Don’t get me wrong, the 1999-2000 Civic Si with its revvy engine and snappy handling is an incredible car. But is it half-a-hundo incredible? Not so sure. A few years ago, when you could pick up a good Si for under $10-grand, it was a no brainer. Now, though, the best low-mile cars are going for $50k and run-of-the-mill examples are nearly $15,000. Outrageous. Especially considering that EM1 Civic Si values are now a stone’s throw from the Acura Integra Type-R, a car that many consider the greatest front-driver ever created. Even wilder when you realize Honda made 10 times as many EM1 Civic Sis than they did ITRs.
And that’s before you even start thinking about the other, quicker, more exotic, non-Honda choices that are out there for the money. The whole point of these Sis when they were new is that they offered a ton of driving fun in a practical, affordable package. Once they start selling for used Corvette money, some of the appeal starts to go away, doesn’t it? So if you love the EM1 Civic Si (and you should) but still set a reasonable budget, here are a few alternative Japanese cars from the era that offer a similar experience but are much better buys.
1997-2001 Honda Prelude Type SH
Of course this list starts with the Prelude – pun intended. Since many people shopping for classic Hondas won’t look anywhere else, I’m sure you already considered the Prelude. I’m here to convince you to give it a second look.
Honda brought out all the stops for the fifth-and-final Prelude generation. Though four-wheel-steering wasn’t available in the US, like it had been on older Preludes, Honda attempted to remedy understeer with a all-new tech cheat in the Type SH trim. An acronym for “Super Handling”, the Type SH featured Honda’s new Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS) that, through a bunch of mechanical wizardry, directs more of the engine’s torque to the outside front tire during cornering. Many period reviews praised the Type SH for it’s handling but claimed the ATTS wasn’t worth the extra 44 pounds and that the Type SH’s firmer springs, dampers, and anti-roll bars should get more credit for the Prelude’s super handling. Either way, Honda’s engineers knocked it out of the park. The Type SH beat out rear-wheel-drive cars like the NA Miata and BMW 318ti in a 1997 Car and Driver best-handling test despite the ATTS system breaking halfway through.
In a side-by-side comparison, the Prelude isn’t far behind the Civic Si. The 2.2-liter inline-four is good for 200 horsepower (40 more than the Civic Si), which makes up for the extra weight. That extra displacement also means more torque, and every single lb-ft counts for a lot when we’re talking about VTEC Hondas. Both cars will hit 60 mph in about 7 seconds, though you’ll never see 8000 rpm in the Prelude or get to brag about 100 horsepower per liter in the Prelude. Even though the Prelude weighs 500 pounds more, it achieved 0.83g on a skid pad – not far behind the Civic Si’s 0.85g. Plus, every millennial knows that the Prelude was the cooler car to have in high school and now they are half the price.
1990-1994 Nissan Pulsar GTI-R
Hagerty Price Guide condition #3 value – $13,300
For the same price as a Civic Si, why not buy a way cooler, quicker, and more exclusive car?
For those who don’t know about the GTI-R, buckle up your five-point harness. The Pulsar GTI-R was a homologation special for Group A rallying that was designed to compete against legends like the Lancia Delta Integrale and Toyota Celica GT-Four. Though Nissan wasn’t very successful in Group A, never finishing better than third, the GTI-R is a hell of a hot-hatch.
At the heart of the Pulsar is a unique variant of the 2.0-liter SR20DET inline-four, which sends 227 horsepower to the ground through an ATTESA all-wheel drive system. The 2400 pound curb weight allows for a 5.4 second sprint to 60 mph and a 13.5 second quarter-mile – 2 whole seconds faster than the Civic Si and still fast by today’s standards. Think of this car like a miniature Skyline GT-R. Plus it has one of the weirdest hoods ever fitted to a production car – for some reason it reminds me of the Cave Troll from Lord of the Rings.
The GTI-R is still going unnoticed in most car circles, so promise to whisper when talking about it.
2001-2005 Lexus IS300
Condition #3 value – $7500
If the whole point is to have a fun practical car with a legendary engine, why not also get an extra set of doors? Two extra cylinders isn’t so bad, either.
