Author Pearl Cleage had it right: "What looks like crazy on an ordinary day looks a lot like love in the moonlight."

It was night. I was running late on Interstate 66, trying to figure out why anyone would spend more than $17,000 for a Honda Civic. A Honda Civic! The quintessential economy car.

Except I was driving the 2000 Honda Civic Si coupe, equipped with a 1.6-liter, 160-horsepower, double-overhead-cam, in-line four-cylinder engine. The car was painted metallic royal blue. At least that's what I called it. Honda called it "electron blue," which made little sense to me. I mean, who says electrons are blue?

Anyway, the little wedge-nosed car with the bug-eyed headlamps arrived in daylight. I drove it just a little then, about eight miles from my home to my office in the District of Columbia in congested traffic. I was underwhelmed.

It was a Civic, for heaven's sake. A high-performance Civic, perhaps. But this one, with its fancy paint, sporty red "Si" badge, and 15-inch, machine-finished aluminum-alloy wheels, was stuck in traffic along with everything else.

All day at work, that bothered me. More than $17,000, for what? Crazy, nuts, I thought. I decided to leave the office late, long after the evening rush hour, to get a real feel for the car.

The city lights were on in the District of Columbia, and lights illuminated that part of I-66 closest to the District and its Virginia suburbs. Artificial light turned to moonlight farther down the road, and the whir of ambient traffic surrendered to the sounds of night winds and insects.

In that mobile moment, I discovered the truth of Cleage's words. Crazy was a heartthrob. It was lust in motion. It was gotta-have-it, now-I-got-it, and, yo! I don't wanna let it go!

The little Si could run, and it could do it with a grace, balance and ease absent from some significantly more expensive sports coupes. It reminded me of the perfectly balanced rear-wheel-drive Honda S2000 convertible, which I loved. But that car was designed to compete against the likes of the BMW Z3 and Mercedes-Benz SLK roadsters, pricey drop-top pocket rockets.

But the 2000 Civic Si? What? A poor dreamer's Corvette in miniature in front-wheel drive? A factory-made hot rod, patterned after souped-up Civics on the West Coast? All of those things, maybe. But, again, maybe none of them.

Love is insane, confusing. It causes as much pain as pleasure. Look at America's love affair with the car--the joy of pursuing the open road, the frustrating difficulty in finding one, the pollution and accident-riddled freedom of the highway.

Why do we do it? Why are we drawn to this sweet madness? Why is a car such as the Civic Si even marketable?

It all goes back to love, I think--back to the powerful hope love brings, and our inability to live without it.

2000 Honda Civic Si Coupe

Complaints: The rear seats in this four-seater are good only for infants' safety seats. Bad news for adult ba ck-benchers, but good news for parents, inasmuch as those seats are equipped with tether anchors designed to hold safety seats firmly in place.

Praise: High marks in the fun-to-drive department. "Fun to drive" is defined as that quality that draws a motorist to a car or truck and entices him or her to get behind the wheel and take longer-than-necessary--or, indeed, completely unneeded--trips, often as a kind of mental therapy.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Remarkably good, especially for a small car. You've got to put it on the highway, preferably on some less-traveled, winding road, to appreciate its goodness. Braking is excellent. Power, four-wheel disc brakes are standard.

Engines: There are four different 2000 Civic coupes--the base DX, fuel-sipping HX, the upscale EX and the sporty Si. Each gets a different four-cylinder engine--106 horses for the DX, 115 for the HX, 127 for the EX and 160 for the Si.

Transmissions: The Si gets a five-speed manual only. Five-spe ed manuals are standard on the other Civic coupes as well, but they also can be equipped with four-speed automatics (with a continuously variable transmission available for the HX).

Capacities: Seats four people, two of them small. Fuel capacity for the Si is 11.9 gallons; premium unleaded recommended. Cargo capacity is 11.9 cubic feet.

Mileage: About 29 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving. Estimated range is 335 miles.

Safety: Dual front air bags, three-point safety belts front and rear, child-safety-seat anchors, rigid body construction. Still a small car.

Price: Preliminary pricing on the 2000 Civic Si coupe is $17,445 base price and a dealer's invoice of $15,759. All Honda options are dealer-installed, which could raise the price. There is a destination charge of $415. These prices are subject to change.

Purse-strings note: Substantially less-expensive Civics are available, but they are not nearly as much fun.