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Hammond drives the icons: Honda Civic Type R
I guess anyone over 40 is going to have trouble with the idea of a ‘classic’ Japanese car. If you were brought up on a diet of Escort Mexicos, Golf GTIs and Manta GTEs, you’re likely to believe that a small Japanese car is tantamount to a utility item. As glamorous as a toaster.
The Civic Type R blows that preconception out of the water. The second generation - we have a late one here - arrived in 2001, into a world where the hot hatch was on hold, in favour of more tepid models designed to sneak under the insurance radar. And suddenly there was this. A precision tool, with clever VTec and a Japanese cool it still oozes today.
There’s no escaping its R credentials - the letter is emblazoned on the grille, skirts, bootlid, bucket seats and pretty much anywhere there’s room to put it. So it’s shouting a bit about its potential. And in no way does it fail to deliver on that. The 2.0-litre, 197bhp and - most importantly - naturally aspirated engine puts the power through a snickety six-speed ‘box to the front wheels, and changes happen via a manual gearlever, which pokes out of the dash like a prosthetic arm.So it’s format-basic, and balances on the limit of power a front-wheel-drive car can handle without complex diffs to sort things out. But it never feels like it’s on the ragged edge.
The word fizzy was actually invented specifically for this car. The noise is raucous and busy, and gets a lot busier moving up the rev range as the VTec zone is entered and clever stuff happens. The suspension feels great too; it is, again, just on the right side of frantic. And the whole package feels special, as though a lot of careful thought has gone in behind the scenes to make sure it can fizz and pop and sparkle without falling apart or encouraging you to make a Civic-shaped hole in a farmer’s fence.
It feels lighter than it is, tipping the scales at a reasonable but hardly super-flyweight 1,270kg. But it’s light enough for 197bhp to take it to 60mph in 6.4 seconds and on to 146mph flat-out. Normally, being told that a car had a lighter flywheel fitted in order to shave two tenths off the 0-60mph dash would leave me yawning and moaning that it makes no difference and you’ll never feel it. But there’s a sense in the Civic Type R that you just might. I imagine that if you put a grape on an apex, you could slice it in half with your front splitter. It’s that precise.
When it was launched, the 2004 facelift model was compared to much, much faster and more expensive cars like the Porsche 911 GT3. And this can only have been because of its focus and serious intent. But it’s by no means a track-day special. This is a hot hatch in the truest sense: capable of weekday workhorse duties while still being up for a weekend hoon.
But the biggest thing in its favour is the interest in fast Japanese cars since its launch; the fact that this pared-back, angular simplicity now bursts with cool. A simple, flat paint job, subtle wheel changes and you’ve got yourself a proper, old-school Japanese classic. And that’s what this thing will become. Because thanks to knotty emissions rules, high-revving, normally aspirated VTec engines just won’t do nowadays. So the Type R brand is taking a break while Honda finds a way around the regulations, which means the Civic could be the last of the real Type Rs before the inevitable arrival of turbochargers and smaller cylinders.
And if you haven’t dived into the classifieds yet, let’s not forget this is a Honda, so it’s really not going to break down. As a young man, I hankered after a Vauxhall Firenza droop-snoot. It was, for me, the ultimate ‘new classic’. Had I been able to find and afford one, it would simply never have worked. Kids of today, huh? They have it so bloody easy. Even their old-school classics are reliable.
Pictures: Justin Leighton
This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine