15 percent better residual value than the Golf. That’s real money to compact cars’ youthful demographic.

For 2017, Honda even gives the traditional coupe Si a sedan option. Same price. A mere 17 pounds heavier. What Si doesn’t offer, however, is a hatchback. But don’t fret, my hot-hatch brothers, Civic has two new models for you.

At just $23,100, the five-door, 2017 Sport offers a surprisingly roomy hatch (don’t be fooled by the coupe roofline) including a clever luggage-hider that pulls across the rear like a blanket (you’ll never want to go back to the old rail style). The cheaper Coupe lacks only the Si’s infotainment system, limited-slip differential and 25 horsepower — but so good is the blown 1.5-liter that you may not notice.

What you will notice is the 2018 Type R’s 306 horse, 2.0-liter furnace.

The triplet’s official bad seed, the R is a no-holds-barred, tattooed, winged bat out of hell. Limited to Europe for the last three generations, Honda is finally introducing it to polite company in the USA. It, um, makes an impression.

I took it to road and track and held onto its leash for dear life. The baddest-looking beast this side of a Subaru WRX STI, the Type R is remarkably well-trained under stress. Strapped down with more tire, more suspension, more torque-vectoring and 40 percent more chassis-stiffening than the Si, engineers have put 306 horses through two front wheels with minimal torque steer.

Competitors like Ford’s RS and Golf’s R use all-wheel drive to manage that kind of juice. Not R. Without the extra equipment, Honda’s Hellboy comes in at 3,117 pounds — more than 350 pounds lighter than the RS. And a whopping $6,000 less to boot.

That’s a lot to process, I know. A day with the Civic triplets will exhaust you. But the great thing is that each is such a cheap date.

Just try and choose one.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2017 Honda Civic Hatchback Sport

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, FRONT-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER HATCHBACK
Powerplant 1.5-liter, turbocharged inline 4-cylinder
Transmission 6-speed manual; continuously variable

transmission (CVT)

Weight 2,871 pounds (manual)
Price $22,175
Power 180 horsepower, 177 pound-feet torque (manual)
Performance 0-60 mph, 7.0 seconds (Car and Driver)
Fuel economy EPA est. mpg (manual): 30 city/39 highway/33 combined

Report card

HIGHS ENGINE ONE OF HONDA’S JEWELS; BUDGET BARGAIN
Lows Limited options with manual;

lots of non-functional styling

Overall:★★★★

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