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Honda Civic Type R EP3 – review, history and specs

The early noughties Civic overcame opinion-dividing looks and flawed dynamics to become a legend in its own lifetime. To rev it is to love it

I pick up the September 2001 issue of evo and flick idly through its pages. Nearly twenty years of automotive history separates today’s landscape from the contents of the pages in evo 035, but suddenly it feels like a lot longer. The cover heralded the arrival of Aston Martin’s new Vanquish, but in a month that saw seismic changes to the world as we knew it, thanks to the cataclysmic events in New York and elsewhere in the US, a lightning rod through the hot hatch world warranted a mere spread. The new Honda Civic Type R, tested at its launch – somewhere sunny by the looks of it – by our very own Dickie Meaden, with images courtesy of that reliable artiste of note, Andy Morgan. 

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I can tell you that it scored four out of five stars, and that its reception, it’s fair to say, was mixed. It’s always worth undertaking such research, even at the very real risk of losing hours with one’s head stuffed in old issues of evo, not only to see what our learned friends thought of the car when it was new but, crucially for an ‘Icon’ feature, to see how their views sat within a contemporary frame of reference. When I look at the EP3 Civic Type R today, I see a relatively mild-looking modern-ish hatchback; when Dickie first clapped eyes on it, he thought it a ‘Japanese Mégane Scenic’ (remember the MPV?). ‘It’s a major cause for concern in the evo office,’ he added, ‘that hatchbacks not only appear to be getting fatter, but taller as well.’ And if you’d come from something as svelte, well- proportioned and traditional as the Peugeot 306 GTi 6, you could see his point. Do you remember the shocking arrival of the Peugeot 307? As a Peugeot Sport fan at the time, I’ve only recently stopped having nightmares over it. 

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What of the EP3 today, then? Its 197bhp seems trivial in the modern world, but thanks to the delays in Ford’s Mk1 Focus RS programme, it was the Honda that ushered in this new world of the ‘200 PS’ hot hatch, with 0-60mph times in the ‘sixes’ and top speeds approaching 150mph. Again, small fry by today’s standards, but we must remember that, just a few years before, 150bhp had seemed a very big number in this class, not least because anything more began to put undue stress on the tractive properties of the front axle. Soon they’d be joined by the original SEAT Leon Cupra R, and a new class of larger, 200bhp-plus hot hatches was born.

The Civic’s monobox form is still striking, the line from the top of its headlamps to the cant rail above the windscreen possessing just the gentlest kink where bonnet meets glass, its once racy ‘smoked’ 17-inch alloys now notable for their restraint, with rather gentle looking Bridgestone Potenza 050s wrapped around them. It was a fiver short of sixteen grand, with reasonable seating for five, and it hit a claimed 146mph. No wonder it sold like freshly caught tuna at a sushi bar.

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I close the featherlight door behind me and marvel that the silver-painted centre stack with its integral CD player could ever have seemed as modern and impressive as it once did. The positioning of the gearlever with its rubber gaiter so close to the wheel is logical, albeit a further nod to the people-carrier influence, because the alternative of a floor-mounted shifter would have meant a long, spindly lever, almost impossible to hone into the tight, confident action I’m expecting here if memory serves me right. 

> evo's favourite hot hatchbacks of 2022

Turn the ignition key and the legendary K20 motor is a complete non-event: further evidence that modern cars haven’t become overly refined as is often bemoaned, and that memories can, and do, play tricks. There is no exhaust noise, pops, bangs or cat-superheating theatrics, just the thin, reedy note of a naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine built to Honda’s exacting standards, purring away quietly in the background. 

Very quickly I am remembering how much I dislike the Type R’s rather unsporting driving position, set high and with the wheel quite flat, and one that not even the lovely black and red cloth-trimmed Recaro bucket seats can salvage. There are no driver modes, no stability control, no buttons at all that need to be pressed to ‘wake up’ or ‘turn down’ the Type R. The whole key here is revs. Lots and lots of revs. 

Back at that launch, Dickie felt that the Civic’s engine was a slightly tamer iteration of the classic Honda VTEC personality, but some of that was surely due to Honda’s work on boosting low-down flexibility. Even so, the EP3 Civic musters just 145lb ft of torque, with the peak at 5900rpm, pretty much when the second set of cam lobes switches over and things get rather more interesting…

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While the Type R may be relatively weak at low revs, that’s not to say it has a poor temperament. It may not be very fast low down, but it’s entirely happy pulling smoothly from 2000rpm, even in higher gears, and you can’t help but gain a sense of the engine’s unburstable quality through everything it does. Nevertheless, that’s not what you buy a Type R for: keep your foot squished into the floor mat and hold it there. Once the revs exceed 6000rpm the Type R isn’t all but done like the majority of the modern turbocharged hatches, it’s just getting started. Ahead, photographer Aston Parrott’s Fast Fleet Cupra squats and fires the best part of 295lb ft into the tarmac through all four wheels. Immediately the gap between us grows, but only by half a length or so, because I’ve been holding the Honda pretty much at base camp for its powerband and now it’s time to strike out to the summit. 

> Honda Civic Type R FK8 review

If you don’t crack a smile at the frenzied burst of power above 6000rpm, then I’d question if this is the right publication for you. The Honda clings, limpet-like, to the gap to the Cupra, and the revs sail past 8000rpm and into the red, only calling time when at least 8300rpm is showing. 

