You don’t need to be a petrolhead to understand the significance of the ‘R’ badge on a road-going Honda. It first became a thing in the early 90s, when the firm launched a Type R version of its NSX supercar in Japan.
These sold in relatively small numbers, never officially made it to the UK and would be out of our price range anyway, so it’s the later models that we’re interested in.
Later Type Rs became tuned-up versions of conventional family cars, including the Civic, Accord and Integra. All of these became performance car icons in their own right, yet remain surprisingly affordable today. We drive them back-to-back and come to a definitive(ish) conclusion about which one you should spend your money on.
What is VTEC?
It’s impossible to write about fast Hondas without referring to VTEC. You’ve probably heard the term – Honda aficionados refer to VTEC so frequently that it’s become an internet meme. If you’re not familiar, it stands for Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control.
Sounds complicated… and it kind of is. The camshaft in a car’s engine turns, pushing lobes (called cams) against valves, causing them to open and close, letting air into the combustion chamber in the process. Essentially, VTEC means a camshaft has two different sizes of cams – small ones for pottering around with maximum efficiency, and large ones for more air and maximum performance.
As the revs climb, oil flows through the rocker shaft, sliding a pin that locks the low-RPM rocker arms to the higher-RPM rocker arms, meaning the valves open further and for a longer period of time. This results in a turbo-like effect on the engine, but only at high revs.
The advantages of VTEC are two different characters for the engine. At low revs, it’ll drive like a sensible car, providing good fuel economy. Increase the revs and it becomes more fun. The disadvantage is you have to work the engine hard to benefit from the best performance.
Honda Civic Type-R
The EP3-shape Honda Civic Type R is passing through the boy racer stage and shaping up to be a strong future classic. With prices currently close to £2,000 (although that’s for a really ropey example), it’s close to bottoming out, although the sheer number sold means it’ll be a while before it starts to seriously appreciate.
If you’re looking for an investment, you’d be better off with an ISA. But an ISA doesn’t provide you with the thrills produced by the K20A2 naturally-aspirated VTEC engine hitting 8,000rpm.
Before I get to that stage, I have to battle with North London traffic. Yes, although I’m spending a day driving Type Rs, my base is close to the Hertfordshire town of Watford. And in traffic, it’s difficult to see what all the fuss is about. The ride is firm, yet the engine doesn’t feel particularly eager. I like the dash-mounted gear change – it feels slick and actually makes sense when you get used to it. Moving your hand the short distance from the steering wheel to the gearstick can save crucial tenths of a second. Ahem.
Eventually I reach countryside – with surprisingly empty B-roads – and manage to pile on the revs. They build, with VTEC kicking in around 6,000rpm and the car surges forward. It’s fun, admittedly, but not quite the excitement I expected – not helped, of course, by quickly catching up with other cars.
Part of the ‘problem’ is that the Civic packs just 200hp, hitting its peak at 7,400rpm. And in a world of 300hp+ turbocharged hot hatches, having to work so hard to eke out a meagre 200hp doesn’t feel that thrilling.
Sure, the joy of driving a car like this isn’t all about power. But the EP3 doesn’t have a particularly sophisticated chassis, while the steering feels pretty lifeless. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh: its looks are growing on me, and the interior – with its figure-hugging Recaros – isn’t as dire as an old Japanese car might be. And, of course, Honda’s a byword for reliability, so a Civic Type R should be a fairly safe bet. It’s just not the one for me.
Honda Integra Type R
When I was growing up, all the magazines lauded the Integra Type-R as the best-handling front-wheel-drive car ever. I was quite excited about finally driving one even if, after a go in the Civic, I was a tad worried about meeting a hero.
Fortunately, right from the start, it feels much more exciting than the EP3. It’s old school, with a low driving position and a noisy, revvy engine (there’s little in the way of soundproofing here).
The steering actually feels connected to the wheels – an appealing sensation in a driver’s car. Front-wheel drive doesn’t really hinder it – with a limited-slip diff between the front wheels, you can drive it with the throttle as much as the steering wheel. I’m not going to pretend that sideways heroics were the order of the day on wet rural roads in the south east of England, but you can certainly use the accelerator to trim your line through the bends.
Having a Type R kinda day. After years of reading about ‘the best front-wheel-drive car ever’, the ITR does feel rather special. pic.twitter.com/PiA9DC4gew
— Andrew Brady (@TheAndrewBrady) March 15, 2018
Sure, driving one every day might get tiring. It’s bumpy and, like the Civic, you have to use all of the rev range to extract the best from the engine. Weighing just 1,200kg, it’s plenty quick enough – hitting 62mph in 6.7 seconds. Although it wouldn’t hold a candle to modern hot hatches in a straight line drag race, it’s going to be more fun (and probably quicker) on twisty roads.
The interior is basic, although buoyed by the bright red Recaro seats. Visibility’s good, and everything’s in the right place – there’s no awkward offset for the pedals, and the gear change is precise and easy to find.
Today, you’ll need to pay as much as £10,000 for a good DC2, and that’s if you can find one. It sold in small numbers and many have been crashed over the years, while owners are keeping hold of good ones. If you can find one and you’ve got £10k to spend on a fun-car-slash-investment, it’s probably a good buy.
Honda Accord Type R
So we’ve had some excitement, time to come down to earth with a nice, sensible family saloon. Right..? Erm, not right.
While on the first impressions the Accord might feel all sensible, with its slightly drab yet well executed cabin, this very definitely isn’t a sensible family car. As soon as the cam profile shifts, it surges forward eagerly, while sounding better in the process than either the Civic or even the Integra. Yes, all these cars have the magic of VTEC, but it appears at his best in the 212hp 2.2-litre H22A7 engine that powers the Accord.
Maybe it’s the surprise element, but the Accord pips the Integra as the car I most want to take home from this trio. Its hydraulic steering is a joy, and while the car doesn’t feel as playful as the other Hondas featured here, it’s extremely planted. Its front LSD means you can tuck in the nose and pretend you’re not driving a (relatively) large front-wheel-drive saloon car.
Not only is the Accord Type R exciting, it’s also half the price of an Integra. Around £5,000 will get you a good, private example, and it’s more likely to have led an easy life compared to an Integra or Civic. Combine this with everyday usability and it’s definitely where my money would go.