More stories related to Chicago Auto Show CHICAGO – Unveiling its Civic Si concept at the auto show here, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. promises the edgy Si – the performance leader of the upcoming ’06 Civic family to be introduced this fall – is symbolic of its commitment to veer the next-generation Civic away from the current car’s conservative message.

It’s at least a minor risk for Honda, because with Civic, conservative has translated to successful. The Civic has been the best-selling compact nameplate in the U.S. for nine years running, Honda says.

But the compact segment is rapidly evolving, and the current Civic lineup, introduced in 2001, appears staid and unadventurous in both styling and performance. And the Si, the Civic range’s performance flagship, particularly has been castigated by the very import-tuner customers who venerated previous-generation Si models as affordable enthusiast cult cars.

Typically, however, other than presaging production-model Si styling with the concept Civic Si shown here, Honda is reticent to provide further detail for the production ’06 Civic Si.

Civic Si concept presages styling for this fall’s production model.

The Civic Si concept’s styling is “90% of what you’ll see when the production model debuts later this year,” promises John Mendel, American Honda Motor Co. Inc.’s recently installed senior vice president. Apart from that, Honda is playing close to the vest with more meaningful detail.

Mendel says the ’06 Civic Si will have a 200-hp 4-cyl. engine featuring Honda’s “intelligent” version of its well-known VTEC variable valve-timing system. Honda sources will not divulge the engine’s displacement, but the 200-hp rating will make the new Si the most powerful production Civic since the model debuted in the U.S. in 1973.

Honda says the Si 4-cyl. has an 8,000-rpm redline. It will be linked to a 6-speed manual transmission, also a first for Civic that sources say also is likely to be available for the entire Civic line.

Honda officials and engineers also will not divulge whether the all-new Civic platform incorporates the double-wishbone independent front suspension Honda abandoned on the current-generation Civic, to the disdain of Honda enthusiasts and the notoriously finicky import-tuner crowd. A MacPherson strut front suspension is used in the current Civic, criticized for lacking the responsive, sporty handling of previous Civics that enjoyed double-wishbone layouts.

The ambiguity about the all-new Civic’s front-suspension design will have to wait until details are available closer to this fall’s launch, says one Honda official, adding only, “It’s the best-handling Civic we’ve ever done.”

“The ’06 Civic Si Coupe will be the most powerful, fastest and fun-to-drive Si we’ve ever put on the street,” says Mendel.

He says the production version of the Civic Si will be unveiled at the 2005 Specialty Equipment Market Assn. show in November, and Honda will be the first importer ever to be the official vehicle manufacturer of the SEMA show.

bvisnic@primediabusiness.com