Honda's sportiest and most fun-to-drive Civic, the 2012 Si, has freshened interior and exterior, more power than ever and higher fuel economy ratings than its predecessor.

In fact, the Si's new, 201-horsepower, naturally aspirated, 2.4-liter four cylinder is the same engine that's in the much-pricier 2012 Acura TSX and gives the 2012 Si new spirit, even if it's not turbocharged power.

The 2012 Civic Si also has new fuel economy ratings of 22 miles per gallon in city driving and 31 mpg on the highway from the federal government compared with 21/29 mpg for the 2011 Si.

This means the nimble handling Si has higher fuel economy ratings than the 20/28-mpg of the competing 2012 Mazdaspeed3 with 2.5-liter, turbocharged four cylinder.

Meantime, the Si's manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $23,145 for a base coupe is lower than the $24,765 for a 2012 Volkswagen GTI 2-Door that has a 200-horsepower, turbocharged four cylinder. The Si's base price also is lower than the $24,795 starting retail price of a 2012 Mazdaspeed3 with 263-horsepower, turbocharged four cylinder.

The sole transmission for the Civic Si models -- sold as coupe and sedan -- is a close-ratio six-speed manual that needs only a light touch to move smoothly through the gears.

The clutch pedal in the test Civic Si Coupe wasn't fussy, and the lack of an automatic transmission wasn't a drawback except during a lengthy traffic backup when the car crawled along for miles and my left leg tired of pushing the clutch pedal.

The new Si engine is the largest displacement powerplant put in U.S.-market Si cars. The horsepower increase over last year's 197 might seem minor, but peak horsepower now comes at 7,000 rpm instead of 7,800 rpm so there's a bit less rev noise to get the full power.

More importantly, torque is up from last year's 139 foot-pounds at 6,900 rpm to 170 foot-pounds at 4,400 rpm. The availability of peak torque at lower rpm puts accelerative power in the range where more drivers -- enthusiasts or more mainstream types -- will get to use it.

The tester pulled itself along with zip in city traffic and could move with urgency -- and with loud engine revving sounds --when kept in low gears.

It didn't feel taxed even when scooting by a line of other cars, and at less than 2,900 pounds, the Si coupe didn't feel heavy. But neither did it feel tinny or too light amid bigger vehicles.

Note the Civic Si, like all Civics, comes with a lengthy list of safety features, including electronic stability control with traction control, antilock brakes, Brake Assist and six air bags.

The test car rode on 17-inch all-season tires, and there was a good amount of road noise that came through to passengers. The radio's volume was constantly being adjusted to account for noisy road surfaces and the sounds from nearby diesel semis.

The Civic Si test car's steering had a lighter feel than expected. But this was predominantly at city speeds. On highways and country roads, steering felt more secure.

The Civic Si front bucket seats provided comfortable support, and there's a generous 42.6 inches of front-seat legroom. The low dashboard aided visibility up front.

The back seat of the Si coupe, took some effort to get into and out of; legroom of 30.8 inches, while increased by a half inch from the previous model, is adequate only for children and the short of stature.

Trunk space in the Si Coupe measures 11.7 cubic feet, up from 11.5 cubic feet in the 2011 Si Coupe. But the hatchback style of a VW GTI helps make for 15.3 cubic feet of cargo space in that car.

The new Si exterior styling is a subtle blending and cleaning up of the previous model.

The interior drew mixed reviews. Some passengers felt there's too much hard plastic, with different textures, while others said it will be easy to clean.

Note the Si doesn't offer leather-trimmed seats, but the nice-looking cloth seats in the test coupe had the benefit of helping to keep driver and passengers in place during aggressive driving. There is, however, standard leather wrapped on the Si steering wheel.

Admittedly, the test car was driven spiritedly and averaged 22 mpg in city/highway travel. This is below the government's combined 25 mpg rating.

Note that Honda's specs state premium fuel is required for maximum performance, so a fill-up of the Si's 13.2-gallon tank these days can total more than $51.

Consumer Reports doesn't rate the Civic Si separately from other, more mainstream Civics. Overall, Civics rated above average in reliability.

Honda Civics have been the subject of two safety recalls during the 2012 model year. One was for a potential fuel leak, and the other was for a driveshaft problem that could potentially lead to a crash.