Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Driven #40:- Honda Civic Sport '03

The Honda Civic Type R is the stuff of legends. Quietly, the initial EK9 iteration started to accumulate on British roads in the late ‘90s, beloved by a small group of “in the know” motorists. Then, when the replacement EP3 touched down in 2001, it suddenly hit the big time. It was nothing short of superb. It became the pin-up for aspiring teenagers who wanted a bit of banzai high-rev Japanese fun, a reputation was built, values stayed firm and insurance escalated.

It wasn’t for everyone. While brilliant, it was a car that demanded a lot of you. Personally, I wouldn’t have been able to live with one day to day. Awesome fun on the right road, but tedious on the 70mph crawl to work. Happily, Honda provided a second way.

The Honda Civic Sport. The Lo-cal, half-fat, pussy option.

Parked as per the image above, it looks to all intents and purposes like a Type-R. The bright red paint of the this example helps matters, but nonetheless it’s a sporty looking thing indeed, all deep spoilers and side skirts. It wears the uniform of a race-track wizard.

But it wears the socks and shoes of a trainee nurse. The 15” multi-spoke alloy wheels are nice enough, doubtless you’d be very proud of them on your 1.5 GL. But they jar horribly with the rest of the image this car is trying to promote. It's a smartly styled car, managing to pull the basic Civic hull from invisible blandness to having quite a lot of car-park presence. It's a shame the car carries clear, Lexus-influenced, me-too rear lamp clusters; it looks like somebody's been spending gift-vouchers in Halfords.

Inside, the grippy, firm sports seats are just the ticket for apex-clipping, and the rest of the interior is pure Civic; well built, ergonomically consummate and spacious to boot, even if the rear bench is a bit board-like. Even the bits that look strange; that cranked gearstick jutting from the dash, actually work well.

Start up (instantly) and the sound is subtly sporting, in fact I'd say more pleasant than the very mechanical idle noise of a Type R. It's a far less complex engine, this 1.6. Still VTEC, but SOHC and putting out 110hp, just more than half that of the real thing. It revs crisply and freely, like any Civic engine ever did, and is redlined a good few thousand RPM lower than the R's K20A i-VTEC unit.

There's a lose/win situation here. You miss out on the extraordinary character that makes the Type-R so addictive; that elastic rev-ability, the feeling of unburstability. But, on the other hand, you can drive it like a normal car. Er, because it is a normal car. Being SOHC it's tractable at low revs, yet willing at higher speeds and overtakes can be dispatched with relative ease. It's not a slow car, not by any means. It's got more than enough mid-range performance to at least walk the walk that the puffed shoulders seem to suggest.

Suspension wise it's a sportier, lower, stiffer set-up than the basic Civic but not as specialized in terms of componentry as the Type-R. But the Civic chassis is perfectly OK at the worst of times, and being a little bit hunkered down the Sport is better still.

The biggest difference, though, comes from those wheels and, partially, exonerate them from further criticism. On the 15 inch wheels the tyre aspect ratios are considerably less radical than the painted-on low-profiles of the Type-R, which means at least some of the vibration and bump absorption is handled by the tyres in the first instance, rather than being transmitted straight from the wheels to your spine whenever the road loses its mirror-gloss finish.

In my test of the Honda S2000 Roadster I was tantalised by how supernatural the car was to drive if you were in the right mood, but I have to admit that a down-engined version (while plainly an immoral and sacrilegious thing to do) might have a broader appeal as a way of enjoying the countryside than the current model does; It's only really fun if you're driving as if you're late for an accident. To some extent the same is true with the Civic; but more so because it's nominally a small family hatchback. Not all school-run kids much enjoy being thrown around the cabin in high lateral-G manouevers every morning. Chill out, mum.

In its own way it's just as satisfying as the Type-R. That car is all razor-sharp reflexes and near-infinite grip, with a body that has very little interest in body roll at all. The limits are a lot lower in the Sport, but that little bit of give in the springing outlines when you're entering the realms of chassis fallibility. It's a much friendlier car to drive than its double-espresso stablemate; a young driver is much less inclined to try so hard in it.

Across country and being driven properly, using the engine to best advantage and exploring every available inch of tarmac, the Sport can cover ground very quickly, if of course not with wasabi paste smeared testacles like the Type-R has. Well driven, i'll venture it'll keep up with a Fiesta Zetec S with a ham-fisted pilot. It's a nice, tidy handling, foolproof car. A good starting point for the keen helmsman.

Given a slightly less compromised set of wheels, maybe some sixteens, the set-up and the aesthetics would be even better resolved. And get rid of the silly “Sport” graphics, which only further advertise the Wannabe status of the car and wouldn't look out of place on a Taiwanese moped.

So, as a package the Sport doesn't even begin to offer the same thrills as the Type-R, but that's fine; there's no shame in that. Truth is, nobody really need ever know that what you're driving is more show than go. I know plenty of only averagely agile people who still wear sports clothes that parkour runners would be proud of.

If the Type-R didn't exist, and the Sport didn't have to live in its shadow, its life would be even easier.