On the surface, these two vehicles have a lot in common. Both represent Honda’s finest North American front-wheel-drive small cars from their respective eras; both are in silver/grey paint; both manual transmissions with inline-four engines; both three-door hatchback body style. But upon closer inspection, the differences become apparent.
Let’s start with the 1990 version. Now a quarter century old and a genuine Curbside Classic, this fourth-generation Civic features a wheelbase of 98.4”, placing it in the sub-compact class. All Civics from this era featured double-wishbone suspension up front with a multi-link trailing arm at the back. With this example being a DX model, standard features are the 92 hp D15B2 16V SOHC engine, 5 speed manual transmission, and cloth seats. The base model had only 70 hp and a four speed transmission along with vinyl seats. Power steering, air conditioning, and passenger door mirror were not selected on this particular DX, but were available at additional cost. (To get power windows, locks, larger brakes, or more power, buyers had to step up to the LX, EX, or Si models). All of this adds up to a Miata-like curb weight of 2165 pounds. Suddenly that 92 hp doesn’t sound so unreasonable, at least by 1990 standards.
As compared to other circa 1990 sub-compacts, the Civic comes off as utilitarian, even spartan. On this particular car, the stock front seats were so thinly padded and unsupportive the owner swapped them out for Mercury Cougar buckets. The headliner is vinyl, not the typical “mouse fur” found in Detroit products, which may be a feature rather than a bug, depending on your perspective. Cabin insulation is noticeably lacking, especially at highway speed. Neither driver nor passenger can forget their chosen mode of transportation is a small, slow car, especially surrounded by the SUVs that were about to capture the heart of the American motoring public in the early nineties.
Slide behind the wheel of this not-quite-hot hatch, and you are nearly as close to the ground as you would be in a Corvette. The amount of glass is incredible to modern eyes, and you can easily see around the skinny A- and B- pillars. The controls are within easy reach, and all gauges are simple to read at a glance. If you have a passenger in the front, you are nearly shoulder to shoulder, but it doesn’t feel cramped. There is plenty of leg and thigh room, even with the plusher bucket seats. Once rolling, engine noise is tolerable, and the shifter feels tight. Push the car to its limits, and you begin to understand the mantra of driving a slow car fast. Even with 13-inch tall skinny tires, you feel very connected to the road through the manual steering. Passing another vehicle does take some forethought, but 70 mph comes at about 3600 RPM, right in the powerband for torque. Thanks to low rolling resistance and a fairly aerodynamic wedge shape, fuel economy comes in at a real-world 40 mpg.
Now let’s compare the younger sibling. The 2003 Civic Si was built in Swindon, England and imported for the U.S. and Canadian markets. This seventh generation Civic has a 103.1” wheelbase, making it a Compact-class auto. With the increase in size came a stiffer chassis structure. When compared to the previous generation Si models, torsional rigidity was up by 95 percent. Curb weight was up considerably to 2744, but still svelte compared to the 2016 Civic’s 3002 pounds. When it came to suspension, this hot hatch was a letdown for enthusiasts compared to the previous Si models. The EP3 generation (2002-2005) switched to MacPherson struts for the front suspension. However, the new K20A3 iVTEC engine (shared with the Acura RSX) was rated at 160 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque, thus providing a wider power band as compared to its predecessor, though performance metrics were essentially the same. Like the 1990 model, this one also features a five speed manual transmission. However, here the clutch is hydraulic, and the shifter is dash-mounted.
Given the stiff competition for front-wheel-drive performance cars, this generation of Civic Si gets no love even from Honda fanboys, especially compared to the praise heaped upon the sixth-gen models. The EP3’s less responsive handling (due to the previously mentioned MacPherson struts), increased weight, and lack of a limited slip differential were certainly a detriment. Styling was somewhat questionable, as the hatchback did not share much resemblance to the same generation sedan or coupe.
Getting into the 2003 Civic, everything feels far more familiar to the 2015 driver. The seating position and floor height are higher. The console is wider and fills the space between the front floorwells and seats. Turn the key and the dash illuminates with OBD II warning lights, which wink off one by one. Engine noise seems more refined, though the shifter isn’t quite as notchy. There’s quite a bit more interior room all around, though the windshield is at a steeper angle. Out on the road, the ride is less firm, with more suspension travel.
As in the older car, highway speed is still close to 3600 RPM, making the driver wish for a sixth gear. The car handles well, and takes corners better than it should, but with that higher center of gravity as compared to the older Civic, it doesn’t quite inspire the same slot-car feel. Passing in this car is simple and fun, and probably the best thing about the driving experience; drop two gears and stomp on the accelerator. That’s it. No planning ahead, no drafting that semi truck, no maintaining a rolling inertia. More power does come at a price though. The more modern Civic averages 31 mpg, higher than the EPA estimate of 28, but woefully short of its older brethren.
Comparing these two Civics shows one of Honda’s oft-acknowledged strengths; that of evolutionary change rather than the revolution hinted at in the article’s title. They aren’t setting out to tear down the world and rebuild it, and they certainly aren’t going to risk alienating their customer base with one of the nation’s best-selling nameplates. Each generation gets a bit bigger, a bit more power, and hopefully a bit more refined.
As with Dickens’ tale, the outcome isn’t always what we expect. While the newer Si sport model would seem to be superior in every way (except fuel economy), isn’t it interesting that the older DX econo-box engages the driver more thoroughly?