There are many eye-opening experiences that you will have throughout your life, if you’re lucky. For the enthusiasts among us, these experiences are usually tied to various cars; the first time you kick the tail out, the first time you feel the balance of a mid-engine car, the first time you discover how much traction an all-wheel drive car has, and so on, and so forth. But perhaps one of the most important experiences you can have is to drive a Honda Civic Type R- more specifically, the FD2R. Some might say it’s the “VTEC” experience, but we would argue that it’s so much more than that.
If you’re looking for a single aspect of the FD2R that defines it, there simply isn't one. It embodies many of Honda’s beliefs when it comes to performance cars, and more importantly it is the last of the naturally-aspirated Type R models. In terms of design language, it is also the last understated Type R: historically, Civic Type R or SiR variants have only looked marginally more aggressive than their budget-friendly, mass market sisters, whereas the most recent FK2R and FK8R look edgier than the barista at that third-wave coffee shop you pop into every now and then.
From the outside, most car enthusiasts will at the very least have a grudging respect for the Civic Type R. There may not be outright admiration for the car, but given its success in motorsports and the huge following it has amassed over the years of its production, there is no denying that Honda produced a properly quick car. There are a lot of quick cars out there, cars like the Volkswagen Golf R and the Porsche 911 Carrera S, cars that are much more competitive when it comes to a game of Top Trumps- but it is only when you’re behind the wheel of an FD2R that you discover what all the hype is about.
This particular example isn’t exactly stock, as the owner has fitted a set of Ohlins DFV along with a more aggressive exhaust, as well as a staggered Yokohama AD08R setup- but for all intents and purposes the car isn’t that far off from how the FD2R comes from factory. “Make sure the car is up to temperature before you start pushing it,” the owner says as we leave the mamak, surprisingly without a trace of worry that we might put his car into a ditch.
Pottering around the interior roads of Petaling Jaya, a few things about the FD2R started to stand out. With most high performance cars, there is usually some kind of compromise that makes it more difficult to live with day-to-day- whether that comes in form of poor driveability at low speeds or general discomfort. And yet, the FD2R felt as civilized as a regular Civic FD2, with the only obvious distinction being the slick-shifting six-speed manual gearbox. Owners may argue that it’s the Ohlins which help to make it usable every day, but this only makes swapping to aftermarket suspension a more compelling argument.
Once we were out on the highway, the FD2R really began to come into its own. While it may not exactly be designed for blasting down highways at ludicrous speeds, there are very few places where you can stretch your legs when it comes to a car like this, short of a trunk road or a racetrack. Short-shifting through the six ratios showed just how closely spaced they were, and downshifting into the first U-turn (“You can take them in third,” says the owner) put on display the incredible throttle response of that naturally-aspirated engine sitting up front.
A quick blip down to second coming out of the U-turn and we were off to the races. The revs climb rapidly, partly because of the low ratio and partly because of the abundance of torque. A lot of people like to romanticize the idea of “hitting VTEC”, but the reality is that the FD2R has plenty of torque even before you engage VTEC. That’s not to say that VTEC is pointless, because when it does engage you’re rewarded with a sharp change in engine tone and a little extra shove. “The kick feels a lot harder on standard cars because Honda tunes in a torque dip right before VTEC engages,” mentions the owner, but it’s plenty of kick for us.
In a couple of seconds we’re at the top of third and doing well over our national speed limit. By the time we reach the limiter in fourth, we would be sent straight to jail if we were in a country like Australia. The FD2R is blisteringly quick, despite having only 225 PS on tap and a peak torque of 215 Nm, and part of this is because of the incredibly short gearbox ratios. When we talk about “usable performance”, we usually refer to a wide torque band on a modern turbocharged engine that enjoys full boost from just off idle. Honda’s solution to the problem of providing usable performance was to give it gear ratios that most racecars would envy: as long as you shift at 8,000 rpm or higher, you will never be in a situation where you’re out of your torque band.
The other half of the formula for a ridiculously quick road car is, as you would expect, the handling. For those who deal with underpowered cars but still try to get the most out of them, carrying as much momentum as possible through a corner is the only way to build up any form of speed. The FD2R works with you in this sense, with steering that’s light and responsive as well as a chassis balance that provides predictable handling characteristics. Pitch it into a corner and the front responds with enthusiasm, tucking in and hugging whatever line you pick. Back off the throttle and the car yaws progressively, rather than the more violent tail-out sensation you might get with a hot hatchback. Perhaps it’s a result of the aftermarket Ohlins and the super-sticky AD08Rs, but the inherent balance of the car is something to admire.
So we’ve established that the FD2R has an abundance of usable performance and handles incredibly well, which makes it a competitive car and the perfect candidate for racing- but a car is about more than just how quickly it moves. More important than anything else is the experience itself- the feeling of elation when you blip the throttle to get into the right gear, the anticipation of VTEC engaging followed by the anticipation of the next upshift, the way the car responds to the smallest of steering and throttle inputs. It’s a beautiful, engaging car that barely gives you respite between gearshifts, but you wouldn’t really want it any other way. It’s the contrast between such incredible potential and such an understated design, with the only obvious difference from the regular FD2 being the modest rear wing. And it's the mind-boggling simplicity of it all: a well built naturally aspirated inline-4, an excellent close-ratio 6-speed gearbox, and a chassis derived from a road going economy car.
After a couple of loops on the highway and perhaps a little too much fun, we returned to the mamak and handed the keys back to the owner. There are many cars that we have come across over the course of our career, but the FD2R stands out- even a decade from when it first broke cover. Sure, it may not be rear wheel drive or produce mountains of power, but it is a car that shows you (or reminds you) what real driving pleasure feels like. For those who have the pleasure of having one in their garage, hold on to them as long as you can because it truly is a rare breed. For those who have yet to try it, do what you can to get behind the wheel of one- beg if you have to- because we can guarantee that your view of performance cars will never be the same again.