Stare at the front of Honda's Civic Si hatchback and you see a subtly crafted happy face. Honda's designers may be having fun designing grilles and headlights that resemble a person's face, but in this instance the look is entirely appropriate. Honda is sure to be happy to have the Si back after an absence from the American market, and buyers' grins are likely to match the car.

Why? Because the 2002 Civic Si hits a sweet spot between fun and practicality. With 160 horsepower, sports seats and a tighter suspension, it has spunky performance with a reasonable price tag and a spacious interior. Fold down the back seat and there is enough room to carry home a big TV. The way the stubby nose and steeply slanted windshield blend into the body gives this two-door a wedgy, one-box shape that looks like a minivan that spent too much time in the dryer. This is a look and style that is very popular in Europe because it offers a relatively big interior on a small wheelbase, in this case one that is 101.2 inches long. European customers are able to buy an Si Type R with 200 horsepower and 17-inch wheels. That model may come here in a year or so. C'est la vie.

Since the mid-1980s when Volkswagen first hopped up the Rabbit with the GTI, hot hatches have been the sports cars for bargain hunters, and the Civic Si follows suit. The $19,250 base price includes a power sunroof, AM/FM/CD player, air conditioning, side airbags and anti-lock brakes. Engines are as much a Honda trademark as anything, and the Si's 2.0-liter, DOHC four-cylinder is sweet. While it lacks retina-searing acceleration, it scoots along quite nicely, thanks to 160 horsepower and a tightly spaced five-speed manual transmission. Variable valve timing improves low- and mid-range power so you don't have to mash the throttle all the time to keep up with traffic. Typically Honda, this engine is a little noisy when you work it hard.

The transmission's shift lever sticks out of a pod in the dash similar to that of a rally racer, and while it looks a little weird, it shifts very nicely indeed. The stubby gear lever sits right next to the steering wheel where you can reach it without moving your arm, and the linkage feels smooth and direct. Now I understand why rally drivers like this location.

The center section where the shifter is mounted also contains the stereo and climate controls. Its brushed silver finish looked slick, but the top part often created a reflection in the windshield. The three-spoke steering wheel and white-faced gauges have a performance look that is fitting for a car in this segment.

Deeply contoured front bucket seats were handsome as well as comfortable. The 60/40 rear seat folds to create a flat load floor, and it can be operated with one hand when the hatch is open. Folding seats need to be simple if they are going to be useful, and this one is.

While the European Type R gets 17-inch wheels, the Si is fitted with 15-inchers. The suspension has be en tightened up with retuned shocks and springs. Double-wishbones are used in back, with MacPherson struts in front. This layout might not be as elegant as previous models, but it is more space efficient. With disc brakes front and rear (anti-lock standard) and electronic power steering, the Si handles, steers and stops with reasonable proficiency. The ride is a nice combination of handling and comfort.

The sloping roofline and tapered side windows impinge a bit on rear three-quarter vision, requiring careful use of the outside mirrors. The rear hatch opens large enough to load sizable objects.

The return of a sporty hatchback to the Civic line is a most welcome development. Now, if Honda would just go all the way and send us the Type R as well.

The base price of our test car was $19,250. Freight brought the sticker price to $19,710.

Three years or 36,000 miles.

Point: The Civic Si has sporty looks, peppy pe formance and an interior big enough to swallow lots of gear with the back seat folded. Shifting the transmission is a pleasure and the 160-horsepower engine is reasonably robust.

Counterpoint: Rear visibility is compromised by the sloping roofline and tapered side windows, engine noise is noticeable when driven hard and the center section of the instrument panel reflects in the windshield.

Engine: 2.0-liter, 160-hp 4-cyl.
Transmission: Five-speed Front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 101.2 inches
Curb weight: 2,744 lbs.
Base price: $19,250
As driven: $19,710
Mpg rating: 26 city, 30 hwy.
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