ICONS: Driving a 200-mile EM1 Honda Civic Si

Although I wasn’t an avid watcher, I believe people when they say The Wonder Years was one of the best American television programs ever written. Each season of the coming of age story took place exactly 20 years before it aired, so when it debuted in 1988 the show was set in 1968. If you want to feel old, that means if it were rebooted today it’d take place in 1998. And when Kevin Arnold got his driver’s license, his dream car would be a Honda Civic Si. 

I know this for a fact because 20 years ago it was my dream car as well, along with everyone I knew. One of those people was my girlfriend at the time, who was your prototypical Tuner Chick. She loved R&B, CK One, flared jeans, and souped-up Hondas. And on December 31, 1999 she walked into a Honda dealer and bought an Electron Blue Pearl EM1 Civic Si for less than $20,000 out the door (you really do get the best deals at the end of the year).

Boy, did VTEC kick in, yo! We were young, flush with disposable income, and blasted around with a squad of like-minded gearheads. Soon came the mods — GReddy, HKS, Tein, Apex’i — but unlike many of our compadres we were careful to make sure every change was reversible. Then one day she called me from the mall. “I can’t find my car. It’s not where I parked it.” Weeks later, the police found it in a field, gutted. Sadly, that was the fate that befell all too many of these cars.

That’s why when Honda invited us to drive some cars from its US heritage collection, we were astonished to find an unmolested, one-owner, never-stolen 1999 Honda Civic Si among them. In fact, we weren’t even aware Honda had one in their stash of landmark cars. After all, it wasn’t among the gems we saw when we visited American Honda’s collection a few years ago.

Honda’s Shifting Gears media event was held at the base of Angeles Crest Highway, which gave us an opportunity to sample their cars on some of southern California’s most thrilling touge roads. As the name implies, it was put together to showcase just how many manual transmission-equipped cars Honda still has in its lineup and is dedicated to making. With manuals — and even traditional automatics with gears — a dying breed among new cars in 2018, we should commend Honda for keeping the manual alive.

We were surprised learn that there were 16 models in all, though Honda cheats a bit by counting different trims and body styles as separate models. Still, that’s every non-SUV model Honda offers, from Fit to Civic to Accord, and even the HR-V crossover. And unlike some companies, a good ol’ stick-shift is available even on the top trim levels of their big sedans like the Accord 2.0T Sport.

Honda had brought a full smorgasbord of these cars for the press to sample, including the bonkers new Civic Type R. But the moment the PR folks let us loose on the cars, I swooped up the keys for the ’99 Si and jumped in. That’s when my mind really exploded.

Imagine my disbelief when I glanced down at the gauge cluster to find just 177 miles on the odometer. One hundred and seventy-seven! That’s less than a single tank of gas. That’s fewer miles than the 200-mile 300ZX twin-turbo from Nissan’s collection that I defiled back in 2014. It’s quite possible I was the first human ever to push the trip meter reset button.

I could hardly believe Honda was going to let me drive this thing. The paper tag depicting the climate control instructions was still delicately tied with a blue string around the gear shift. What really stunned me was that this car couldn’t have been a buy-back. With miles like these, it couldn’t have been a press loaner, either. That means unlike every other Japanese automaker, Honda stockpiles examples of its cars as they roll off the assembly line. Someone must have put this Si away new as part of an even more uber-secret collection than the private warehouse they’ve already got.

Whomever was responsible chose wisely. Of the three colors offered on the EM1, Electron Blue Pearl was the only one exclusive to the Si. Flamenco Black Pearl and Milano Red were shared with lesser Civic models, but EBP was special and unlike any factory color on the street back then. Honda would eventually let it trickle down to Preludes and CR-Vs, but at the time the Civic Si debuted it was the only Honda to wear the color. It was right there on a sticker in the door jamb: paint code B95P. Glorious.

With a chirp of the starter its 1.6-liter B16A2 motor awakened. I was instantly transported two decades back in time. Long dormant sensations I didn’t know my brain had filed away suddenly activated and came flooding into my hippocampus — the fuzziness and subtle coloring of the cloth seats, the vibrato of the exhaust note, the tactile satisfaction of the shifter sliding into first gear with perfect mechanical precision.

