Rodrez: Anytime the 10th generation Civic Si is brought up on our social media, we see a ton of comments about how the "real Si coupe" showed up way back in 1999. It's not tough to understand, given many people grew up or grew into their Honda enthusiasm as the EM1, fitted with the first DOHC VTEC powerplant ever offered in a U.S. Civic Si model, was all the rage in the automotive industry. Perhaps most interesting was the fact that Honda was actually listening to what people were looking for and really paying attention to the U.S. enthusiast market.
Now, if you're looking for a suit and tie, A to B comparison based solely on performance numbers, the modern Civic Si is going to take most categories, and it should, granted the EM1 reached its 20th birthday not long ago. Take a look below and you'll see that writer Rory Jurnecka provides his feedback on performance, as expected, but also both cars' overall road feel and presence. There's good and bad with both, and which version is better could be argued for days.
Rory Jurnecka: Close your eyes. It's 1999 again, and the world is on the cusp of a new millennium. By now, it's heavily computerized, the Internet has grown from cult novelty to mainstream marketing machine, and the global population wonders if the Y2K programming glitch that threatens to undermine, well, just about everything, will actually cause the planet to come to a standstill. Conversely, everyone is also just as eager to celebrate. The 2000s bring hope of unfathomable technological advancement and opportunity, like so many movies promised us, and the new 1999 Honda Civic Si coupe just launched, four years after Honda dropped the Si from its U.S. lineup. The move shows Honda has its ears to the asphalt, and it heard the rumblings of the growing sport-compact car tuner movement with all of its hormonal hubris, youthful angst, and rebellious spirit.
Meet the 1999 Honda Civic Si' Specs, Again
In a February 1999 press release, Honda said, "Honda has brought back the high-style, high-performance Civic Si at a time when a small-car performance craze is sweeping the country. Everywhere, owners are modifying cars like the Honda Civic with bigger wheels and tires, custom paint and graphics, body kits, and performance upgrades. Now, the 1999 Civic Si gives them what they want, straight from the factory."
And it mostly did. When the 1999 Honda Civic Si coupe debuted at the Chicago Auto Show with a $17,860 MSRP, it was an instant hit with young enthusiasts. Comparing it with the standard Civic coupe, the Si coupe didn't look vastly different, save for its 15-inch wheels, side skirts, and sportier front air dam.
The real changes were under the sheet metal, with a revised suspension that brought a rear anti-roll bar, a 4-mm larger front anti-roll bar, 25-percent stiffer springs, four-wheel disc brakes, and a front strut-tower brace to reduce flex. But the 1999 Civic Si coupe's real heart was its highly tuned 1.6-liter engine, which included VTEC variable cam timing. Whereas the most potent of the lesser Civics made 127 horsepower at 6,600 rpm, the Si's B16A2 engine churned out 160 hp at 7,600 rpm, thanks to a larger throttle body, more-aggressive cam profiles, new intake and exhaust manifolds, a slightly over-square engine configuration with special low-friction pistons, and a healthy 10.2:1 compression ratio.
1999 Honda Civic Si: Mods Gone Wild
Even with these significant improvements straight from Honda, we doubt many Civic Si coupes remained stock for very long. After all, Honda's own press release went so far as to offer quotes about the car from well-known industry tuners like Oscar Jackson of Jackson Racing, and even offered a glossary of hip tuner slang. One entry reads, "Squeeze: Another name for nitrous oxide, a pressurized gas which helps the engine make more power.—He beat me, but he was squeezin. '" How many 1999 (and after) Honda Civic Si coupes were "squeezed" to death by their owners?
One thing's for sure: The sixth-generation Honda Civic Si coupes that weren't destroyed by overzealous young car lovers two decades ago are now worth a pretty penny. As the late Gen X/early Millennial demographic ages into midlife, we find some seeking comfort in a mad world with nostalgia. How else to explain a sub-6,000-mile, 2000 Honda Civic Si coupe selling for astronomical dollars recently through an online auction.
That result itself explains my nervousness today as Honda delivers an utterly pristine 1999 Civic Si coupe to my driveway with just north of 1,900 miles on the odometer. A cream puff, as they say. Then, a 2020 Honda Civic Si, the very same car I drove just weeks earlier that already has more than double the 1999's miles. As Jeff Lynne would sing, "... there's gonna' be a showdown."
1999 Honda Civic Si: The Way It Was
If there's a universal truth to just about all production cars during the past two decades, it's that they've gotten safer, but also larger and heavier.
Open and shut the door to the 1999 Honda Civic Si, and it almost feels toy-like compared with the 2020 model. Climb inside, and you're treated to lots of glass that makes the cabin feel airy and bright. The leather-covered steering wheel has a thin, almost delicate-feeling rim, and the lanky five-speed shift lever juts from a center console that rises mere inches above the floor. The center stack is simple and uncluttered: just three rotary dials to the left and three buttons at the bottom for climate control, two air vents at the top, and a space split 50/50 by a Honda-branded CD stereo and a cubby for things like sunglasses and your ancient Nokia dumbphone.
You need a physical key to start the 1999 Honda Civic Si, and upon inserting it in the ignition barrel, I have a nostalgic moment of my own: This key is identical to that of my first daily driver, a hand-me-down '89 Accord sedan, also equipped with a five-speed manual.
