The Evolution Of The Honda Civic Type R Shows How Wild Car Design Has Become

Many of us are quite excited about the new Honda Civic Type R: the latest incarnation of the unhinged, raw id of the Civic. There have been Civic Type Rs for 20 years now, and watching how they’ve developed gives a pretty remarkable look at how car designed has evolved. I’m not exactly sure where it’s going, but it’s getting there fast, on fire, and screaming.

To give some sense of what I’m talking about, let’s take a quick look at the evolution of the Civic Type R’s design:


Just for fun, let’s also look at the 1975 Civic Type R:

Okay, I made that one up. But the rest are all real, and give an excellent snapshot of the last two decades of auto design.

Look at the first Type R, from 1997. To me, cars from the late 1990s still seem quite modern, but it’s worth remembering how old they actually are. Comparing a ‘97 Civic with a modern one would be like comparing an ‘80s DeLorean with a ‘60s Corvette Sting Ray. There’s a pretty huge difference in design vocabulary and development.


The late ‘90s in auto design reminds me of the late ‘60s: a focus on clean lines and fairly rational proportions. This is a continuation of a trend that started in the 1980s as a response to the often-goofy exuberance of the 1970s, in the same way the 1960s square-edged, tailored and trim look was a response to the 1950s bloated, baroque jet-age excess.

The Civic Type R starts life as a smart, clean little hatchback that happens to be wearing a bit of tasteful athletic gear. By the second generation, started in 2001, we see a design that evolves in form and proportion, and maintains about the same level of detail.


The second-gen Type R has the Civic’s new 1.5-box design, almost like a sleek, upright tiny van. There’s some red badging, more aggressive wheels, and a bit of front spoiler and lower sills enhancements to the body. They’re there, but the design keeps the body mods contained to what they need to do their job, for the most part. The Type R was still something of a sleeper, playing it a bit stealthy.

Things are getting bolder by the third generation, which was actually split into a sedan version for Asia and a hatch for Europe. The sedan gets a big wing, and some lower-body aero kit, but we’re still not seeing anything too crazy. By 2006, and there’s more creases and intakes than before, but still a lot of restraint. The Euro version is a little more wild, because the Euro Civic its based on is a much more risky, novel design.


It’s very spaceship-like, with some striking angles and proportions. It has an interesting triangular-shape theme that’s carried throughout, and the rear spoiler splits the tailgate window in a way that evokes the old Honda CRX.

By the fourth-gen, it’s 2015, and we’re getting more bold. The contrast of black and body color is explored in the front end, and the visual surface of the front is no longer a contiguous panel broken for lights and grille, but now rent in two, with a grille bursting in the middle, and headlights that spread out like wings.


Speaking of wings, the rear one is huge now, and the car has some dramatic lower-body aero bits that look dramatic and serious. Things are much more obvious now, but nothing’s really gone off the rails.

And that brings us to now. The new 2017 Civic Type R is absolutely a product of the most recent design trends, especially out of Japan: more of everything, stacked and folded on top of everything else.


It’s similar to the Cybaroque design language I’ve seen from Toyota: huge vents, real or fake, that open the lower bumper area to form massive, angular voids at each side. There’s flared fenders and multiple hood vents and creases and character lines everywhere.


Sharp angles and facets, red piping, rear haunches that kick up and noses that slope down; it feels like a giant cybernetic sex-panther, poised and ready to jump on you for a hell of a night before you get eaten.

It’s exuberant, and reminds me of American muscle car design in the 1970s. this feels like a modern take on cars like the Ford Mustang Mach I, for example. More lights, more vents, more angles, more intakes, more creases, more more more.


I’m not exactly sure how I feel about it just yet. It’s not boring, and for that I’m very, very thankful. I love the intensity and exuberance and the slightly unhinged quality.

It’s working a bit better for Honda/Acura than I think it is for many Toyota/Lexus attempts at it, and maybe Nissan/Infiniti, too. It can still easily slip to alarming and ugly, but I’m willing to ride this bonkers reaction to the careful, mathematical rationality of the early 2000s and see where it goes.


I think we’re just really getting started on whatever this Cybaroque wave turns out to be. Should be fun, right?

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About the author

Jason Torchinsky

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus • Not-so-running: 1973 Reliant Scimitar, 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!)