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Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Review: 2002 Honda Civic Type-R


Honda Civics stuffed with DOHC VTEC engines have earned a reputation for being the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the compact car world.  Behaving not much differently from its more docile stablemates, the Civic undergoes a transformation once you spin the engine past 6000 rpm.  The second VTEC cam profile engages, the engine note turns into a Formula-One soundtrack, and you have about 2000 more rpm to go before reaching for the next gear.  Suddenly the unassuming little Honda can give a BMW 325i a run for its money, at least on this side of 100 km/h.

If that’s so, then let’s welcome the good doctor whose ingestion of elixir has left him permanently in Mr. Hyde mode: the Civic Type-R.  This is no less than a racing version of the Civic, somewhat detuned for road use.  Or looked at another way, just a few tweaks and a rollcage away from being track-ready.



The first and most important of the racing parts can be found under the hood, in bright red finish.  This powerplant can put your typical SiR engine to shame.  Powerful as it is, the SiR’s is the lowest rung on the DOHC VTEC hierarchy at 157 bhp.  The standard Civic Type-R’s 1.6 liter is tuned for 187 bhp, but this one has been stroked to 1.8 liters. Output is 207 bhp or 115 bhp / liter, higher per displacement that of a Ferrari 360 Modena.  That figure nearly matches the 120-bhp / liter benchmark for a normally-aspirated roadcar engine.  Of course that record also belongs to a Honda VTEC, the S2000’s.  The Civic’s engine starts up silently and quickly settles to a growling idle.  The deep exhaust note alone is an open invitation, seemingly taunting us to go out and play.

On the open road, this is indeed one engine you can play with.  Acceleration is instantaneous with the slightest dip of your right foot—no need to wait for the VTEC changeover point.  Or so it seems. Then you do activate the second cam profile at 5700 rpm, and suddenly the past was merely prelude: you enter an entirely new scale of acceleration. Warp speed, captain?  The engine eagerly obliges as the tach needle spins clockwise in a blur and the car catapults forward.



In this car, 5000 rpm is not where you shift up; it’s where you shift down.  Downshifting at that speed spins the engine to about 7000, giving a renewed burst of acceleration.  This works with upshifting, too—the five-speed manual has well-spaced gears.  Shifting at about 8500 rpm keeps the engine in racing mode, allowing unhampered progress through the gears. As the tach spins past 8000 rpm you might have visions of pistons flying out through the hood, but not to worry.  The engine redlines at a certifiably insane 9500 rpm.  But given that this is a VTEC, it’s as unbreakable as the Terminator, so you’re free to redline it whenever you wish.

The Type-R was built to race on circuits and not just the drag strip, so enhancements have been made to the four-wheel double-wishbone suspension.  The springs have been stiffened and the anti-roll bars upgraded.  Ride height is also lowered, but not so low as to scrape every hump or driveway.  The chassis is also reinforced at certain points to increase stiffness.  There’s a carbon-fiber brace connecting the strut towers to reduce chassis flex even further.



Indeed, the Type-R’s body and suspension are stiff enough that the car can stand on three wheels when cornered at racing speeds.  Ride quality is unforgivingly harsh, but who cares?  This is a racing machine, not a luxury cruiser. Cornering is flat and utterly stable; there’s nearly zero body roll even through the tightest of turns.  The steering wheel is quite talkative about what the front tires are up to.  Twist that wheel and there’s no lag in response.

No matter how stiff the chassis is, running 207 bhp through the front wheels can wreak havoc with the steering, throwing the car into the hedge when you least expect it.  To make sure the car stays pointed in the right direction, a helical limited-slip differential eliminates torque steer.  The large four-wheel disc brakes taken from the mighty NSX are up to the task of scrubbing off repeatedly for an entire race distance.  Pedal feel is firm and linear.



The LSD and larger brakes increase the performance, but they do add to car’s weight.  Many of the inner body panels are thicker to withstand the greater loads, and the suspension arms have been strengthened also.  To compensate, the windshield is made of thinner glass, and the sound insulation has been tossed out. Another weight-saving measure is the carbon-fiber hood; you can lift it with one finger.  These are upgrades that the corner tuning shop can’t perform.  Clearly, the best tuner to do the job is the company that manufactured the car in the first place.

Even with all those changes, this Civic can disappear into a queue of ordinary Civic hatchbacks.  There's a front airdam, and rear and side skirts.  A small spoiler is also attached to the top of the rear hatch.  Discreet red "H" are at front and rear, and "Type R" badges are at the rear flanks.  Those needing more attention need not apply, then.

Honda also included some neat touches in the car’s cabin.  A relief from all the gray plastic is a splash of bright red-the pair of Recaro buckets in the front.   The seats are lightweight but with heavy bolstering.  There’s a Momo leather steering wheel with red stitching, complete with airbag. A hand-drop from that wheel is the titanium shift knob, activating a short-throw five-speed.  The gauges are conventional white-on-black, but surrounded by carbon-fiber trim.   Appropriately, the tachometer reads all the way to 10,000 rpm, but pity that it isn’t at the center of the gauge cluster.

Practicality is not the raison d'être of this car, but there are two normal-sized rear seats and a large trunk.  The Civic is one of the most user-friendly cars on earth, but the Type-R goes to the opposite extreme.  It’s not a Civic that behaves normally but can go fast when called upon, like the VTi or SiR.  It’s a street-legal racer with a few compromises to make it tolerable as a daily driver.  Those who choose to do so may seem a little nutty, but they can take comfort from the fact that Mr. Hyde may be the madman of the two, but he’s surely the one who has more fun.

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