Lori Lovely

Regardless of how you feel about Honda"s politics in the racing world, the Japanese manufacturer uses the experience gleaned from 50 years of pushing the limits in motor racing to make a fast, reliable street car. Honda has been busy redesigning its Civic line this year, and recently got around to the SI. The hot little hatchback is returning to its compact roots after a design trend that nearly pushed it into the family wagon category.

The styling has a polarizing effect on people. Where I think it"s unattractively wedgy, others think it"s charmingly edgy. My first reaction when given a key to the SI by Honda West was that it looks like a pod, but when I picked up my husband for lunch, the attention given by his colleagues revealed that the SI"s targeted market of males ages 18 to 24 find this little pocket rocket very attractive.

The steeply raked, high, flat windshield, combined with a nose that slopes radically downward, gives the car excellent aerodynamics and driver visibility. Large triangular headlights glare menacingly above the lower grill air intake. The sides are unadorned, and the roof displays a subtle spoiler behind the moonroof (standard equipment), but the dual-tip exhaust spells racey. The 15-inch wheels look a bit undersize.

Love it or hate it, that body style was designed to maximize interior space for people while minimizing space allotted for mechanical systems. The designers efficiently packed a lot of space into this small package. The roomy SI provides more than ample head- and legroom in both front and back seats - seats that are comfortable and supportive, with side bolsters for driving hard into the corners, and fold down in a 60/40 split for extra storage.

The seats also highlight the sporty theme of the SI"s interior. The red stitching coordinates with the red headrest grip. Of course, the first thing you"ll notice about the SI"s interior is the shifter knob. The rally-style shifter is mounted on the instrument panel just inches from the steering wheel. Unusual as it looks, it doesn"t take long to get used to, and provides quick shifting with minimal fumbling. Not only does this make shifting even quicker, it also opens up space on the floor for extra cup holders.

The high-output 2-liter engine produces about 160 horses. It"s tuned for torque. Available only in manual transmission for performance lovers, the close-ratio gears demand to be shifted. You won"t spend much time in second or third, or even fourth. It"s designed for smooth short-shifting all the way up.

The engine pulls from a wide rev range, and is responsive to sudden power. It"s quiet until you"re at full throttle in top gear; then the engine emits a high-pitched scream, wishing it was a V6.

While the SI loves to go fast, it isn"t so fond of stopping. In spite of having larger front disc brakes than other Civic models, its stopping performance is average at best. Electronic brake distribution apportions power to the wheels with the most traction, but be sure to allow for plenty of distance if you want to avoid a collision.

Also a little soft was the ride. Honda"s sport suspension with firmer dampers, stiffer springs and firmer bushing, along with front and rear stabilizer bars, are supposed to firm up the ride, but it drove like a well-broken-in old Honda. Not only was the ride bouncy and loose, the car got a little squirrelly over some of the big bumps.

The handling was the stiffest thing about the SI. Honda calls it tight, linear and stable. I call it heavy, and yet still responsive. Maybe my biceps aren"t as developed as an 18- to 24-year-old male"s. Cornering was excellent and body roll was minimal. The SI was stable at high speeds. This car loves to drive fast on the open roads, be they twisty or flat. It does not like stopping or trolling at mid-range speed. Guess that"s what being a pocket rocket is all about.

Honda Civic SI

Base Price: $19,440

Four-cylinder engine / 160 horsepower

16-valve DOHC i-VTEC

Front wheel drive

Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS system

Five-speed manual transmission

Fuel mileage: 26/30

15-inch alloy wheels

Power moonroof

Dual-tip exhaust