Driving the cleanest 1999 Honda Civic Si on Earth
As far as we know, this is the last unsold 1999 Honda Civic Si in America. It’s the ultimate leftover hot Honda, and with just 549 miles on the odometer, it’s also (probably) the lowest-mileage example in the country. In the glovebox we find the original window sticker, which was stamped 20 years ago with big red letters: “NOT FOR SALE AHM CO CAR.”
AHM CO is American Honda Motor Company, and this car, VIN 1HGEM1153XL045888, has been part of its private collection for two decades. It lives in the corner of a Torrance, California, parking garage, sheltered from the sun’s UV rays, the salt air from the nearby Pacific and distracted drivers in 6000-pound SUVs. Honda pulls it out only for the occasional press event, corporate function, and burger run. “I take it to lunch about once a month just to keep it running. It’s a blast to drive, and everyone checks it out,” says Jimmy Jenkins, Honda’s PR man, handing me the key.
Sad? Maybe. But its isolation has also kept this Civic Si sequestered from the evils of aftermarket catalogs and the misguided, although well-intentioned, modifications of young owners. Aside from its tires, which are a fresh set of Hankooks, its suspension and B16A2 engine are just as they left the assembly plant in East Liberty, Ohio, during Bill Clinton’s second term. It’s totally stock and its condition is perfection. A time capsule, touched by so few hands I’d be surprised if anyone has ever sat in the backseat.
A rasp from the past
With a twist of the key, the Civic’s double-overhead cam 1.6-liter fires and settles into a raspy 900 rpm idle. According to its Owner’s Manual, also found in the glovebox, the all-aluminum engine isn’t technically broken in yet. The manual clearly states, “Break-in Period: Help assure your car’s future reliability and performance by paying extra attention to how you drive during the first 600 miles. During that period avoid full-throttle starts and rapid acceleration. Avoid hard braking.”
Although those instructions have surely been ignored by the Civic’s many keepers over years, I ease it up the freeway on-ramp at half throttle, short shifting through the tightly spaced ratios of its five-speed manual. The twisting two-lanes above Malibu are about 50 miles away. Perfect.
With its low 4.40:1 final drive, the high-strung 16-valve four-cylinder is at 4000 rpm at 70 mph in top gear and the Civic is humming up the concrete super slab past LAX. Honda gave the Si stiffer suspension, larger sway bars, and wider 15-inch wheels with lower profile rubber. Although body motions are well controlled, and the damping is spot on, and by today’s hot coupe standards the ride is soft. Every Si also got the manual gearbox (a tradition honored on the current Civic Si), plus four-wheel disc brakes and a front strut tower brace to reinforce its structure. On the outside Honda added a chin spoiler, body-color rocker trim, a red Si badge below it right taillight, and DOHC VTEC stickers behind each door.
The Si didn’t weigh or cost much. Just 2500 pounds and $17,860. And the interior was basic Civic. Honda added only a leather-wrapped steering wheel, additional adjustment for the driver’s seat bottom, remote keyless entry, and another red Si badge to the gauge cluster. Also, there is a hard leather-wrapped shift knob that mimics the grip in the original NSX.
You sit tall and upright in the Si. The seat is flat, softly padded, and covered in thick dark gray velour. The steering wheel is too far away, but the pedals and shifter placement are perfect. The interior is a simple sea of gray grained plastic. Although the white-on-black gauges look racy with red needles, instrumentation is limited: tach to the left, larger speedo in the center, temp and fuel gauge to the right. Aftermarket gauges for oil temperature and pressure were popular add-ons for a reason. These were still the days of low cowls and thin pillars, so you feel like you can see the entire world out of this car’s windows. Overall the Si feels like a quality product, panel gaps inside and out are tight, consistent.
These were Honda’s first Si Coupes, built only in 1999 and 2000, the final two years of the Civic’s sixth generation (EK). Earlier and later variations of the Civic Si were limited to the hatchback body style, although Honda did finally return the Si model to a coupe in 2007. Production numbers are educated guesses at best, even American Honda says it doesn’t know how many were sold because the Si was a trim level and not a distinct model. They’re not exactly rare, but they made up a very small percentage of Civic production.
