Souped-up Honda Civic has plenty of virtues

The 2012 Honda Civic Si Coupe HFP is a sleek performance package that includes upgraded handling, suspension, and a big jump in torque.

In just a few weeks during the annual IndyCar Series race weekend, Toronto?s Exhibition Place will be once again filled with the sound and fury of up-to-700 horsepower race cars, screaming along Lake Shore Blvd. at close to 370 kilometres per hour.

As usual, Honda will be a big part of the race weekend. Since 2009, the Japanese automaker has been the event?s title sponsor. And for the third time in four years, a Honda-powered race car will be looking to take home the checkered flag.

One of the teams that employ the North American-developed Honda V6 race engine is Chip Ganassi Racing. Scotland?s Dario Franchitti is one of Ganassi?s drivers. He?s not only won two out of the last three Toronto IndyCar races, he?s also coming straight off his third Indianapolis 500 win just last month.

Yet despite Honda?s past and potential future success at the Toronto event, there are race fans that snub their noses at IndyCar racing, mainly Formula One zealots. And with Honda?s departure from the F1 circuit in 2008, and the cancellation of its S2000 sports car one year later, the company?s reputation as a maker of fun-to-drive cars has taken a hit.

Which is why I?m here at Niagara Regional Airport. Honda is on a mission to remind us that yes, they still know how to make cars for driving enthusiasts, cars that can be driven hard on closed circuits.

Cars like the new-for-2012 Honda Civic Si Coupe HFP.

As most driving enthusiasts know, the addition of a few letters to any car?s name is usually a positive thing. The additional ?HFP? stands for Honda Factory Performance. It?s the second HFP model Honda Canada has recently released, following last year?s Accord Coupe HFP.

Like the larger Accord, the ?performance? part of the Civic Si HFP focuses on handling and styling upgrades.

Over the five-passenger, front-wheel-drive Civic Si two-door (the Si sedan is not available), the HFP model adds a specific suspension package (progressive springs with 10 millimetre lower ride height, re-tuned shocks with higher damping force, and adjustments to the alignment and balance of the car), one-inch larger 18-inch alloy wheels with Michelin Super Sport performance tires (instead of the Si?s 17-inch all-season tires), front, side, and rear underbody body-kit pieces, plus HFP exterior badging and interior floor mats.

Honda Canada says the $4,006.68 extra the HFP package costs over the $25,990 Civic Si is a 50 per cent discount compared to a customer having the pieces installed at their local Honda dealer.

Every other nut and bolt on the HFP model is pure Civic Si, which isn?t such a bad thing.

Along with the rest of the compact Civic lineup, the Civic Si was redesigned for 2012. The Si ditched the older, higher-reviving 2.0-litre four-cylinder in favour of the 2.4 L unit from the Acura TSX. It also gained the sports sedan?s snickety-snick six-speed manual gearbox (there is no automatic available on either the regular Civic Si or HFP).

While horsepower only goes up by four to 201, torque jumps to 170 lb.-ft. ? a noticeable 31 lb.-ft. gain. Not only does the 2012 Civic Si go from 0-100 km/h about a half-second quicker now (in the mid-six-second range), the extra torque at lower revs means the car?s power is much more accessible.

Before the HFP suspension changes, the current Civic Si was already one of the best-handling front-drive coupes you could buy. Understeer is limited to a minimum. And the car?s ride never beat you up over bad pavement. Fortunately, the HFP setup only enhances those characteristics.

Before I took the car to the airport runway track for a good thrashing, I spent the morning driving on public roads in and around Niagara-on-the-Lake. And despite the suspension?s lower height, stiffer shocks, and tires with less sidewall depth, the Civic Si HFP?s ride never gave grief to this driver?s rear-end.

At the track, Honda officials first laid out a low-speed, tight-knit slalom course. Then a second, looser setup, where you get the Civic Si HFP up to illegal road speeds. In both instances, the additional grip from the Michelins was very noticeable. But when the rubber could be provoked into sliding, the HFP?s rear-end rotated around progressively ? almost like a rear-drive car.

Admittedly, the Civic Si HFP isn?t as race-ready as one of Ganassi?s Honda race cars. In fact, the changes to the suspension don?t upset the ride quality that much. The HFP?s body motions remain in complete control, with only sharp, concrete patches filtering back to the driver.

The only negative is the added road noise from the high-performance Michelins. Something the targeted buyer will surely put up with for the added grip over the Si?s less aggressive rubber.

So are the HFP upgrades worth your hard-earned money?

If you?ve already bought into the cooking Civic Si?s qualities, the HFP upgrades seem like a ?no-brainer.? The extra styling bits add more character. And at just under $30,000, the Civic Si HFP?s price is right inline with Volkswagen?s GTI, the car it most equals in all-around driveability.

In fact, if Honda Canada is listening, an HFP version of the more versatile Civic Si sedan should be its next model.

As founder Soichiro Honda once said, ?If Honda does not race, there is no Honda.? And the 2012 Civic Si Coupe HFP is the closest thing to a race car in a Honda showroom today.

However, you may need Franchitti?s Honda race car to get to the dealer quick enough to get one.

Honda Canada is making only 400 copies of the 2012 Civic Si HFP this year. And in the two months the model has been on-sale, about 300 have already been sold.

First Drive: 2012 Honda Civic Si Coupe HFP

BASE PRICE: $29,996.68

ENGINE: 2.4 L I4

POWER/TORQUE: 201 hp/170 lb-ft.

TRANSMISSION: Six-speed manual

FUEL ECONOMY L/100 km: 10.0 city, 6.4 highway

COMPETITION: Ford Focus ST, Hyundai Veloster Turbo, Kia Forte Koup, Scion tC, Mini Cooper, Mazdaspeed3, Nissan Sentra SE-R, Volkswagen GTI

WHAT?S BEST: Suspension upgrades improve handling without sacrificing ride quality; more masculine styling.

WHAT?S WORST: High-performance tires add road noise.

WHAT?S INTERESTING: Honda Canada has not committed to building the Civic Si Coupe HFP after this year?s inventory has been sold.

  • Souped-up Honda Civic has plenty of virtues
  • Souped-up Honda Civic has plenty of virtues
  • Souped-up Honda Civic has plenty of virtues
  • Souped-up Honda Civic has plenty of virtues
  • Souped-up Honda Civic has plenty of virtues
  • Souped-up Honda Civic has plenty of virtues
  • Souped-up Honda Civic has plenty of virtues
  • Souped-up Honda Civic has plenty of virtues
  • Souped-up Honda Civic has plenty of virtues
  • Souped-up Honda Civic has plenty of virtues
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