If your Ford had a Matthew McConaughey, it would be a Lincoln

I'm trying to make a rational, money-saving choice of cars, and I might have a contender

My wife and I are talking about saving up to buy a house here in the not-cheap DC burbs within the next year or two. We’re trying to find ways to economize our budget. I should try to get something normal and practical but my mind doesn’t work that way. But maybe I’ve got something going here.

My 335xi has a loan on it. It’s modified, and to do something resembling recouping the investment in the mods, I’ll need to sell it privately. There are various ways I could improve upon the 335xi:

  1. Monthly payment
  2. Insurance cost
  3. Fuel cost
  4. Maintenance cost
  5. Repair cost
  6. Comfort
  7. Willingness of my wife to actually ride in the thing

At first, I had this thought of there are a few too many permanent potholes around here created by road repaving that leaves manhole covers way too recessed from the road surface, and my 335xi hates these, so I’d keep it for another year and then replace it with something fancy like a Genesis G70 or Kia Stinger.

The more we talked about this house buying idea, the more we’re trying to squeeze our budget into where it should be, and my car became an area of opportunity for budget squeezing.

After many fits and starts of crazy ideas that included an S2000 (checks the financial boxes but it’s not comfy and the wife won’t ride in it), a 1st gen CTS-V (cheap pile of crap with a great motor that I’d need to put some work into but the parts are cheap too), a certified current-gen Kia Optima SX (fully loaded version of an airport rental car) and a JDM Toyota Aristo (2JZ engine, no shit, this will decimate all except for drive thrus and paid parking lots) I found my way to the Honda dealer and tried a Civic Si on for size.

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I was not prepared to enjoy the car as much as I did.

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The Civic Si is what I can only describe as greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not loaded with options. It’s not loaded with exotic performance parts. But the assorted good stuff that Honda mixed in to the regular Civic winds up a very TastyKake indeed.

Yeah yeah, the styling is, unfortunate, and the little 1.5 liter turbo motor doesn’t compare well on paper to to the 2.0 liter motors in stuff like the GTI or Veloster N, but I don’t care because the Civic Si is fun and cheap as all hell. Sticker price is $24k and dealers will sell them well under $22k no problem.

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The chassis was fantastic. The steering bites hard and the LSD puts the power down exactly how you’d want. The ride is firmer than a purely normal regular car but it’s far from punishing, even in sport mode which makes the honest-to-holy-shit-why-are-these-in-a-sub-25k-car adaptive dampers stiffer, and turns the gauges and dash lighting angry/sporty RED. Silly, but fun.

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I might have to go out on a limb and say the Civic Si has the best steering of any new, modern, electrically-assisted power steering I’ve driven in the past few years. Well, neck and neck with the ND Miata, but actually the turn-in feel might be better. Even on the stock sporty all-season tires, the car is so eager to turn in, and thanks to the LSD you can jump on the throttle and power through the rest of the turn. You’re not going to steer the car with the throttle like a rwd car but this is an excellent-handling car.

The comfort though, that’s the great thing about modern cars in general and the Si in particular given how well it handles. The body is stiff enough and everything is lightweight enough that the Si definitely feels sporty but not so much that it’ll beat you up just putzing around town. It handles big bumps and rough patches of road excellently.

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How about that supposedly weak motor though? It honestly surprised me. I’ve driven a CR-V with the 1.5 turbo motor and it’s totally different here. There’s a good midrange torque punch, throttle response is zippy, and the gearing is such that you can be perfectly quick squirting in and out of gaps in traffic. Are you going to roast people and leave them in your dust? No. But at no point during the drive did I think, “this is a great chassis that’s let down by the motor.” I even chirped the tires on a 1-2 shift.

Apparently Honda did a fair amount of fiddling with the 1.5t for duty in the Si, and—cue the tired car guy cliche—Honda sandbagged the horsepower number a lot. Hondata, the ECU tuner, did a baseline dyno run where their car put down 205 hp to the wheels, which is Honda’s claimed crank hp number. With the off-the-shelf Hondata tune and no other mods, that number goes up to 232 whp. Not bad!

Oh, and something very smart and trick and cool about that Hondata ECU tune: it’s only active in sport mode. At first you might be thinking, “but I want the extra power all the time!” Well, you’re wrong. Because the Civic Si in stock form, even though it needs premium fuel, will easily return over 30 mpg even if you drive it like an ass. It’s rated at 38 mpg highway! Keeping the baseline stock tune for regular mode is fine and it preserves that fuel economy. If you want the extra power, press the sport button, make the gauges red and angry, and away we go.

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Is it a properly quick 12-second 1/4 mile car? Nope! It’s a fast slow car. But it’s plenty gutsy for shooting gaps in traffic and if you go out on a back road it loves putting down the power coming out of 2nd gear corners.

Now let’s talk options, or the lack thereof. There are no active safety gizmos. The only safety gizmo of any kind is Honda’s LaneWatch camera mounted on the passenger side mirror that shows on your infotainment screen when you turn on your right turn signal. But you know what? That’s perfect for me. When I drive my wife’s CX-5, every goddamn time I put the turn signal on and there’s a car in one of the side mirrors, the it beeps a warning BEEP BEEP BEEP THERE’S SOMEONE/SOMETHING IN YOUR MIRROR BEEP BEEP BEEP! The problem with this is it sets off my wife if she’s riding shotgun, and if I’m trying to make a decent pace through a busy highway, I change lanes a lot. In the Si, there are no BEEP BEEP BEEPs, but that LaneWatch camera will make my wife feel safe without being so irritating.

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Otherwise, you’ve got manual, heavily bolstered but comfy cloth sport seats, the usual infotainment system with decent menus plus Android Auto and CarPlay, the upgraded amp & speakers from the higher Civic trims, assorted fake carbon fiber and red accent trim throughout the interior, a sunroof, and that’s about it. You can get an auto-dimming mirror as a dealer accessory. The gauges though are cool. They’re a full screen setup and have fun performance-y screens you can scroll through including a shift light, g meter, stopwatch, boost gauge, and even a combined throttle position/boost gauge. Nothing absolutely essential there but a nice touch.

Outside of the lack of options, there are a few minor downsides. The pedals are crap for heel-toeing. The gas pedal isn’t floor mounted, it’s small, and it’s set back from the brake way too much. The first few times I tried to heel-toe the Si, I failed miserably. Eventually I adapted my technique but it still wasn’t great. Thankfully, sporty Honda aftermarket being what it is, there’s a kit with a bracket that lets you move the gas pedal exactly where it should be!

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That right there would be my very first mod on an Si because the heel-toe situation from the factory is garbage. Speaking of shifting, the clutch is super light weight with not much feel. It’s an on-off switch. But it’s predictable enough that as long as I got this gas pedal fixer kit I’d have no complaints.

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Oh, and there’s an infernal electronic parking brake.

Basically, the Civic Si is a fun, fun, fun back road car with enough power to be useful knifing through traffic, that’s otherwise a perfectly practical not-so-compact compact sedan. Sure it doesn’t have every single option and the racy-looking front seats are a little on the narrow side, but man, for a truly fun practical daily driver kind of car, I was thoroughly impressed.

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Anybody want to buy my 335xi?

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