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It’s a feral, illicit thrill, one that I’d forgotten was even possible in a vehicle outside of exotica like GT3s. Did Honda really once make engines like this? Engines that it put in vaguely humdrum hatchbacks that weren’t that far removed in looks from those of the brand’s loyal, retirement-age following, and that cost just £15,995. Engines that had a thirst for revs and a simmering, angry, latent energy that’s the match for virtually anything on sale today in its ferocity. 

The EP3 weighs 1204kg, and while hardly a lightweight for its era, the power-to-weight ratio is more than enough to make its 197bhp feel properly rapid even by modern standards. Despite its 300bhp, the Cupra isn’t pulling away, and I’m grinning like an idiot, throwing gears at the Honda with that aluminium teardrop of a gearlever as fast as I can. And what a shift it is – a perfect complement to the loopy engine that the ’box is mated to. 

By the time evo 037 was published, the Type R had arrived in the UK, where it met the Phase 2 Renault Sport Clio 172, MG ZS and Golf V5 in a four-car test. With John Barker refereeing, the Golf was very quickly dismissed as an embarrassment, and the likeable MG as a quirky alternative. It was only ever going to be about two cars, really: the Honda and the feisty little Renault. 

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‘Equally rapid but in markedly different ways,’ wrote John, ‘the Civic frantic, the Clio gutsy. They’ll go down the same road at pretty much the same pace, too, but again with very different styles.’ The Honda, he said, demanded a ‘neat, decisive touch’ but added that it could be ‘edgy at the limit’, while the Clio was ‘softer, helpfully responsive and marvellously malleable’. The nod – just – was given to the Renault, largely because it looked, felt and drove in a way that the best hot hatches traditionally always had. 

Now, just as then, it’s the Civic’s steering that really spoils the dynamic picture. It’s an early example of electric power assistance, and if a modern performance car arrived with a steering set-up this poor we’d rip it to shreds. The crux of the issue is that there’s a definite dead zone around the straight-ahead – a trough from which you have to climb if you’re to start getting not just a precise change of direction but a sense that you’re fully in control of the Civic. 

Combine that with a tangible delay in the power assistance when the rack is subjected to repeated inputs from both driver and the road, and there’s never enough quality info for you to completely trust what the car is going to do next. A prime way of catching it out is to drive at speed down a straight country road with an uneven surface, weaving left to right but within your own lane. After a few contradictory loads have been placed into the car, it’s as if the system resigns itself to not keeping up and the wheel can be nudged left or right without it having a great deal of say on the car’s direction, and with no corresponding rise and fall in accompanying weight or feedback. 

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To make the best of the Civic, you just have to accept this failing in its make-up; push through the steering’s initial vagueness and it gets much more direct and faithful, while the agility of the car begins to take precedence. There’s a fair amount of roll, and a hint of imprecision in the movements of the body, perhaps in part because this heritage fleet example has around 50,000 miles under its wheels, but while John and Co at the time may have felt it lacked the more playful responses of the Clio, by modern standards it’s very happy to move around on corner entry, particularly if you’re aggressive with the steering. 

Gallingly, unlike exports to Japan of this British-built Honda, there’s no limited-slip diff in the UK Type R (and no white Type R paint, sadly), and a clumsy right foot will overwhelm the inside front Bridgestone on a tight curve, the Civic leaving a single black line on the exit if you don’t back out of the throttle – quite extreme when you consider the paltry torque peak. I think that’s what the comment about keeping the Civic ‘neat’ referred to all those years ago: you can overdrive the Type R if you’re not careful, taking your lead from that screamer of an engine and forgetting that the chassis is a few degrees more reserved. Relax a little and the car’s all the better for it. What’s not in doubt is that even after all these years it’s still a formidable device for dissecting a B-road. 

Where does the EP3 Type R sit within the hot hatch hall of fame in 2021? Well, getting back behind the wheel of one is more than just a nostalgia trip: this is a car not only greater than the sum of its parts, but one with a legacy that can be linked emphatically to the current day. 

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In truth it’s a good car, not a great one, with a spectacular engine whose charm will never get old. But it marked the beginning of a new era for the affordable performance car, and it was an object of desire strong enough to overwhelm any misgivings about its ‘one-box’ profile and sell over 6000 units a year in the UK at the peak of its success.

It’s also a car that put the Type R sub-brand on the map, far more than unobtainable JDM EK9 Civics and stripped-out NSXs ever did. In some ways – and in spite of its obvious flaws – it set a standard for Civic hot hatches that wasn’t equalled until the arrival of the mighty FK8. For it was only with the latter that Honda returned to an independent rear suspension for its Type R hatch, and to widespread acclaim. They may share only a willingness to rev and a hatchback body, but both cars have a certain confident swagger that comes with being born to challenge for class honours. That we ultimately – just – preferred the Clio to the EP3 is the same as us caveating the FK8’s peerless proposition with the required willingness to accept its challenging looks. But one thing is for certain: in the history of the hot hatch, they’re unforgettable, genre-shaping moments.

This Icon feature was first published in evo 286. To purchase your copy of the current issue, click here to visit our online shop. And keep reading for a more detailed list of checkpoints if you're in the market for an EP3 Civic Type R.

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