Honda Civic Type R FN2: retro road test

Tyler Heatley

23 Sep 2021

Is it time to stop hating the FN2 Type R? We find out.

The Honda Civic Type R is an established staple of the hot hatchback landscape today – in fact, the current FK8 might just be the best of the bunch. However, this feisty little performance car hasn’t always been the default choice, and while the first UK Civic Type R (EP3) was a revelation, Honda faced a very difficult second album with the succeeding FN2 car. Over a decade on, does this least-loved Type R deserves a second chance?

Something that nobody can complain about is the FN2’s styling. Even today it looks modern and interesting with its voluminous silhouette and fascinating details. Check out those triangular exhaust exits, rocket ship door handles, and its supremely confident stance. There’s no denying that this Type R fits the bill in the looks department, maybe even more so than its polarising modern-day counterpart. This example tested in Milano Red is a prime cut of the more inspiring styling on show from Honda in this period.

The intrigue continues on the inside as the cabin is dominated by a pair of Alcantara-wrapped sports seats. Keenly bolstered, although nowhere near as aggressive as what you’ll find in today’s FK8, these two-tone posts heavily hint that this was never your mother’s Civic. Taking a seat presents a fantastic Knight Rider themed dashboard, full of digital readouts and space-age graphics. While this is something that dates the car today, it’s a wonderfully nostalgic sight with these efforts feeling right at home in a car enthusiastic to highlight that it was a generation ahead of what came before.

Hot hatchbacks are all about having your cake and eating it, meaning buzzing some B-roads shortly after dropping the kids to school. The FN2’s cabin is rather spacious and seats five, unlike the four of the current Type R, It was only available as a three-door, making getting in and out of the back seats a little tricky in tight spaces, but otherwise, it’s far from claustrophobic back there. Boot space is a huge 485-litres and features some underfloor storage. That sort of cargo capacity actually puts a lot of modern hot hatchbacks to shame.

So far, so good. So, what’s with all the FN2 hate back in its day? Ultimately it came down to a game of Top Trumps. The preceding EP3 was a game-changer with its high-revving VTEC engine and agile chassis, but this FN2 was ultimately heavier and wasn’t that much more powerful. In short, it didn’t move the needle as much as the car it replaced. That’s not to say it was terrible, something highlighted by a series of hot hatch awards that it won, but neither was it the rockstar it was expected to be. Factor in how good the MK5 Golf GTI was and the spotlight quickly drifted from this Honda.

Under the bonnet is a plucky 2.0-litre VTEC engine that revs out to 8,300rpm. It’s a seriously characterful engine that builds and builds, pushing on into a stratospheric audio range and physically kicking with acceleration as the iconic VTEC activates. Pair this with a wonderfully mechanical manual gearbox and you have a car that loves to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck. It remains a fantastic engine, abundantly more characterful than many of today’s turbocharged contenders, but with peak power and torque being so high in the rev range, it can feel like harder work around town.

While we’re touching on some of the more mundane elements, there is a slight lack of sophistication to the suspension as it has a habit of thumping into potholes at low speeds – though, this does get a bit better at a pace. There’s also the issue with rear visibility with the Civic’s split rear window restricting the view. That all said, driving this Type R day to day is no real stress thanks to its proven bulletproof reliability.

This specific FN2 Type R is a facelift model, and that’s important because there were a few key changes. Most notable is the addition of a limited-slip differential that helps fight torque steer and maximises traction under load. Being a front-wheel drive hot hatch of this era, there is some remaining torque steer, but feeling the wheel squirm in your hands is actually an emboldening experience versus a modern hot hatchback’s lifeless steering.

On snaking roads, the FN2 remains a lot of fun. Sure, it doesn’t have the adjustability of the older EP3, but on smooth Tarmac the composed lateral movements and eager front-end make it a playful companion. Race through the revs before jamming on the convincing brakes does give it a somewhat touring car feel that rivals of its day couldn’t match as an experience. It does need a firm hand at times, especially as the firm suspension over rippled roads can unsettle itself into corners, but some people will relish that this is a car that gets you involved in the drive.

The FN2 Honda Civic Type R is arguably a more appealing proposition with the passage of time. It remains a fun hot hatchback but feels even more intensive viewed through the eyes of today. Factor in that these cars are something of a bargain on the used market, and that you shouldn’t fear high-mileage examples, you’ve got a very tempting modern classic proposition.


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Tyler Heatley

23 Sep 2021