Having been the satisfied owner of a 1993 Honda Civic EX for several years, I was eager to drive the 2003 Civic Si. I was mostly impressed with the refinements 10 years made. A blacked-out front grille with an Si badge, a chrome, dual-tipped exhaust pipe end, and aluminum wheels shod with fat, low-profile P195-60 R15 88V tires, give the car a sporty look. An expansive windshield overlooks a short, down-sloped hood for an unfettered view of the road.

A huge rear lid opens to reveal 35.7 ft3 of cargo space with the rear seat folded down. Up front, red lights illuminate large, silver-backed instruments on the dashboard. Radio-knob-style controls operate the heater and A/C, replacing cumbersome pushbuttons and sliders found in my EX. All seats have three-point safety belts while the front seats also get automatic tensioners and dual-stage air bags. Front side air bags with a Passenger-Side Occupant Position Detection System are available.

The seats and look-through-loop headrests have a decidedly "European" firmness, consistent with what Honda terms a race-inspired suspension. Electric, power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, a rear reactive-link double wishbone, and a control-link MacPherson-strut suspension up front, give the 2,744-lb car decent handling on smooth twisties but, as you might expect, a firm ride on bumpy roads.

An aluminum 2.0-liter 16-valve DOHC four-cylinder engine churns out 160 hp at 6,500 rpm and 132 lb-ft of torque at 5,000 rpm. A close-ratio five-speed manual transmission keeps the power coming throughout the rpm range. The distinctive dash-mounted shifter is reasonably smooth and precise though I found it uncomfortable to reach forward to shift rather than slightly down as with ordinary floor shifters.

Once in high gear, concerns about the shifter fade only to be replaced by sounds of an engine racing. The 4.764 final drive ratio seems excessively low for comfortable sustained highway cruising. This is a shame because the car is remarkably quiet otherwise. No doubt mileage suffers. EPA estimates are 26 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. I averaged about 21 mpg in combined driving, considerably less than what my high-mileage 125-hp Civic gets with an automatic transmission under similar driving conditions. To be fair, the Si had only 2,000 miles on the odometer and mileage could improve with time as the drivetrain limbers up.

These few annoyances aside, Hondas have a well-deserved reputation for reliability. Besides routine oil changes and the like, new owners probably won't be opening the hood much. Honda says expect to go 110,000 miles between tune-ups.

A standard-equipped model (no extras) costs $19,000 plus $460 for destination and handling.