Having owned three different generations of the Honda Civic Si, two S2000s, and one Integra Type-R, you could say I have some passion for Honda’s cars. Like everyone with a pulse and a passion for cars, I was bummed Honda didn’t ship the Civic Type-R stateside, and always wanted to drive one. Each Gran Turismo version I bought would end up with one in my garage. But now that Honda is finally—finally!—bringing that red ‘R’ badge to the U.S. market, I wanted to see what we missed out on with those cool hatchbacks from my high school years.
With the original EK Type-R never being officially sold in the States, you have to get creative to drive one over here. Luckily, I know someone in Central Texas who owns a 1997 JDM model, who also previously owned a DC2 Integra Type-R, and also wanted to own a proper right-hand drive Civic Type-R that reminded him of his former Type-R experience.
The owner isn’t new to importing JDM cars, and previously owned an S15 Nissan Silvia. I can’t share how he got them imported, nor how he actually got a legit Texas license plate on this Civic, but who really cares? Don’t sweat the details in life, you’ll live longer.
The important part is that this car is no garage queen. He has been daily driving it for the few years he’s owned it, and he gave me the chance to tell you what that’s like.
We’ll start with arguably what matters most—what’s under the hood.
The B16B engine was a big part of the sport compact tuner buzz in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It produces 185 horsepower at 8200 RPM and 118 lb-ft of torque at 7500 RPM. It revs high (that’s the whole damn point), makes a mechanical sound that newer cars aren’t allowed to exhibit, and surprisingly, has quite a bit more flexible torque than the ordinary single-cam Civics of that era.
The only trouble is that, as anyone even remotely familiar with Honda will tell you, you have to get on the VTEC to really make it go fast. The Type-R redlines at damn near 9000 RPM, and doesn’t hit its happy spot until after 6000 RPM.
Once it does, you get the reminder of what older VTEC engines were known for, and it surges forward as well as any four-banger can. Red valve cover-equipped Hondas get something special underneath. The torque is much more linear than the spec sheet indicates.
The louder exhaust cam roar once you hit VTEC is addictive. You keep wanting to downshift to get the revs up in that range, to get that tone and pull you don’t get in your normal Civic EX that everyone had in the 1990s. I was impressed by the pull at mid-range RPMs. It reminded me of my ‘98 Integra Type-R’s power band. Yes, I know that they’re the same family of engine, but the Integra gets way more attention from others. Oh, how I miss that sensation.
Not much power is needed to have fun in a car that weighs so little, and it goes from 0 to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds and runs the quarter mile in 15.3 seconds. At 2,400 lbs, this thing is light. It only has two airbags, and doesn’t have traction control or any real comfort features.
The owner added a Hondata ECU, Comptech air box, and a Mugen header hooked up to a cat-back exhaust, so it does have a couple more ponies than the stock model, but it’s a subtle upgrade. He insisted on keeping it closer to factory settings for long-term reliability while making a little more fun to drive. While it’s a 1997 model, he updated the front clip and headlights to the 1999 spec.
Factory Type-Rs come with 15-inc wheels, and this one maintains the standard size, but with a set of Volk TE-37s to shave a couple pounds while adding style. They look the part.
Type-R models lose sound deadening material for the benefit of weight savings, and while I’ll admit it’s a little noisier than you’d love on a 300-mile drive, it’s not bad at all. Added bonus: The engine note is easier to hear. There’s a hint of chassis noise too, but this car was the first Civic to have a seam welded monocoque, it’s 20 years old, and it has done over 236,000 kilometers.
So how does it drive out in the real world?
Tricky. It’s tricky, to tell you the truth. You’d be wrong to think it’s easy to jump right in, and have no trouble getting used to shifting with your left hand. I’ve driven more than a few right-hand drive cars, but it took a few minutes—and I’ll admit a 1-4 shift or two by mistake—to adjust to the motions of rowing through those gears. After ending the embarrassment of looking like a rookie driver, I was able to find out just what the Type-R was all about.
The handling is sharper than just about any modern hot hatch, and the Civic Type-R can attribute much of this to its weight, helical limited-slip differential and perfectly set up double wishbone suspension. There’s a hint of stiffness, but it’s still really subtle on the highway. You get the right amount of feedback, and have to use a little elbow grease in the tighter corners. No electric steering crap here. Just a good ol’ rack and pinion.
While a bit flashy, the Recaro seats in the Type-R are snug and functional. You expect them to keep you in place with the lateral and shoulder bolsters, but the thigh padding is surprisingly grippy. I’m neither a skinny nor an overly hefty guy, but I felt like they were all over my outer thighs. On the twisty roads, I wasn’t complaining at all, as they kept me perfectly in place.
Shifts in the Civic Type-R are so perfect, with a remarkably short throw. Direct, simple, and crisp. You know when you’re in the correct gear, and can almost feel every synchro engage. The titanium gear knob Honda provides has a nice fit in your palm, but I do remember the one in my Integra Type-R roasting my hand on hot Texas days.
The key impression I got from this car is that it’s so tight. So analog. For various (stupid) safety and comfort reasons, they can’t make cars like this anymore, and even the more hardcore hot hatches currently offered can’t give you this feeling throughout. I’d pay a stupid amount of money if someone would make a super lightweight, zippy, and reliable hatch again.
On some twisty Texas Hill Country roads, I had the chance to put some good, hard miles on the car, and it didn’t show any signs of stress. Keep in mind, this car is two decades old. The A/C kept blowing cold, and the engine didn’t stutter at all.
At the end of a day of driving, I walked away from this car impressed. The internet myth that Honda used to make pure, mechanical, passionate cars that drivers craved is absolutely an accurate one.
And the owner of this Type-R is one lucky man. He gets to drive a simple, fun, inexpensive, analog car that came from the period of Honda’s finest work.
It’s my fear that the new Civic Type-R won’t be able to capture this emotion and sensation for the driver. In the 1990s, manufacturers made sports cars that the driver truly appreciated. Even when they’re unfathomably powerful, modern sporty cars are too heavy, dull, insulated, and comfortable.
I can’t see Honda getting this mechanical feeling right with the new one, but I’m also not going to say no to the first ever Civic Type-R to officially come to our shores. It just has a lot to live up to.