Within minutes I was climbing the San Gabriel Mountains on a twisting strand of asphalt, four cylinders singing and the shifter pegged in third. The throttle response, the gearing, the directness of the steering all lent themselves exquisitely to hurtling this little blue bullet uphill. Believe me, I was not about to take any chances with such a pristine specimen, but with sight lines that let the driver pinpoint each corner with precision and handling bordering on the telepathic, I could throw it into turns with grace and confidence.

Naysayers will be quick to dismiss its front-wheel-drive layout, but don’t listen to them. The handling is a sublime orchestra of eager turn-ins and planted follow-throughs. It bests that of many rear-wheel-drive cars, and absolutely destroys most modern front-drivers’. There was once a time when a 9-second quarter-mile pass was considered the height of Honda tuning. What were they thinking?

Sure, the shifter’s throw is a bit long compared to that of modern cars. There’s a hint of body roll and the suspension exhibits a slight bounciness over pavement imperfections. But, while new cars corner flatly and absorb even the most egregious bumps, the Si’s sense of connectedness with the road is absent. The Civic reminds you that you’re driving, and that’s a good feeling.

Deep into the mountains we came across a random rider on a licensed Taiwanese version of the Honda Super Cub called the Symba (get it?). Despite having all of 6.7 horsepower and two skinny-ass tires, the Symba offers the rider a certain bond with the road that you just can’t get in a car. The same analogy can be drawn about the Civic, and the modern cars that have supplanted it.

The seventh-generation that followed did away with the double-wishbone suspension responsible for the Civic’s brilliant driving dynamics; it had a Civic trademark since generation four. It was the first step backwards in the model’s evolution, one that many enthusiasts say the nameplate has never fully recovered from.

That could explain why clean, low-mileage examples of the 1999-2000 Civic Si have been selling for more than they cost new before they even reach the 25-year classic threshold. The EM1 Civic Si was not only an icon, but the last of its kind. For those of us who lived through it, we will always fondly remember them as Honda’s wonder years.

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11 Responses to ICONS: Driving a 200-mile EM1 Honda Civic Si

  1. So now that we know that Ben had a secret tuner kid past, do you think he was more the JNCO Jeans and Fear This! shirt kind, or the Hawaiian shirt with dragons and flames on it kind of tuner kid?

    Questions abound in my head right now.

    • Ben Hsu said:

      It was more like Nautica and spiked hair.

      Just kidding. I was a respectable, upstanding citizen, definitely the guy who didn’t quite fit in when I was hanging with my girlfriend’s friends. She did most of the tuner stuff; I just tagged along. Remember that opening scene in Fast and Furious when Brian walks in and one of the street racers goes, “Check out this snowman over here.”? I was that snowman. My daily driver was a beige Mercedes W123 diesel, so I was hipster before it was hipster. She was very into wrenching on her Civic herself, so I did learn how to work on cars as a result, and here we are today.

  2. Jana is very proud of your first car. I also would imagine nothing else than you being in that situation.

  3. Mike in Long Beach said:

    Yup. Great car. Really fun car. I was an old man of 49 when I bought my ’99 Si in Milano Red on a rainy day at the end of the month for 18,500 out the door. But being an old man didn’t stop me from tuning it to death (nearly) with a JR supercharger, Mugen rims and twin loop exhaust, coilovers, Recaros, etc. etc. After a few years of tuner madness I took it back to stock so I could sell the Mugen stuff and the JR kit and get a good trade-in on a V6 Accord. I had forgotten just how fun the car was right out of the box. The best mod? The Recaros. The stock seats didn’t get along with my back and the Recaro Sport seats were just fantastic.

  4. Nigel said:

    The Electron Blue one was the one many of the Honda people, I knew wanted !! Best I could do was a 2000 EK hatch. (Fun right out the box also).

  5. Ant said:

    Occasionally see these popping up for ever-increasing prices in the UK, but our climate hasn’t been kind to them so none have ever been quite nice enough to buy. The engine will come to define them though, given how few performance cars now are naturally-aspirated.

    • Ben Hsu said:

      I didn’t know the Civic Si was sold in Europe. You guys had the Type R, so that seems like it’d be the one to get.

      • Ant said:

        This gen was sold in Europe as the Civic VTi, alongside 3dr hatchback and 4dr sedan VTis, and a Domani-based 5dr VTi.

        At that point we didn’t have the Type R (we never got the EK9, though the DC2 was available) so this was as good as it got until the EP3 Type R arrived a few years later.

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