Having spent the 1990s taking on and often beating the established German luxury cars at their own game, Lexus then introduced the IS300, aiming at the gold standard of sports sedans – the BMW 3-Series. Though the IS300 never beat the 3-Series in comparison tests, Lexus proved it could build more than just quiet, comfy cars. The IS300’s naturally-aspirated Supra-derived 2JZ 3.0-liter inline-six sends 215 horsepower to the rear wheels through an optional Torsen limited-slip differential. If that’s not enough power for you, just slap a turbo on it – Toyota engineers practically dared you to. The 2JZ is one of the most overbuilt engines ever, so much so that you could triple the horsepower without modifying the engine’s internals. Because of this, the IS300 might be one of the only sedans to suffer from the drift tax. Low-mileage, stock examples are becoming very rare, but you can still pickup a good one with a 5-speed for under $10k – if you can find it.
In stock form, the IS300 is no slouch. Despite the IS300’s 7.4 second 0-60 time (0.2 seconds slower than the Civic Si), it clears the quarter mile faster – 15.5 seconds at 90.0 mph vs 15.7 seconds at 88.4 mph in the Honda. On top of that, Motor Trend managed to run the IS300 through a 600-ft slalom at 67.6 mph while the Civic Si could only hit 65.5 mph. For icing on the cake, the IS300 has a much nicer interior. It is a Lexus, after all. Instead of beach towel-quality cloth, the Lexus seats are made of leather with suede inserts. Just make sure the Chronometer-style gauges don’t drive you crazy.
2000-2005 Toyota Celica GT-S
Condition #3 value – $6500
The Celica GT-S was Toyota’s answer to the Acura Integra Type-R, and well all know how great those are. The love-it-or-hate-it styling could be a turn off for some but the performance numbers should please everybody. In a 2000 Motor Trend comparison test the Celica GT-S managed to out handle the Acura, running their 600-foot slalom at 69.1 mph compared to the ITR’s 68.2 mph run. Mind you, this was without the optional TRD suspension package to further improve handling. The Celica also stopped from 60mph in only 111 feet, 4 feet shorter than the Acura. The GT-S’s 1.8-liter 2ZZ inline-four, co-designed by Yamaha and made famous in the Lotus Elise, makes 180 horsepower at 7600 rpm. Good enough to rocket the 2500 pound coupe to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds – three-tenths of a second slower than the ITR but a half second quicker than the Civic Si. This is arguably a better car than the Civic Si in every way. The Celica GT-S is faster, handles better, has a leather interior, comes with more power, and is still roughly the same weight.
The high-revving 100 horsepower per liter coupe you’ve been looking for can be all yours for a fraction of the price.
1995-1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX
The 1990s was the golden age of sporty compacts, Civic Si included. Mitsubishi took the idea and ran with it. The 2.0-liter 4G63T inline-four was turbocharged and intercooled to 210 horsepower and 214 lb-ft of torque. JDM fans might recognize that engine code from the Lancer Evo and much like the Evo, the Eclipse GSX sends power to all four tires. In short, the Eclipse GSX is almost like an Evo for a fraction of the price in and in smaller packaging.
The GSX is a perfect example of Japan’s over-the-top car design of the 1990s. Much like its big brother, the 3000GT VR4, nothing was held back on the GSX. It came standard with a leather interior and had an optional rear limited-slip differential which pushed the MSRP over $27,000 – and that’s in 1999 money (well over $40k today). Like many cars on the list, it will be difficult to find stock examples and you’ll likely sacrifice some reliability over the Honda, but there will be money left in your budget for the unexpected repair. If you don’t mind sticking to front-wheel-drive, look for an Eclipse GST. It has the same 210 horsepower engine as the GSX, but drops the AWD system and 330 pounds. A good Eclipse GST can be found for $7100.
The world hasn’t seen a car like the Eclipse GSX since it was discontinued. There’s no better example of this than the Mitsubishi Eclipse, which eventually evolved into a crossover.
The Civic Si still lives on, meanwhile, largely thanks to Honda never forcing it to be something it wasn’t.