2022 Honda Civic Si First Drive: Much more than nostalgia

Every automaker in recent years has been keen to repackage our nostalgia for classic sports cars for a new generation. The resurgence in throwback styling, the revival of long-discontinued nameplates, the callbacks to brand heritage on and off the track – they all acknowledge that we miss the long-gone days of fun, affordable cars that could commute five days a week and carve canyons on the weekends. And, with the Gen X'ers that grew up idolizing the sports icons of the 80s finally possessing the cash – or credit – to dictate new model offerings, manufacturers at last have an incentive to bring back the days of yore.

In an era of stringent crash standards, EPA requirements, and increasing expectations of comfort and roominess from consumers, though, it's rare that any of these nostalgia-laden models offer an experience that resembles their namesakes in anything but... well, name.

So, when Honda brought out a third generation Civic Si – the very first Si model ever produced – and parked it next to the brand-new, eleventh-generation 2022 Civic Si as inspiration illustration of the newest installment for the long-running platform, I was skeptical. I've been a fan of vintage Hondas ever since I got a driver's license; I drove an '88 Prelude Si 2.0 to work every day for years. The attributes I love the classic creations of Soichiro's company for – the airy cabins, the light and tossable on-road demeanor, and the motors that adored revs – all seemed off the table with this newest Civic Si, at least from a glance at its spec sheet.

After all, the eleventh generation has gained fifty pounds over the outgoing model, putting it just shy of 3,000 pounds total. At the same time, it lost five horsepower, down to a flat 200 HP at the front wheels, and gained 1.4 inches in the wheelbase. Now nearly 108 inches, it's over a foot longer than the diminutive hatch from '87. And, although the displacement of the '22 is the same as its ancestor from '85 thanks to a 1.5 liter VTEC-equipped inline four under the hood, it's now turbocharged, something that Honda had famously eschewed during their glory days of the 80s and 90s. Sum up these facts and it seemed like the newest iteration would be less like its ancestors than ever.

Visually, at the very least, it is a return to form for Honda. The eleventh generation Civic is vastly prettier than the outgoing model, with the boy-racer tackiness of the tenth-gen Si done away with in favor of strong, uncomplicated body lines and uncluttered bumpers. It might not be the most stunning sedan on the market, but it's undeniably handsome, and my test car finished in Si-exclusive Blazing Pearl Orange metallic paint was downright striking.

Along with the new sheet metal, the interior has gotten the complete refresh it sorely needed, and the cabin is much better for it. All of the strengths of the newest base model Civic introduced earlier in the year are carried over to the Si. The center stack has been decluttered and the standard 9" touchscreen is now vastly easier to use, and comes equipped with also-standard wireless CarPlay and Android Auto.

The stunning honeycomb vent trim bifurcating the dash is crisply emphasized with trademark Si red accenting, and the seats are supremely comfortable, with hip and lower back bolstering taken straight from the 10th generation Type R. As a bonus, the standard sound system – a 12-speaker Bose setup, complete with a subwoofer – is by far the best I've ever heard in a car anywhere close to this price point. At a $27,300 base price (plus $1,015 destination), with the only possible option being a $200 summer tire upgrade, it punches hard for its segment.

But the attributes that would make the new Civic Si truly a worthy successor to its diminutive hatch ancestors won't show up on a spec sheet or options list. After all, the original Si made do with a 91 horsepower single-cam four cylinder engine, and it was enough to start one of the most beloved affordable sports car lines in automotive history. It captured hearts for reasons far beyond raw power, or driver amenity checkboxes ticked. So, to put the newest model to the test, Honda tossed me the keys to the pictured bright-orange sedan and aimed me at some of the finest roads weaving through the hills of Malibu.

