Honda hot rod has a nice ring to it, don't you think? Teens and young adults do, too, because they've been building customized Honda Civics for a bunch of years.

Young people today are doing with Civics what young people yesterday did with muscle cars and old Chevys, making them go faster and look wilder than the guy's down the block.

Hot Civics, stylin' Civics, low-ridin' Civics, even wacky over-the-top Civics with tires that stick 4 inches out from the body and with tiers of spoilers towering over the pavement.

Conservative Honda of America never really has bought into the phenomenon, aside from marketing the frenetic CRX coupe during the early part of this decade. That pocket rocket earned quite a reputation, causing insurance agents to turn purple with trepidation. Which, in turn, caused Honda to pull the plug on the CRX.

Now, the Honda Si comes into focus, packed with a high-tech VTEC 1.6-liter engine, suspension tweaking and some subtle bodywork. The look is laid-back, but the intent is there: a modern sleeper with the right look, sound and performance.

To create the Si, the sixth Civic model to wear those initials, Honda took a run-of-the-mill Civic and added enhancements and improvements, just as a young owner might. A front spoiler, body sills, black-mesh grille, chrome exhaust tip and a set of custom-looking 15-inch rims and tires make for a sporty look, though much more subdued than the Civics you see on Mill Avenue after midnight. Maybe too subtle for those desiring the boy-racer style.

Stiffer springs, thicker stabilizer bar in the front and the addition of one to the rear, gas shocks and four-wheel disc brakes make the Si stop and turn as well as it accelerates. Which is good.

But the best move was dropping in the performance-laden VTEC engine, most recently found in the late Del Sol two-seater that went away this model year.

The VTEC is a piece of work. Extremely peaky, hitting its top power output all the way up near its 8,000 rpm redline, the VTEC is also tractable at low speeds because of its variable valve timing. In the Si, extra power comes from a larger throttle body, which boosts power at the cost of gas mileage, and a redesigned intake manifold.

The Jekyll and Hyde flexibility is underscored by its quiet, smooth running at low speeds. You can tool around all day driving it gently as a standard Civic four, which turns out about 127 horsepower. But get on it, and once the tachometer hits 5,500 rpm, right where the valve timing is quickly advanced, the engine suddenly changes pitch and the power dials on.

Really, there are few modern driving experiences as joyous as rapping out this wickedly hot little four-banger. At that magical 5,500, when most engines are running out of breath, the VTEC comes on strong, pulling rapidly up to the 8,000 mark, when the rev limiter takes over and you have to shift. And then do it again in the next gear.

My only gripe about this engine is that i t can get quite raucous, roaring and groaning loudly under acceleration. A major plus, however, is good gas mileage for a high-performance engine, although it does require premium. Also, the mileage is down compared with other Civics.

Unlike the late CRX, the Civic coupe remains a real-world vehicle that can be used by people who need things like back seats and freeway-cruising comfort. On the highway, the Si is quiet and comfortable, a surprisingly refined vehicle despite its stiffened suspension and gearing that puts the engine revs into a high pitch at 70 mph.

With four people on board, including a long-legged, 6-foot teen-ager in the back seat, the Civic showed its stuff on a short road trip up to Yarnell. Notorious Yarnell hill, a steeply winding stretch of Arizona 89 north of Wickenburg, was a piece of cake with the Si's free-revving power and well-controlled suspension.Fun, too.

Although the coupe configuration makes entry to the rear seat something of a trial, there is enough room back there for most folk. The trunk also is pretty roomy, relative to the petite size of this car. The trim level is good, with such things as power windows, door locks and mirrors, though the seats are manually adjusted.

The nearly $18,000 price tag seems like a lot for a Civic, until you take it out and experience the style and performance that makes the little critter kind of special.

And I do like the way this Civic says "Si!" As in, "Yes! Go for it."

1999 Honda Civic Si

Vehicle type: Four-passenger, two-door coupe, front-wheel drive. Base price: $17,445. Price as tested: $17,960. Engine: 1.6-liter in-line four, 160 horsepower at 7,600 rpm, 111 pound-feet of torque at 7,000 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed manual. Curb weight: 2,615 pounds. Wheelbase: 103.2 inches. EPA fuel economy: 26 city, 31 highway. Highs: Trick engine. Cruising comfort. Cornering ability. Lows: Engine noise. Premium fuel. Premium price.