Yes, there might have been the odd diamond in the rough during the nineties, but on the lower end of the budget, cars were generally associated with some rather strong expletives. Sure, some of them had qualities that have since seen them stagger into ‘classic’ territory, but for one particular segment it was rather dire.
Hot hatches saw their honeymoon period in the eighties. Manufacturers all began this foray into the unknown based on a whim, possibly induced by too much synth and cocaine, but somehow their recipes smashed it out of the park. VW gave us the Golf GTi, which they expected to dive in the most cynical way possible, yet we bought tens of thousands. Peugeot followed suit with the 205 GTi, a car that many consider to be the finest hot hatch ever designed.
Yet somehow, in the mid nineties and beyond, manufacturers got bored. The flair, performance and sheer enjoyment of driving was quashed with new regulations that they simply couldn’t be bothered to work around to keep the magic alive. The Mk3 Golf GTi had the poise of a soggy sponge finger whilst the 206 GTi looked like the Joker but drove like one too.
In 2001, however, one particular company that escaped the European siesta of flamboyance and hilarity decided to bring their own stellar hot hatch overseas. The EK9 Civic Type-R never came to Europe or America, but it was a true freak in the sheets; bucket seats, menacing red Honda emblems, and a 9,000 RPM red line sent a lot of men into a serious pocket billiards competition. Seeing the Mk4 Golf GTi and other attempts, Honda seized its opportunity and had a mic drop moment. Enter the EP3 Civic Type-R.
The EP3 Civic in standard guise had about as much charisma as a dying verruca. It was dull, it was tall, it was spacious. Qualities that aren't part of the original hot hatch recipe so people who liked ‘tradition’ could whine endlessly about change and why it should be killed with fire. “But it’s not a 205.”
Whilst the Golf made literally no changes to its exterior whatsoever for the Mk4 GTi, Honda pushed the boat out in the best way possible. They introduced the rest of the world to the joys of the Type-R sub brand. Side skirts, twin tipped exhausts, a rear spoiler and suggestive gunmetal grey wheels. Some of the spiciest embellishments seen on any hatchback this side of Need For Speed: Underground, and that’s before you jump inside the spicy red suede interior.
The EP3 Type-R is the kid at school who got fed up with being bullied. They stuck on The Eye Of The Tiger for three years on consecutive loop until they were built like Chuck Norris, then sucker punched the class bully square in the face in front of the headmaster to prove a point. Civic’s were the cars of old people who wanted something that wasn’t a Suzuki Wagon R+, and Honda was fed up having to mollycoddle their smallest child.
They worked tirelessly on seam welding the Civic shell, adding flashy suspension, beefier brakes and an engine that was simply demonic. The almost MPV style Civic found its naughty side, and it brought journalists around the world to unanimous silence. Car of the Year and Hot Hatch of the Year trophies were added to the cabinet over night, and I’m here to tell you why, but also to dispel some myths.
A K20A2 engine was slotted under the hood developing 197 horsepower, a figure that the Golf would only match four years later. Unlike the competitors, however, this car had one kick-ass party trick - VTEC.
Approaching 'refreshed' 2005 model, I notice some subtle changes from the first generation car. The front end was re-sculpted, the rear lights had been changed with Lexus-style units and it looked menacing in a way even the original would tip its hat to. Clamber in and you’re immediately engulfed by the best seats of any car in this era. Proper Recaro bucket seats cradle you in all the right places and immediately hint at the potential awaiting.
Dig deeper, however, and you’ll find that Honda continuously improved the car right until its curtain call in the latter half of 2005. A lighter flywheel was fitted to improve throttle response, revised suspension settings were calibrated and a quicker rack added to seal the already potent deal.
Look around and yes, things have changed in terms of interior quality, yet despite the slightly old fashioned materials and silver plastics, it looks impeccable for a now 14 year old car. Of course, having 46,000 miles on the odometer largely contributes to its fresh appearance. Plus I absolutely love a suede garnish, it really ties the cockpit together. That and red carpets which were such a definitive feature on eighties hot hatches.
Turn the key and weird sense of readiness engulfs you, but without any drama. It fires with a snap and settles to an idle by the click of your fingers. Reach for the MPV inspired dash mounted aluminium gear knob and things begin to come alive. This is no ordinary car.
The pedals play host to a pinpoint precision that was identified before I had even found the biting point. Once on the road you are bludgeoned by how composed the car is. Given its notoriety as a hardcore hot hatch, I automatically expected to have tinnitus and a broken back whilst enjoying rattly trim and other novel noughties memories, but no.
The ride is firm but as compliant as they come, taking in the potholed country roads in its stride whilst maintaining a sporty persona that came alive with a rev matched downshift. Once up to temperature, it was time to see what all this VTEC fuss was about.
“VTEC kicked in yo.”
“Look, it’s a ricer.”
“Great lawn mower, dude.”
These are the phrases we associate with the red ‘H’ emblem, yet the most important is undoubtedly the first of that trio. Many journalists over the years, despite drooling over this absurd creation, had one major criticism: torque, or lack of torque. Upon the fifth mile of the little beast enjoying warm oil, I went for it. A quick prod of the sensitive throttle, a bark and instantaneous hike in the rev range, a satisfying stab on the short shifter later and second was selected with that typical Honda rifle like click. Foot, meet carpet.
The needle climbs at an alarming rate that sends hairs to attention on the back of ones neck, then at 6K out comes the kraken. A noticeable shove that felt like someone pushing me back onto a seat, hard, and this thing begins to scream. It’s like the car suddenly snaps and tells you to shut the hell up and sit down with pure rage in its eyes. This feeling of pure unadulterated aggression stays with you all the way to the limiter at 8500 RPM. The result? Sweating like a crackhead, and wanting more. Let’s not talk about fuel consumption, though, okay.
The short shifter becomes second nature immediately, providing possibly the most satisfying action of any gearbox I have ever used. Throw in the perfected pedal box and you are provided with the notion that you are one hell of a driver. Changing gears to the verge of flat shifting you can wring its neck without pause, and every time you find yourself eagerly waiting for that magical 6K point to pass so that you’re kicked in the back of the head. It’s a legal high, resulting in dilated pupils and a raised heart rate.
Despite all the giddiness and overbearing compliments, it’s difficult to not be addicted to this VTEC pocket rocket. Never have I driven a car with such a split personality, and the best part is that it’s also not quick enough for you to lose your licence in 30 seconds. Sure, you can act like a bit of a tit, but it’s not going to result in you starring on a highway patrol car chase show.
With all this talk of ‘no torque’, I can’t help but totally and wholeheartedly disagree. It’s not a torque monster, and you wouldn’t want it to be. Flooring it in fourth at town speeds isn’t what this engine is about, and just a basic understanding of that philosophy helps comprehend its niche better.
Pottering around town is perfectly enjoyable, and its proportions and ergonomics lend itself beautifully to that kind of environment. With a gear shift and a throttle response like this, though, why would you even want it to rip open space at low RPMs? It doesn’t make sense to me, especially as at no point does it remotely feel sluggish, thanks to naturally sitting at higher points in the rev range.
Perhaps the only compromise I could decipher from this experience was the steering. Every aspect of this car was a joyous surprise aside from the rack. Whilst not Mk4 Golf levels of vague and heavy, it misses a certain connection with the road that made the eighties classics the legends they became. You have all the ingredients there, but it somehow gets lost in translation when being read by your palms.
Whilst there may be a couple of alternatives that provide rawer driving dynamics for this budget, few (if any) have the charisma of this K20A2 motor, and I find that a reason enough to head to the Motorious classifieds.
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