The award-winning 1980s Honda Civic Si kicked off modern age of sporting Hondas

On October 24, 1984 Honda launched the original Civic Si in Japan. Based on the third-generation Civic that had debuted a year prior, the car packed an almost inconceivable amount of performance into a small and easily affordable package. It was a revelation, and it could be argued that this tiny box on wheels ushered in the modern age of sporting Hondas.

Sure, long before the Civic Si Honda had an rich portfolio of sports cars. There were the S500, S600, and S800 roadsters, which were reincarnated decades later as the S2000. There was Honda’s incredible RA272, which won a Formula One Grand Prix just three years after Honda built its first car. There was even the original Civic RS, based on the first-generation, and the Civic S, based on the second-generation hatch, which didn’t yet have an “i” after its red “S” badge because it wasn’t yet fuel injected.

However, it’s something in the mold of the 1984 Civic Si that we think of when conjuring up an image of the quintessential Honda. It’s not the NSX; that would be the ultimate Honda, and the ultimate and the quintessential are two different things. The Civic Si defined the parameters that created a worldwide tuning phenomenon in the 90s: front-wheel-drive, soaring revs, no-nonsense design.

Honda is revealing the 2022 Civic Si today, based on the newly released eleventh-generation Civic. We attended a press preview for the car last week, and it seems to be a decent, at least on paper, performance car for today’s market. Honda also happened to have a 1986 Civic Si, a car from their US corporate collection, displayed alongside it.

Yet despite the fact that the 2022 Civic Si can run rings around the ’86, its 200-horsepower, 192 lb-ft turbocharged 1.5-liter engine — which more than doubles the output of its predecessor’s 91-horse, 93 lb-ft naturally aspirated 1.5 — or that it brims with technology that makes the original look about as sophisticated as a shoehorn, it was the old car that we yearned to drive.

Just look at it! Not a single superfluous line, no part of its form that doesn’t follow function. The expansive greenhouse grants you convertible-like visibility. We weren’t allowed to take it out of the studio, but we imagine its compact size lets it dart around today’s SUVs the way a hummingbird circles a petunia.

During the concept stages for the third-generation Civic, Honda adopted the guiding engineering philosophy of “man maximum/machine minimum”. Taken literally, that meant pushing all four wheels to the corners to create a cavernous cabin. Its pencil-thin pillars, tall glass, and boxy shape all serve that aim. Taken figuratively, though, it meant that the Civic didn’t burden you with extraneous gimmicks. It’s a pair of sneakers and running shorts, not cargo pants over workboots.

Upon debut, it became the first Honda to win Japan’s Car of the Year award, beating out the Toyota Corolla, Nissan Fairlady Z (Z31 300ZX), and Honda’s own Prelude. Even more significantly, it received top honors at 1984’s prestigious Good Design Awards for industrial design (everything from kitchen utensils to electronics), the first time a car had won the Grand Prize. And if that’s not enough, Tom Matano, the Mazda designer responsible for such stunning cars as the FD3S RX-7 and the instant classic NA and NB Miatas once said that the third-generation Civic deserved a spot in New York’s renowned Museum of Modern Art.

Due to its ad campaign, in which Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” played over sun-drenched views of the new Civic, it was given the nickname Wonder Civic. The name is wholly appropriate too, because the more you look at it, the more wonders you discover.

Take, for example, the subtle spoiler exclusive to the Si. Engineers  simply raised the top edge of the hatch to integrate it, adding two slivers on the roof to guide the air under it. Due to the rear wheel wells the rear windows don’t roll down, but like many Hondas they do pop out, with a vent cleverly hidden in the black trim aft of the glass.

The cleverness continues inside, where a thin dash situates the radio and climate controls not on top of one another, but side to side. This opens up the area below for knees, cassette tape storage, and one of Honda’s Goldilocks 5-speed transmissions. A wide row of vents sweeps across the top of the dash, a cue mimicked in the vent design of the 2022. Perhaps most distinctively, the dash has something you never find on modern cars — negative space, two molded trays that happen to be well suited for a smartphone.

The US-spec Civic Si came with a SOHC 12-valve four that was eventually renamed the D15 motor. Combined with a Honda signature suspension tune, it was capable of scooting the sub-2,000-pound hatchback around so well that the car became a secret autocross weapon in the US.

As good as it was here, in Japan the Civic Si was even more potent. Under a power-bulged hood, home market examples sported a DOHC 16-valve 1.6-liter ZC engine, Honda’s first use of a twin-cam motor since the S800 roadster ended production. The aluminum-block mill cranked out an astounding 128 horsepower, something US-market Hondas didn’t achieve from a four-cylinder until over a decade later.

As such, the Civic Si quickly became a fixture in Japan’s touring car series, from N1 to the All-Japan Touring Car Championships. In 1987, the Wonder Civic emerged victorious in every single JTC Division 3 race, clinching the championship for drivers Osamu Nakako and Hideki Okada.