I was incredibly pleased to find that, in motion along routes that even supercar owners covet, the newest Si came together with a lively joy and easy-to-fling demeanor that brought me right back to those heady days of early Honda sports coupes. That redesigned cabin isn't just packed with amenities, it's designed to allow for as much greenhouse visibility as possible: the narrow, pushed-forward A-pillars allow for some of the best sight lines I've ever witnessed in a car that still needs to pass a roof crush test. Hairpin apexes were easy to spot without any of the unfortunate torso bob-and-weave routines that some modern cars require, due to their chunky pillars, and the downright airiness of the cockpit brought me back to my days of freeway off-ramps in my old 'Lude.

But it got better. Leaning onto the throttle out of those hairpins felt truer to the quintessential Honda experience than its engineers have ever achieved with a turbocharged motor before. The 200 HP four-cylinder is no longer naturally-aspirated, no, but Honda has taken pains to flatten the turbocharged peaks of the torque curve so that all 192 lb-ft it can deliver are on tap from a mere 1,800 RPM, then stick around all the way to 5,000.

Horsepower doesn't climax until 6,000 RPM and, as a result, the Civic kicks early and pulls hard all the way to its 6,500 RPM redline. Even when I'd dip way down into the revs for exceptionally tight corners, it never felt like it was lugging its way back towards peak boost. It's the traditional torque curve vintage VTEC votaries adore: floor it early, and let it rocket 'til the rev limiter beckons.

Not that having to downshift would be anything to decry, mind you: Honda has ensured that the newest Si still leads the front-wheel drive market in transmission feel. The Civic Si, as always, only comes equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, and it is a delight in the way Honda's best three-pedal units should be. Crisp, short throws with extremely easy-to-find gating made rowing through the gearbox a joy, and with the '22 Si, rev-matching comes standard.

Even when I had to throw down one more gear, the Civic handled blipping the throttle for me without complaint. It did occasionally lead to a bit more rev-hang than I would prefer, but it was nothing intrusive enough to interrupt my bliss as I wound through curve-etched canyons in Southern California.

No matter how hard I pushed the Si, it eagerly devoured the blacktop. Honda has done away with the adaptive dampers of the previous generation, deciding instead to simply put stiffer springs, a stronger torsion bar, and more structural rigidity into the newest Civic, and the handling is outstanding as a result. The steering feels weighty without losing an ounce of road feel; the chassis is so brilliantly communicative, it could have a job in public relations. Whether it's the beautifully-bolstered seats, the fantastic steering, or the steel-girder stiffness of the chassis, no matter – driving the newest Civic felt like wearing it. The center of rotation simply felt like it was my hips, and the entire car was orbiting around me.

As I wrung it out relentlessly through the hills and got the summer-tire-option Goodyear Eagle F1s warmed up to temp, I could feel the sidewalls flexing before the car would break traction. When the Honda finally did begin to skitter across the pavement it did so with complete poise and an extremely neutral demeanor, with just a hint of understeer on the tightest corners that was easy to correct by letting off the throttle. It was sublime at the limit, because it would warn me long before any real danger and keep me from doing anything too stupid; it just was having fun right along with me.

The dirty secret of reviewing, though, is that nearly any car is fun to review at the ragged edge of its limits; what's more incredible is when a car can make a pleasure cruise feel engaging. After my pulse-pounding romp, I laid back, blasted that ample Bose system, and made my way up the coast of California, and the Civic Si was still unrivaled amounts of fun. At the time, I couldn't pin it down to any specific factor – was it the comfortable interior? maybe it was that eager drivetrain, thrilled to race up to redline? perhaps the compelling steering feel?

And then it clicked – this was what Honda was hoping to hearken back to.The new Civic comes together with a grace that sparks wistful memories of my Prelude from all those years ago.

Honda's machines of the 80s were not parking-lot heroes with the statistical provenance to win arguments. Curb weight, torque curves, 0-60 times – those are irrelevant data in this context. Its finest cars have always been cohesive experiences that are far more than the sum of their parts. Honda's best cars have always been fun at 30 MPH dawdling through traffic or 65 attacking corners like the Senna of the streets, and the newest Civic carries on that tradition with one of the most fun driving experiences a modern car can offer, at any speed.