The engine fires quietly and undramatically; the only real indicators of this being a performance car are the instrument panel with its red-needled, 9,000-rpm tachometer (redlined at 8,000 rpm), and the stylized 'Si' badge atop the combo fuel/temp gauge. A 140-mph speedometer sits dead center, and the odometer reads 1,918 miles. There's even plenty of 1990s new-car smell left.
Rolling off, the old Civic Si feels small on the road and fairly nimble; it only has about 2,600 pounds or so of curb weight to move around. The feeling is amplified with the tremendous view of the road ahead through a tall, wide windscreen with thin, unobstructive A-pillars, and a surprisingly tall seating position with next to no lateral support. No wonder so many kids put race-style buckets in their Civics.
1999 Honda Civic Si: Nostalgia Can Fool You, Sometimes
Before taking the wheel of the 1999 Honda Civic Si coupe, I had preconceptions of a somewhat wild and peaky engine, with a quick-revving nature and mild-turbo-like power delivery when the VTEC kicks in around 5,500 rpm to hydraulically switch the cam-lobe profiles. Twenty-one years later, the reality is, well, not so engaging.
The 1.6-liter four-cylinder revs lazily to VTEC engagement, and while the last couple of thousand rpm coincide with a harder-edged, more mechanical sound, I'm still left waiting for any noticeable change in power delivery. Really, the VTEC mill pulls quite linearly to redline, and with just 111 lb-ft of torque at 7,000 rpm, well, it doesn't feel particularly potent. Period tests suggest a 0-60-mph time in the low 7-second range, and that feels about right from the driver's seat. With the transmission's short gearing that lands redline upshifts right in the throes of VTEC activation, 70 mph on the freeway is frantic, with the engine spinning at more than 3,000 rpm.
Today's modern "sport suspension" options are usually too firm for the road, but the 1999 Honda Civic Si's sport suspension delivers just the opposite. There's plenty of body roll when the going gets twisty, and the 195-width, 15-inch tires don't need much provoking before you can hear them working. The upside to the relatively soft suspension is, the '99 Civic Si is a comfortable car, even over uneven road surfaces, and it doesn't get unsettled very often. The downside is, we can see why tuners felt Honda hadn't gone far enough with the Si, adding their own aftermarket parts to turn the Si into the car they thought it should have been from the start.
EM1 Finally Meets Its Younger, Broad-Shouldered Sibling
What would 1990s kids think of the 2020 Honda Civic Si coupe? Getting behind the wheel, the modern Civic's cabin is dark and cave-like, with a lot less glass area and a higher waistline that puts windowsills at near-shoulder level rather than elbow level. The center console is also taller, with a shorter, stubbier shift lever (now six speeds). Everything looks sportier, with black and red upholstery, a thicker-rimmed three-spoke steering wheel, heavily bolstered sport seats with "Si" logos, and a large, central digital tachometer with a modest 6,500-rpm redline.
On the road, the 2020 Civic Si coupe feels like a proper boy-racer car, with 205 hp from its turbocharged, 1.5-liter four, but more importantly, an impressive 192 lb-ft of torque from 2,100 rpm—nearly 5,000 rpm sooner than in the classic Civic. Small displacement plus a turbocharger means that getting on the throttle, you'll wait a "one-Mississippi" count for the impeller to spool up before you get all the engine has to give, but when it gets there, you'll know with a small shove in your backside and an eager climb to redline.
Despite the turbocharger, the new car sounds more engaging than the 1999 Civic Si, though most of the sound is nasally, piped-in induction noise, (especially in Sport mode) as is par for the course these days. What's not engaging is the way the engine hangs its revs between upshifts; Honda says the practice reduces emissions, but we say it saps a fair amount of driver enjoyment. A tall sixth gear is essentially an overdrive, with relaxed, sub-3,000-rpm freeway cruising.
1999 Honda Civic Si vs. 2020 Honda Civic Si: We've Come a Long Way
Especially with the HPT (High Performance Tire) package, as our 235/40 R18 Goodyear Eagle F1-equipped 2020 Civic Si featured, the newer car had us wishing for a track to really enjoy its capabilities. Cars haven't just grown larger and heavier during the past 20 years; they've also become a lot more capable. As such, finding the limits on even something like a 2020 Honda Civic Si HPT is tough to do on the street. The meaty gumballs at all four corners feel like they're pushed as wide as they can go without fouling the fenders, and the grip level is impressive. Twenty years ago, this new Civic Si coupe would have been a serious performance car, its lateral stability and 6.5-second 0-60-mph time closer than you might think to what the Acura NSX supercar offered way back then. Today, a 2020 Acura NSX would eat the Civic for breakfast and be hungry for seconds.
The sixth-generation Honda Civic Si lasted just two model years: 1999 and 2000. In 2001, the seventh-generation Civic launched and a year later, we got a new Si model not in coupe form, but as a two-door hatchback. Recently, Honda announced it will discontinue the Civic Si coupe after the 2020 model year on the grounds that the brutally quick Civic Type R's four-door hatchback body style has again turned enthusiasts' performance mindset away from coupes.
1999 Honda Civic Si Coupe Highlights
- Compact size, excellent visibility
- Doesn't feel particularly quick or sporty, but it is comfortable
- Approachable limits on real roads gives big smiles
2020 Honda Civic Si Coupe Highlights
- Larger, heavier car, cave-like interior, but far more luxury features than in the past
- Speed and capability the 1999 model can only dream of
- A more focused, more serious sports coupe but at the cost of simplicity