The most incredible thing about the Civic Si is that despite all its accolades, the car is still eminently practical. And when you take the car on a grocery run, 99 percent of the people there will think it’s nothing but an econobox. In fact, even among third-gen Civic owners themselves, very few likely fathomed its incredible backstory and potential.

The Civic’s ubiquity — 12 million sold since 1973 — trick people into thinking it’s nothing special. Honda says that it didn’t want the new Civic Si to be “shouty” and return to that low-key roots, where it looks like an unassuming compact car to most, but a select few will recognize it as something more. We wish the new Si didn’t have half the tech it comes with — a 12-speaker Bose sound system, a dash full of screens, active safety systems galore. A little less machine, if you will, but that’s unlikely in today’s market.

The new Si only comes in stick, lives in the Type R’s shadow, and is a car. None of those things count as an argument for its continued existence with the American consumer fully body snatched by crossovers. Honda should be commended not only for continuing to build a car like the Si, but keeping it affordable. Hopefully the math continues to work in the Si’s favor for another 37 years.

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8 Responses to The award-winning 1980s Honda Civic Si kicked off modern age of sporting Hondas

  1. f31roger says:

    My dad traded in his early 80s Honda CVCC to get a brand new 93 Honda civic DX hatchback. My sister and I used that car for high school commuting (I was a freshman when my dad bought it). When I graduated, I went to HIN in Long Beach and that made me appreciate the EG hatch so much. It wasn’t an SI version, but it was a good base for me to learn from.

    When the SI coupes (EM1) came out, everyone wanted that. I went with getting a brand new EK hatch DX as bare as possible. No radio or speakers… as I was going to build it out anyway.

    I always loved hatchbacks. My EG was inherited, but my EK was bought because I loved how it looked and of course LJ Garcia’s influence was huge.

    Functionality, I loved how spacious the hatchbacks were, especially the EK.

  2. Terry Stetler says:

    Saw so many at autocrosses back in the day. I went for the CRX, but the SI Civic was ground breaking, and offered the enthusiast a fun, and eminently reliable package, something the VW GTI owners could only dream about.

    I wish the new SI was available in the new “Hatchback” body though. That would be perfect.

    • Ben Hsu says:

      The explanation the Honda spokesperson gave us was this: The Civic Sport and the upcoming Type R are hatchbacks, so they didn’t want another hatchback splitting the difference. The Si offers those who want a sedan a performance option, and now you can get the sedan in manual (since the base sedan doesn’t offer a stick). I guess that kind of makes sense, but I wish the coupe was possible in today’s market!

  3. CycoPablo says:

    Looking at those two ^^^ makes you wanna cry, don’t it?

    • Ben Hsu says:

      I’m glad the new one exists. It must not be easy in today’s market. The new one is a good entry point for someone who wants a performance car that’s still affordable and needs a usable rear seat. But yeah, I’d take the old one in a heartbeat!

  4. RainMeister says:

    I remember Louis Armstrong crooning in those Wonder Civic commercials back in the day. There was something edgy, innovative and youthful about Honda design of that era. In addition to the Civic Si, there was the “Bulldog” Honda City Turbo with Motocompo bike. The cool Prelude with a nose even lower than that of a contemporary mid-engine Ferrari. And of course the brilliant CR-X, originally conceived as a high mpg economy runabout. Bang for the buck, Honda could not be beat, even in Formula One. It’s what led me to buy an EF Civic Si with my first paycheck, and later acquire an S2000 which still graces my garage.

    As good as the current generation Honda products are, it’s lost that Soichiro mojo that differentiated the brand from others. I need to find myself a mint CR-X.

  5. Miatadon says:

    I bought a lightly used and unmodified ’84 Civic S back around 1994. I searched for months to find the car, which was in the hands of the original family (dad had died), and had very low miles and a 5-speed. This was to replace my wife’s Datsun B210. The Honda was so refined and so quiet compared to that Datsun! We only had the Honda a short time and a woman in an SUV slammed into the little Civic, totaling what was even then, a rare car.

  6. BlitzPig says:

    Just stopped at the local Honda store and there was a new EX-L Civic Hatch on the lot.
    I don’t care for that trim level at all, but the package itself is absolutely perfect. Come on Honda, let us have it in the SI trim. I have money in hand, right now, to replace my Accord Coupe V6 with a new Civic SI, and I want a hatch.

    Ben thanks for the report on why Honda doesn’t want the SI on the hatch platform, though I don’t understand their reasoning. No one wanting an SI is really considering the Type R, because of it’s price point, and the fact that it’s a bit compromised as an every day driver unless you live in the Southwest where the evils of winter driving are not an issue. And yeah, that was me you replied to. Hit the wrong thing in my first post and auto fill put in my real name… Oh well…

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