Recently, Honda held an event at the foot of Angeles Crest Highway — a Southern California road famous for its sweeping turns and vistas. Unusually, this wasn't to highlight any particular new car, but rather to celebrate Honda's ongoing commitment to the manual transmission. Even more unusually, the carmaker trotted out some manual-equipped classics from its vault: pristine examples of a 1999 Honda Civic Si, a 1999 Honda Prelude SH and a 2009 S2000 CR.
Honda's media relations team also brought some 2018 models: an Accord Sport 2.0, a Civic Si and a Civic Type R. My first thought when I arrived at the event and saw this noteworthy array of classic metal next to a selection of current-generation stick-shift Hondas was that Honda was very brave indeed. Did it really want us to drive the heroes of its lineup — pure automotive unobtanium for JDM fanbois everywhere — next to a Civic with Android Auto that's available by the thousands on dealer lots around the country?
Heck yes, it did, and it knew what it was doing, too. I'll start with a rundown of the classic cars Honda brought.
1999 Honda Civic Si: Let VTEC Into Your Life
From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, Honda had an incredible reputation among enthusiasts for making affordable cars that were fun to drive. The Civic Si has always been at the heart of this ethos, a familiar and pedestrian vehicle wrapped up in an extra layer of goodness to create a product that transcends the sum of its parts. You know, kind of like a Cheesy Gordita Crunch.
Of course, the 1999 Civic Si coupe Honda dug out of its vault still contained everything great and not so great about a late-'90s economy car. There's not much interior space, the steering wheel doesn't telescope and, obviously, gray plastic abounds. The gray cloth seats do have some delightful rainbow highlights that I 100 percent believe would be a serious moneymaker for Honda should they be offered as an option on the current generation.
But none of that is the point. The point is the VTEC badging, the manual five-speed gearbox and, of course, the 8,000-rpm redline on the tachometer. Wheeling the '99 Si up and down Angeles Crest, I could feel both Honda's aspirations for performance and the compromises of economy.
Taken around Angeles Crest Highway's many turns, the Si's body rolls almost hilariously, pitching over to the side so you're leaning practically out of your seat to stay upright. The throw on the gear shift lever is long. Really long. And it might just have been the age of the car, but it also felt a little loose, although there's a positive feel when you engage a gear. At low rpm, the engine feels about as punchy as a riding mower until the needle starts edging past 5,000 rpm, at which point Honda's variable valve timing (also known as VTEC) kicks in — changing the valve timing to increase power at the cost of fuel efficiency — and all 160 horsepower howl to life.
But with so little low-end power, the old Si is endlessly dramatic because it begs to be driven hard. You feel as if you're going too fast all the time, with the pedal at or near the floor and the engine howling and the body rolling over, until you realize you're only right about the speed limit and working hard to do even that.
1999 Honda Prelude: The Prelude That Deserves an Encore
The 1999 Honda Prelude SH felt in every way more sophisticated than the Civic. Even smaller inside for your 6-foot, 230-pound narrator, who found that, even at its highest tilt setting, the steering wheel remained in contact with his thighs. And sadly, the cloth upholstery was merely black.
But the trials of the flesh are quickly forgotten when you get the Prelude SH on the road. With more power (195 horses) across more of its rev range, sportier suspension, a shorter and sharper throw, and active torque vectoring across the front axle, the Prelude is faster, more forgiving and more engaging than the Si. The exhaust note is richer, and the car pulls harder to the slightly less impressive 7,500-rpm redline.
Pitching the Prelude SH into a turn is an excellent exercise for your cheeks since it's hard not to smile at the little car's eagerness to go along with whatever you ask of it. It captures that near-magical feeling of always urging you to go a little faster. In fact, if you want to visit the wayback machine you can read a bit about how much we liked the Prelude SH's dynamics in the year 2002. (You can also marvel at the cutting edge of early 20th-century pop-culture references.)
2009 Honda S2000 CR: CR Stands for Crazy
The 2009 Honda S2000 CR, on the other hand, is so sharp you can never forget it might cut you. I settled down into the snug seats to discover, happily, that the fixed steering wheel is placed high enough to be convenient. And although the window frame is blocking a good portion of my view, who cares? I'm sitting in one of the 1,400 harder, sharper, stiffer, lighter, grippier Club Racer-spec S2000s ever made.
And it's a little terrifying.
The steering is quick, and it feels as if I'm turning the tiny wheel a fraction of the angle the other cars required. Throw on the metal-ball-topped stick shift is laughably short. The notchy transmission goes into gear with barely a flick of the wrist. Throttle response is immediate, and the S2000 blasts toward that incredible 8,000-rpm redline. But caution is the watchword of this car.
