Unless you’ve been stuck in an Australian jungle or a Chilean mine, you will have heard that the Honda Civic Type-R is about to be killed off in the UK. When Big Ben rings in the new year the sublime VTEC engine will be no longer acceptable on our roads, falling foul of the new Euro V emissions regulations. Love or loathe the Type-R badge, it would take a cold hearted petrolhead not to mourn the passing of Honda’s racing arm, so rather than let it pass away quietly I decided to take one final hoorah on the highway to the VTEC zone.
The Type-R badge has been seen, or rather heard, on UK roads since 1997 when the very first Integra Type-R was sold. Initially only available in Championship White, the Integra gained a legendary cult status from the outset, combining a brilliant engine with equally brilliant dynamics. I’ll never forget the first time I saw one. It was early morning on the A36 just outside of Salisbury and it appeared from the opposite direction with lights blazing. With the red Honda badge, white alloys and touring car style rear spoiler, it looked every inch the precision instrument that I’d read about. Remember, these were the days before Gran Turismo and The Fast and the Furious. To my student eyes, the Integra Type-R was less Far Eastern and more Far Out. I was hooked but knew I’d have to wait many years before I’d have the means to afford such a machine.
In fact, it was 2003 before I’d even get my first ride in a Type-R. It was a brand new 30th Anniversary edition of the Civic and a work colleague collected it the same week I bought my VX220. A number of spirited drives followed, with Cranborne Chase becoming a favourite playground. Even with my wonderfully evocative VX220 sports exhaust, the VTEC roar became quite intoxicating. Visually it had all the hallmarks of the Integra, somehow managing to present a distinct and purposeful look without appearing garish or tacky. Once inside you always got the impression that the driver was number one, with superb Recaro seats, a wonderfully tactile MOMO steering wheel and red carpets. At the time, the dash-mounted six speed gearbox was quite a novelty and really added to the driving experience. Oh, and to top it all, Honda has always managed to create a right knob. Aside from my old Ford Puma, the Type-R gear knobs are the very best.
But it wouldn’t be until 2007 before I’d get my hands on a Type-R of my own. Not the Integra or the Civic, but the only 4-door Type-R to be sold in the UK – the Accord. Introduced in 1998, the Accord was the second Type-R to arrive in the UK and it brought the VTEC zone to the family man. The car’s 2.2 litre engine produced some 220 bhp and was mated to superb stiffened chassis and limited slip diff. Visually the only clues to the Accord’s ability were a set of discreet badges, twin tail pipes and 17-inch alloys. Oh, and the small matter of a rather large boot spoiler. Rather tellingly, the spoiler was available as a delete option when purchased new, but very few people took up the opportunity to remove it! Like the Integra, I’d coveted the Accord for many years and I wasn’t alone. None other than Evo magazine awarded the car a maximum five stars, (subsequently reduced to four and a half later), with other magazines being equally generous in their praise. I purchased one of the very first Accord Type-Rs, a 1998 on an S plate and despite it having numerous owners, it had a full Honda history and was an absolute delight to own and drive. As with any Type-R, it needed to be driven hard to get the most out of it, but when it came to cornering ability it was near faultless. OK, so it didn’t offer the same level of feedback as my VX220 or Racing Puma, but the cornering was on a par. It was very easy to forget that this was a 4-door saloon car. At least it would have been if it wasn’t for the Humber Bridge sat on the boot.
Of course, the fact that the Accord was so damn brilliant on the limit meant that I was paying regular trips to the Shell garage. So after nine months I sold it to my sister and purchased a Corrado VR6. The brilliant Corrado helped soften the blow of selling such a wonderfully involving saloon car, but at least I’d had the chance to experience a Type-R for myself.
In 2007, Honda replaced the EP3 Civic Type-R with the current FN2 that is about to be killed off. Like the previous generation model, today’s Civic Type-R is still made in Swindon and exported around the world. But unlike the previous car, the new model was greeted with a somewhat lukewarm reception. In the words of Honda, the car is “more refined, easier to use everyday (and) power is marginally increased to 198bhp”. To diehard fans of the Type-R badge, the words ‘refined’ and ‘everyday’ hardly set the pulse racing. The car has been criticised for a complete lack of steering feel and a general unsteadiness through the corners. But in fairness to Honda, it has probably opened the badge up to a wider audience and although Honda is coy about the future of the badge in the UK, one can only hope that it will live on in a new Civic or possibly the CR-Z. Sadly, it is unlikely to appear on a normally aspirated petrol engine again.
