Type R is just as established as the GTI or RS badge these days, but it was arguably the EP3 Honda Civic Type R that most boldly announced its arrival in the UK. Sure, we had the fantastic DC2 Integra Type R in limited numbers, and other parts of the world got an earlier Civic, but it’s fair to say that the EP3 was the first firm crack of the whip for us Brits. Why was it something of a game-changer? Let’s find out.
First, a quick history lesson. The Volkswagen Golf GTI wasn’t the first hot hatchback, but it did nail the formula and popularise the idea of a perky shopping car. We all love a fast practical motor, so the idea soon took off and marques such as Peugeot had their own smash hits such as the 205 GTI. However, as brilliant as the battle for hot hatchback supremacy was, it had all become a bit predictable. Enter the EP3 Type R.
Sure, the EP3 used the same recipe as everyone else when it came to taking the workaday seventh-generation Civic and turning things up to 11, but there was one big difference… VTEC. Honda’s engineers developed VTEC engines to be able to alter their valve timing for optimum performance, something that resulted in a physical kick as VTEC got to work, but also a possess redline greater than 8,000rpm. To say this engine is quite the character would be an understatement and parked next to the lacklustre fourth-generation Golf GTI, this Civic was a real child of the revolution.
Lovingly known as the ‘bread van’ due to its rather squared-off rear quarters, it is considerably more quietly styled than every Type R that came after. Subtle sporty bodywork, snazzy alloy wheels, and a neat boot spoiler are a far cry from today’s incredibly aggressive FK8. Of course, most hot hatchbacks of this era were more subtle than their modern counterparts, but it’s fair to say that you could be relatively incognito when driving an EP3 Type R.
The interior remains much the same as the standard Civic, meaning that it’s durable and inelegantly packaged. Its large silver facia is very reminiscent of the year 2000, but the analogue switchgear is a refreshing departure from today’s world of less ergonomic touchscreens. The cabin is dominated by a set of bolstered red seats, but it’s the dashboard-mounted gearstick that will catch most people’s eyes. While unusual, it falls to hand with ease and provides a rewardingly mechanical motion when used in anger.
There’s enough space inside for five, although being three-door only it isn’t as practical as some five-door rivals. A healthy 315-litres of boot space is on offer, but folding the seats flat reveals a helpfully square load area that’s capable of swallowing bulky cargo. It’s this sort of practicality that makes a hot hatchback so alluring over a sports car for many.
On the open road, this Type R is a real delight to drive with a bit of verve. It feels light and agile as it merrily tripods its way around tight bends. There is some understeer to be kept in check, but nothing that can’t be trimmed via the throttle through lingering corners. Torque steer? Sure, it’s a hatch from the 00s, but a firm grip of the wheel maintains order, and the need to keep on top of the car in greasy condition actually adds to the driving involvement – especially compared with modern alternatives. You can feel the car moving around beneath you, and the wonderfully tactile controls make this Civic intuitive to interact with. Nipping at the brakes to shift the weight forward, making the rear go light and the front tyres a bit more bite, sees the car pivot around an apex neatly.
Why haven’t we mentioned how the engine is yet? Well, the chassis certainly deserves its own time in the spotlight, but yes, that VTEC engine is a hoot. It frantically races up the rev counter before VTEC kicks in, something denoted by the acceleration becoming more frenetic and the engine pitch ever-increasing to the high redline. You do need to rev it out to get the best out of this motor, but it’s very rewarding to do so. The EP3’s 197bhp might not sound like much by today’s standards of 320bhp+, but this 2.0-litre engine is a firecracker versus the sterilised horsepower labs of today’s hot hatchbacks.
If you’re after a cheap EP3 Type R I’m afraid you’ve missed the boat. Gone are the days of these being a £2k car with values on the increase as its modern classic status is fully realised. This Honda is on course to become the Peugeot 205 GTI of its generation, an accolade that many of its contemporary rivals can only dream of.