The short wheelbase and firm suspension mean you don't just feel every bump, you experience each one as a dynamic event. The S2000 arcs beautifully through turns, but I also get the feeling that too much enthusiasm will quickly bring on oversteer (even though I've left traction and stability control on to catch me if I get too frisky). The Prelude SH positively encourages a devil-may-care attitude, but driving an S2000 at the limit requires a level of skill and care that I am not confident I could exhibit on my best day.
I also have to lean out of the car to see the road ahead around turns because the spot where the frame curves into the front roof pillar completely obscures my view. That's another way the S2000 makes it clear it's a car that is not designed to fit you. Rather, you have to figure out how to fit it, both physically and mentally.
I don't think Honda could bring a car like this to market again if it wanted to. The S2000 is uncomplicated in ways that cars can't be anymore, leaving so much to the driver and making so few compromises. In fact, all three of these classics are at least in part defined by traits that wouldn't fly on a dealer lot these days. But as I was to learn, Honda has managed to capture some of the emotion of its classics, even if it can't re-create the exact experience.
2018 Honda Civic Si: 2018 Is a Good Vintage
The 2018 Honda Civic Si — with its turbocharged engine, 7,000-rpm redline, extra weight (about 400 pounds compared to a '99 Civic) and silly-looking spoiler — is every bit as fun as its grandparents. Like many newer cars, it feels slightly more detached from the road, but not as much as I was expecting. The steering is nicely weighted and feels natural, and the transmission's shifter action is crisper than it is in either the old Si or Prelude. I didn't feel as much of the road through the suspension, but there's none of the old Si's bounce and roll. It corners flatter, pulls harder, and rewards you just as much when you drive it aggressively.
In fact, when hustling a 2018 Civic Si Coupe up Angeles Crest, I only found myself wishing for two changes: a more legible tachometer and a louder exhaust. Between the muffled engine note and hard-to-see redline indicator, I was bouncing off the rev limiter more than once. But mostly, this Si recaptures the strengths of its predecessors. In fact, if you're willing to take off the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, you might find that the current Si is every bit as fun yet more practical.
2018 Honda Civic Type R: Yes, It's Very, Very Good
If the current Civic Si is fun, the 2018 Civic Type R is a party on wheels. The kind of party where you know all the songs that are playing but no one will tell you what's in the punch — they just keep winking. Once again, the strengths of the old Hondas are on display here. The Type R exhibits the liveliness of the S2000 with the do-what-thou-wilt confidence of the Prelude SH. It even has a metal shift knob. The steering and suspension are more aggressive, and the noticeably stronger engine responds more quickly to inputs. There's a raw feeling to the Type R that's addictive. But it also grips for days and pulls through Angeles Crest's long sweepers with confidence, all while your face tries to escape off the side of your head.
Honda has managed to convey a sense of edginess to the Type R's driving experience that makes it incredibly rewarding to hustle up and down a canyon road, but it's also more accessible. The gear shifter's throw is snappy and short, though not as short as the S2000's. The automatic rev-matching feature for downshifting works great and accommodates drivers who haven't mastered heel-toe shifting (or who can't be bothered). Don't worry — you can turn it off. The burlier exhaust note also makes it easier than the Si to gauge where to shift.
Best of all, the well-bolstered sport seats don't just hold you in place, they're comfortable. Settle down a bit and ignore the fact that passers-by are staring at the ridiculous wing hanging off your trunklid, and the Type R becomes a car you can just ... spend time in. It doesn't ask you to compromise, but it also doesn't feel compromised. That's quite a trick.
2018 Honda Accord Sport 2.0: Not Quite in Accordance
Unfortunately, not every car can be built for Angeles Crest. The new 2018 Honda Accord Sport 2.0 proved less adapted to this setting than its stablemates. Please, Honda, don't take this as me suggesting the car shouldn't exist: It's a 250-horsepower sedan with a manual transmission for just over thirty grand. It's basically what I wish every car was. The manual transmission is classic Honda to boot: smooth shifter action and a clear (although high) clutch uptake point. The manual pairs well with the 2.0-liter engine, both for casual and aggressive driving.
The Accord also handles well. For a midsize sedan, it changes direction eagerly and feels stable and planted through corners, even over bumps. It's not particularly dramatic, but that's really one of its strengths. This is an outstanding family car that can hustle when it needs to.
However, while the current Accord is an excellent all-around car, its steering is both light and numb. This creates a feeling of detachment from the road and a driving experience that's fine in a commuter. But on Angeles Crest, the Accord can't quite match the dynamic pace set by the best of what Honda has to offer.
Maybe You Can Go Home Again
It was an absolute treat to drive these cars on this road. And at the end of the day, I came away impressed with how true Honda has managed to be to its enthusiast roots. We may bemoan the loss of high-revving naturally aspirated engines, or the extra weight and complexity of today's cars, but driving them back to back with the true legacy cars made it clear that they've kept the fun.
I also came away trying to figure out how much of my stuff I'd have to sell to be able to buy a Type R. Anyone know how to start a GoFundMe?