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  7. 1999 Honda Civic Si vs. 2020 Honda Civic Si

John Coyle | Nov 13, 2020


Exterior view of the Honda Civic Si

The Honda Civic has a bit of a split personality. Whether in hatch, coupe, or four-door guise, it's been the quintessential picture of sensible, affordable transportation for decades. Everyone has either owned a Civic, known someone with a Civic, or borrowed a Civic.

At this point, the Civic's hammer-like reliability and robust sales figures have made it as much a part of the American landscape as McDonald's or Starbucks, a comparison I make with only the highest praise in mind. One recent study by Insurify showed that the Civic, and its larger sibling the Accord, are the most popular cars in nearly half of the states in the country.

But as even passive observers of automotive culture know, the light, nimble Civic has proved a potent platform for tuners. For example, the Lego-like compatibility between Honda products meant the engine from the Acura Integra could be easily swapped into the much-smaller Civic hatchback, and a robust aftermarket supplied enthusiasts with myriad choices for everything from taut suspensions bits to garish body kits. So what might have begun life as a humble commuter car could be quickly and inexpensively transformed into a corner-carving pocket rocket. Even before The Fast and the Furious hit theaters in 2001, the Honda Civic was already a mainstay of the germinating tuner scene.  

Unfortunately, a changing market means the two-door Civic set to exit production. So to mark the occasion, Honda recently presented a group of journalists with the opportunity to drive an original coupe back to back with the 2020 model.

The elder example was plucked off the floor of Honda's invitation-only museum in Torrance, California, and has just over 2,000 miles on the clock, which basically makes it the world's most pristine sixth-generation Civic. The 2020 model, on the other hand, is just like the ones you can find at your local AutoNation Honda dealer. Here's how they match up.   


1999 Honda Civic Si vs. 2020 Honda Civic Si Exterior

See the exterior of the 1999 Honda Civic Si vs. 2020 Honda Civic Si

Now, when I was talking to one of my Honda-fanatic buddies about the 1999 Si, I was surprised to learn that the Electron Blue Pearl paint was considered polarizing back in the day. How a color like this could prompt any controversy truly boggles my mind, because I thought it looked absolutely beautiful - especially in what passes for sunshine here in the Great Northwest.

It was a great fit for the classic lines of the sheet metal, which is refined, handsome, and indicative of a design team that didn't waste a single stroke of the pen. The slight slope of the hood is a perfect complement to the rake of the A-pillar, and the side skirts which run up the long axis provide a slightly sporty air, without coming in a country mile of flashy. Inspecting it with a modern eye, perhaps the most striking thing about the classic Si is the proportionately gigantic greenhouse, which makes the windows of many present-day vehicles look like a set of gun slits.   

My favorite exterior element of the 1999 is probably the subtle flare at the edge of the trunk lid, which provides a lovely little hint of a spoiler. It's a beautiful touch which punctates a design that's aged beautifully. Another two decades from now, I'm betting this machine will still look great.   

See the exterior of the 1999 Honda Civic Si vs. 2020 Honda Civic Si

Whether the 2020 Civic Si will age as gracefully as it's elder sibling remains to be seen. But right now, I can say I think Honda did a great job with it. While it wears its performance credentials on its sleeve in a way the 1999 just doesn't, there's none of the excess we've seen with the Type R at play here. At the front, the fog lights are housed in surrounds that look like flared nostrils, and the lower grille section communicates that this baby means business. And while the creases along the sides give the sheet metal a taut athleticism, as with the 1999, the hindquarters are my favorite section.

There's a great flare to the hips over the rear wheels, and I think this might be the best execution of a spoiler I've ever seen on a hot hatch. It's not too big, not too small, and perfectly complements the every line of the body, from the headlights all the way back. In all honesty? I think the Civic Si Coupe is exactly what the Type R should look like, as it's a perfect balance of refined and aggressive.

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1999 Honda Civic Si vs. 2020 Honda Civic Si Interior

See the interior of the 1999 Honda Civic Si vs. 2020 Honda Civic Si

Simply put, contrasting the cabins of the two Civics is like comparing a zen garden to the neon extravaganza of Tokyo's famous Shibuya Crossing. Because while both might be as Japanese as sumo wrestling, tonkotsu ramen, or anime, the environments couldn't be more different.

The interior of the 1999 is executed with an elegance which would be virtually impossible to achieve in a modern car. At the center of the dash, there's a head unit featuring a radio and a compact disc player, and beneath that, an empty space for storage. Back before the turn of the century, it was still widely presumed that buyers - at least at the Civic's price point - would swap the stereo for an aftermarket unit. Today, that's the electrical equivalent of brain surgery.

While the Si might have been the sportiest model in the lineup, the interior doesn't reflect its athletic pedigree. The driver's seat felt very much like an office chair, and the rear perches were about as basic as you can get. Admittedly, I was obviously a bit starry-eyed at driving a literal museum piece. But I have to say I found the lack of frills charming here, and it reminded me vaguely of the Mitsubishi Evo, another Japanese icon where all the improvements were made right where they should be - under the hood.

See the interior of the 1999 Honda Civic Si vs. 2020 Honda Civic Si

In comparison, the cabin of the 2020 felt like the cockpit of a fighter jet. While they aren't quite as aggressively bolstered as the thrones in the Type R, the seats hug you like a tipsy great aunt, and there's a comparatively dazzling level of detail. From the racy red accent above the gauge cluster, to the screen in the center stack, to the buttons on the wheel, to the stripes on the seats, to the carbon-fiber eque trim, to the drilled aluminum brake pedals, regardless of where you look in the latest Civic Si, there's something to catch your eye.