According to a poster on Clubcivic.com in 2006, Honda sold more than 640,000 Civics over those two years, and of those, only 30,000 were Si Coupes, 50 percent of which were painted Electron Blue Pearl, like our loaner. The other 50 percent were split between Flamenco Black Pearl and Milano Red. We don’t know if these numbers are correct, but they’re the best we’ve got.
Turn-of-the-century tuner favorite
Honda fortified the Si’s B16 with a larger throttle body, a tuned intake manifold, more cam lift, 10.2:1 compression ratio, stronger connecting rods, high-silicon pistons that reduce friction, a larger diameter exhaust system, and a fully counterweighted crankshaft. It also featured Honda’s VTEC variable valve timing and lift system and revved to 8000 rpm just like the engines in Honda’s S2000 and NSX sports cars. Rated 160 horsepower at 7600 rpm and 111 lb-ft of torque at 7000 rpm, it’s a high-performance engine that makes 100-hp per liter, and it’s eager to party.
Even at idle the B16 sends a satisfying race car-like shiver up the Civic’s shifter and its visceral and audible feedback once you get it up in its powerband are addicting. Above 5500 rpm throttle response is instantaneous and the entire car feels tightly wound. When new, these were the most powerful and best performing Civics ever made, but don’t expect too much. With an unsympathetic high rpm clutch dump launch and violent gear changes 0–60 mph takes a little over 7.0 seconds. That’s about a quick as a 2019 Honda CR-V, by the way.
Now deep in Malibu, I look down and check the Civic’s odometer, which is showing 604 miles. It’s on. Down to second gear, I make the hard right from Pacific Coast Highway into the canyons and bury the throttle. The engine feels good above 4000 rpm, better above 5000 and unleashes its anger at about 5600 rpm, which is when the VTEC transitions to the more aggressive camshafts and the 1.6-liter starts making some power. The engine note changes too. Above 6000 rpm this engine is a living breathing being and it howls a guttural moan.
Third gear at 8000 rpm. The tight gear spacing keeps the revs up in the VTEC zone and the blissful acceleration continues. The shifter’s throws are a bit long, but the leverage of its long stick is perfect and its action is mechanical. The clutch is light and easily modulated. I can see the first corner at the end of the straight and hold third gear into the 8500 rpm fuel cut off. Hard on the brakes, which have good feel but average bite. Aftermarket pads are also a popular upgrade, and I can see why. The pedals are perfectly spaced for heel and toe downshifting. I rev match it down to second and carry some trail-braking into the right hander. There some body roll, but good front end grip, and the Civic takes a nice set.
Back on the power, but there isn’t any. I let the revs fall below 4000 rpm and the little engine is struggling to provide thrust up the hill down the short straight. This is definitely a momentum car. You gotta commit on corner entry and get back on the power early and hard. Full throttle is your friend. I get the hang of it over the next few miles of twisty two lane. Brake, turn, and floor it, that’s what the car wants to make pace. And it’s quick if you can sustain that rhythm.
Toss it around and the Civic feels light, and it’s easy to place in the corner and hold your line as its softy sprung suspension soaks up mid corner bumps. It’s well balanced; the Si’s rear end never stops following the front, which always loses grip first. There’s no traction or stability control and, best of all, they’re not needed. I thought the flat driver’s seat would be an issue, but its thick, furry upholstery is sticky and holds you in place. It’s the steering that’s the letdown. It feels heavy off center and painfully slow with a 20.3:1 ratio. In the tighter sections you have to shuffle the wheel through your hands for leverage and enough steering input.
The appeal is clear
After a few days with the Si, it’s easy to understand why the pull of nostalgia is pushing the prices of these cars upward. Young enthusiasts are starting to yearn for their good old days and the cars they lusted after in the pages of Sport Compact Car magazine. Prices of Acura Integra Type Rs, Nissan Skyline GT-R R32s, and other hot Japanese models from the era have already exploded, with documented sales climbing nearly to $25,000.
With reluctance, we return the Si to its dark concrete corner of Honda’s parking garage, its odometer reading 723 miles. And there it now sits, sheltered from the world, hidden from view, waiting for its next press event, corporate function, or burger run. Waiting for its next 8000 rpm upshift. Waiting to howl into the cloudless California sky.
Sad? Absolutely. But comforting to know it’s there and being watched? Even more so.