So as the lights go out on the Type-R badge, I took the opportunity to be one of the last people to experience a new Type-R in the UK. Sadly the arrival of RE10 YJD also coincided with a blisteringly cold snap that created an almost universal covering of black ice across Dartmoor’s roads. For the first three days, the Type-R sat temptingly outside my house. Any attempt to nip out for a spirited test drive resulted in a glowing traction control light, a loss of grip and me heading back home with my tail between my legs. But the weekend presented some milder weather, so I managed to cram a week of testing into three days.
I guess I should with a confession. This Dawn Raid didn’t actually happen at dawn. With temperatures averaging minus three in the morning I figured that attempting a spirited early morning drive in a 200bhp hot hatch would be foolish, suicidal and stupid. So I stayed in bed. Instead, the Dawn Raid took place at a much more sociable two in the afternoon and took in what most of the roads that cross and surround Dartmoor.
Initially, I found the Civic Type-R’s dashboard a little disorienting. The dash is dominated by a large and rather lovely rev counter behind the steering wheel, whilst the digital speedometer sits high above the wheel beneath the windscreen. There’s a further display to the left which shows the clock, radio and climate settings. There’s an array of switches and dials to control the radio and climate which give the impression that you’re controlling a small ship rather than a hot hatchback. But once I got used to it, the layout seemed to make perfect sense – everything is clear and accessible.
In fact, the interior is one of the Type-R’s real strengths. From the superb Recaro seats right through to the brilliant gear knob, there’s a real feeling that you’re in something special with the Type-R. I even like the silver-rimmed red ENGINE START button. Tacky perhaps, but very well executed. The Civic looks good too, with a mean and purposeful stance. In truth, the car was covered in grime for the entire time I had it, but I could appreciate that it would look good beneath the inch of salt.
But when it comes to a Type-R, the aesthetics are merely a small detail. It really all comes down to the drive and as previously mentioned, the Type-R hasn’t exactly been blessed with universal praise. But I didn’t want this to cloud my judgement on what was ultimately a personal farewell to one of my favourite badges. But I have to say my initial thoughts weren’t great. This outgoing Type-R feels heavier and less involving than Type-Rs of old. In many ways it feels like a fading sportsman, desperately trying to hang on to his glory days. Still capable of moments of genius, but ultimately unable to keep up with other players on the pitch. The world is now dominated by turbochargers, superchargers, twin chargers and hybrids. A normally aspirated engine producing ‘just’ 198bhp just doesn’t cut it anymore, even with the wonderful VTEC zone. And yes, the steering is a weak point and has quite peculiar characteristics when cornering. So perhaps Euro V has come at the right time? A crippling injury perhaps, but better to go out as a hero than a fading star.
But don’t write off the Civic Type-R just yet. If, like me, you prefer your cars to be normally aspirated, the Type-R presents an intriguing offer. The change in engine character as the revs hit 5k and head towards the redline is genuinely heart-thumping stuff. The engine note is, to my ears at least, a demonstration of aural sex and has the ability to turn even the most mundane of journeys into a BTCC lap. The driving position is near perfect and I didn’t find the steering to be nearly as bad as others have made out. To the everyday driver, the Type-R is a real contender. To be honest, I could do without the likes of rain sensitive wipers and automatic headlights, for me a Type-R is best served raw. But with Honda currently offering the Civic Type-R for less than £20k, the value for money prospect is compelling. Remember, this could be the last time you’ll be able to buy a new Type-R in the UK – certainly in the present form.
No, this isn’t the ultimate incarnation of the Type-R and perhaps it is the weakest, but you have to remember than it has a lot to live up to. Evo magazine named the Integra the greatest front wheel drive car of all time. At the other end of the scale, the NSX-R was voted Evo Car of the Year in 2002 and the Accord and Civic, whilst dividing opinion, also received rave reviews. So saying it is the weakest is a bit like saying that Beatles For Sale is the worst Beatles album. There’s a rich bloodline to compete with.
When it was finally time to hand the Civic Type-R back, I felt like I was saying goodbye to an era. We may never see the likes of the incumbent Type-R badge again. A car that isn’t about top speed or outright power, but a car that is centred on engineering and driving experience. A hot hatch made in Britain and something we can be proud of.
To quote a certain Mr Dylan, the times they are a changing and as the VTEC roar fades to a distant chord, I salute what the Type-R has delivered over the past 13 years.
Last orders at the bar; Time gentleman please.
Archive images courtesy of Honda UK.