1986 Honda Civic Si: If only, if only

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Eric Weiner

My friend Derek was the first of us in high school to get his driver’s license. Like many teens, he learned to drive on a hand-me-down. In this case, from his grandmother. However, most unlike the rest of the student fleet—a gently tattered quilt of used Hondas, Toyotas, and the occasional near-dead BMW—Derek’s car had swagger. Gleaming white on the outside and oozing navy blue from within, his 1989 Cadillac Brougham d’Elegance was our button-tufted ticket to freedom.

It was also a terrible car for a high-school sophomore to learn on. For starters, there was the Caddy’s orca-like curb weight and suitably blubbering chassis. Viewed from outside the car, sudden movements seemed to generate a low-frequency wave that visibly traveled from nose to tail. The Brougham’s interior was peerless, its distractions endless: a pouch with gold keys, an illuminated this, a chrome-plated that, wood-veneer and leather everything else. Knobs, switches, buttons—all fun to tinker with. It was a lot to mind for a pimple-faced teenager, let alone a luxury sedan full of them. Hell, we could sit four band-geeks-abreast in the front row.

I don’t know what my future kids will drive first. Probably not a land-yacht Caddy, but I can’t say that an anodyne commuter car with a distracting touchscreen sounds much better. Wouldn’t it be great if they could learn on something dead-nuts simple? Basic transportation with nary a bell or whistle, ideal for experiencing and fine-tuning the fundamentals of the man-machine interface? Something like a 1986 Honda Civic Si?

1986 Honda Civic Si profile hatchback
Eric Weiner

As part of its year-long celebration honoring a half-century of the Civic, Honda let us spend an evening behind the wheel of a museum-quality ‘86 Si. You may recall that this two-door hatchback was the first Civic Si in the United States, debuting a year after the stubbier, sportier 1985 CRX Si two-seater and sharing its 1.5-liter four-cylinder. “Si” stands for “sport injected,” and fuel injection took the 12-valve mill from 76 to 91 hp. If the super-lively, high-revving, sweet-shifting 1999 Civic Si is the pink cherry blossom of attainable, joyful Honda performance, these two Si models are the pit.

It bears mentioning here that a mid-’80s Civic possesses the crashworthiness of layered cellophane. Yet I can’t shake the notion that it would be a wonderful car for teaching a young person to drive. Unlike Derek’s d’Elegance, the interior is sparse and suitable for four people, at most. We’re talking roll-up windows here. A pop-out sunroof, map pockets on the doors, and a rudimentary radio are outright luxuries in this context. The fabric on the doors is short-pile and vaguely industrial, like the waiting room carpet at the orthodontist.

More than that, driving a mid-’80s Civic means awareness that you are in a little metal box traveling at a fairly high rate of speed. The ground feels perilously near your butt. Any sound deadening? Sorry, that’s for the Acura Legend, also new for 1986. The extensive glass and low beltline help dissolve the illusion that you are in an interior space. You are Out in the World, where there is Danger, and you have to be Careful. That’s especially true today, when a head-on collision with a CR-V would streamroll our little breadvan like Bigfoot.

Defensive driving is paramount. The brakes—vented discs up front and drums in the rear—don’t inspire deep confidence, so a generous following distance is critical. (Back there, so Joe F-150 can see you.) Making a left turn that merges into traffic? Give yourself plenty of room. Don’t rush, because even when you floor it the 91-hp Civic Si is slow by modern standards, and traffic behind you will quickly attack your bumper. First gear is fairly short, which means you’ll need to practice your 1-2 shift to keep the SOHC four-cylinder on the boil. Keep both hands on the wheel, by the way; the steering is unassisted, which means it really is you steering the the thing. At highway speed, it remains remarkably composed.

1986 Honda Civic Si engine
Eric Weiner

Paying attention, working with the car to squeeze the most out of just enough: It’s where Hondas of this vintage shine. Even when pushed to what feels like the Civic Si’s limit, the car is eager. Willing, even. It reacts with perceptible feedback to each little input—a vibration in the steering wheel over cracked pavement, a high-frequency hum felt through the right foot as the revs approach their 6500-rpm redline. It takes finesse to work the throttle gently and not jerk the car in low gears. The clutch has some actual weight to it and requires effort. Honda hadn’t quite yet perfected the manual transmission at this time, as it did in the next decade. Shifts are precise but not especially fluid; nail it and savor the mechanical loveliness of a gear lever finding its gate.

An old Honda tells you things. A Ford EcoSport tells you there is more to life than the Ford EcoSport.

The Si’s suspension is hardly sophisticated—torsion bar up front and beam axle in the rear—but the 2033-pound curb weight helps make the car feel nimble and responsive. The ride is soft but not busy, with good body control. Thirteen-inch tires with generous sidewall soak up big bumps, but not so much that you forget to avoid them. Again, attention pays dividends here.

1986 Honda Civic Si rear hatch
Eric Weiner

The controls are simple and intuitive. A pleasant click greets you with each twist of the headlight stalk. The doors, gas cap, and hatch lock individually and require a key to open. Lifting the practically-all-glass hatch reminds you how heavy and huge this part has become on modern crossovers. The back window on most new cars is like a mail slot, but here it is so large that it fills up the entire rear-view mirror.

Putting a new driver behind the wheel of a sports car is rarely a good call, but the Civic Si is more of a sporty car. It’s zippy and playful, yes, but it’s still essentially a Civic. Five minutes behind the wheel and you totally understand how this would be the ideal car for delivering pizzas in a busy downtown. Agile, easy to park, practical; it’s even great on gas, with 30 mpg city and 33 highway. (Everything Derek’s dear old Caddy isn’t.) The Si can be abused, babied, or driven absent-mindedly; it takes things at your speed.

This is all wishful thinking, of course. Surviving ’86 Civic Si hatches virtually don’t exist in this condition outside of private collections like Honda’s. If I’m being honest, what I really want to pass down to my future progeny is the joy that driving even a simple car can provide. Everything else, even if it’s big as a Brougham, eventually rusts away.

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