That said, the climate controls remain dead-easy to understand and operate, and while you do have to tap the touchscreen screen to adjust the radio station, there's thankfully still a knob to raise and lower the volume. Now, I don't mean to imply that the ergonomics were bad in the first-gen Si, because they're absolutely not, but the modern car's are light years better. When I put my arm on the center console, I could almost run through the gears just by moving my wrist, which felt fantastic.

Infotainment-wise, the 2020 Si featured satellite radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, and navigation, all of which were basically science fiction when the 1999 model was in showrooms. The factory stereo also sounded like a concert hall in comparison to the elder Civic's boom box-like setup, which was entirely expected.   

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1999 Honda Civic Si vs. 2020 Honda Civic Si Powertrain

See the engine of the 1999 Honda Civic Si vs. 2020 Honda Civic Si

Colin Chapman, race car designer and founder of Lotus Cars, famously said the secret to building a fast machine was to "simplify and add lightness." And when I was behind the wheel of the 1999 Civic Si, those words kept running through my mind. Because when compared to anything built within the last few years? The little Honda feels like an absolute featherweight. 

To be clear, 20 years old or not, this Civic is still a Honda, and nothing feels chintzy. But there's a refreshing thinness to every element. From the pillars, to the doors, to the wheel, to the uninsulated trunk lid, everything is a fraction of the heft it would be on a modern car, and that's apparent when driving it. Read any amount of auto writing, and you're undoubtedly familiar with the idea of a driver "flicking" a vehicle into a corner. Well, the 1999 Civic is a car where that phrase seems particularly appropriate.

From accelerating, to turning, to stopping, everything about it is light and direct. Steering is a purely mechanical affair, which gives it an outstanding feel, and the engine is a fantastic, rev-happy performer.

While there's "only" 160 horsepower and 111 lb-ft of torque on tap, the way the delivery swells as Honda's legendary V-TEC kicks in at the upper ranges of the 8000-rpm redline makes it absolute joy to flog. This 1.6-liter mill, with its ingenious, robust, and mechanically simple variable valve timing is a masterpiece of engine design. Simply put, it's the cherry on top of the period enthusiasts refer to as "golden era" Honda. In the Si, this gem is mated to one of the company's five-speed manual gearboxes, which in my opinion, can not be improved upon. They are perfect.

See the engine of the 1999 Honda Civic Si vs. 2020 Honda Civic Si

Though it's cable-actuated and not directly mechanical, a lovely transmission is something the 1999 Civic shares with its younger sibling. Notably, the excellence of the stick remains a definitive Honda quality. Both units rival the best in the business, and while Porsche makes a great gearbox, Stuttgart, and perhaps Mazda, are the only outfits that can seriously be considered competition.

The modern Civic's turbocharged 1.5-liter four-cylinder offers 205 horsepower and 192 lb-ft of torque, which isn't a crazy level of poke in today's power-crazed landscape. But it's enough to scoot the Si from zero to 60 in a few ticks under seven seconds, which feels plenty quick when you're behind the wheel. More important than the specs, however, is how surefooted and confident the Si feels in the corners. This is an easy car to make hustle, and while I've never gotten the opportunity to attack a closed course with one, I bet you it would punch well above its weight on a twisty circuit.

Unlike the range-topping Type R, the suspension of the Civic Si coupe is firm and composed, but never harsh, which makes it easier to use on a day-to-day basis than its weapons-grade stablemate.

Even in Sport mode, you won't worry about your fillings rattling out of your head, and while I appreciated how the setting made the dampers a hair more taut, I particularly liked how it slightly upped the weight of the steering, enough so that I left it in Sport for the lion's share of my time with the Civic. At 26 city and 36 highway, this peppy little coupe is a relative  fuel sipper too, which is another great attribute in something designed to tackle the daily grind.     

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1999 Honda Civic Si vs. 2020 Honda Civic Si Safety

See the safety equipment of the 1999 Honda Civic Si vs. 2020 Honda Civic Si

As we know, safety standards have changed dramatically since the twilight of the Clinton presidency. But it's worth noting that in testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the 1999 Civic Coupe earned four of a possible five stars when it came to protecting front-seat occupants in a front-end collision.

Now, while that doesn't mean I'd necessarily want to go toe-toe with a modern Escalade, I feel like the Civic's nimble handling and fantastic visibility would help me avoid an accident just as much as some more modern tech would.  

See the safety equipment of the 1999 Honda Civic Si vs. 2020 Honda Civic Si

In comparison, the 2020 Si aced it's testing from the NHTSA, and earned five stars in every category. It was also named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and comes standard with Honda Sensing. Honda's impressive suite of safety technology includes loads of cutting-edge features, including a Collision Mitigation Braking System, a Road Departure Mitigation System, Lane Keeping Assist System, and Adaptive Cruise Control.

It's important to note that none of the tech listed above is required by law, and its inclusion as standard equipment is indicative of how seriously Honda takes driver safety.

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1999 Honda Civic Si vs. 2020 Honda Civic Si Overall

See the exterior of the 1999 Honda Civic Si vs. 2020 Honda Civic Si

 

At the risk of stating the obvious, while the name on the tail might be the same, this is in no way an apples-to-apples comparison. It never could be. Because with a long two decades of development and regulation standing between these Hondas, they're going to be as different in personality as members of GenX and Millenials.

See the exterior of the 1999 Honda Civic Si vs. 2020 Honda Civic Si

What getting to drive these two cars back to back shows, however, that the soul of Honda's Civic Si remains the same. Obviously, the current car is far more advanced than its classic counterpart. By any empirical measurement, it's a "better" vehicle. But it's important to note that all the extra weight and tech doesn't make it feel numb or dull either. And in an era where buyers increasingly choose to be insulated from the road, from the unvarnished thrill of driving, that warms my greasy little enthusiast heart.

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