Without getting too technical about what VTEC basically stands for Variable Valve Timing & Lift Electronic Control. This is Honda’s way of saying you get the full performance of the engine at the higher RPM range, whiles reducing fuel consumption at the lower RPM range. This has been one of the main USP of high-performance Hondas over the years, and this is what makes most people fall in love with them.
Before hopping into the EP3, I had only ever experienced a VTEC Honda just once, in an incredible mildly tuned and incredibly rare Honda Civic Type R FD2. A passenger ride in this front wheel drive icon made me appreciate the sort of engineering that goes into the high-performance Honda engines, especially with this particular FD2 having had the rev limiter raised to 9000 RPM, with VTEC coming in at a very low 4000 RPM. Comparing that to the standard EP3 Type R which has the rev limit set to around the 8000 RPM mark, with VTEC engaging at around 6000.
The car presented to us turned out to be a very low mileage Premier Edition EP3 Type R, which also happens to be a part of Honda’s Heritage fleet. This means the EP3 Type R looked just as fresh as it did back in 2005 when it rolled off the production line. Sitting in the driver’s seat, it becomes immediately apparent that the whole layout of the EP3 is heavily driver focused. For example, the gear lever is mounted higher up in the dashboard to reduce the time it takes for the driver to move their hand from the steering wheel to the gear lever. The standard fit Recaro seats feel comfortable and incredibly supportive.
On idle, the engine sounds smooth and civilized, with not much noise to give away the fact that this is a 197bhp hot hatch. Pulling away the first time reveals a nice light clutch with a reasonable biting point, meaning it shouldn’t be too bad in slow-moving traffic. After all, a hot hatch is supposed to be a car that can do the normal everyday chores, but still be able to devour back roads when driven in a spirited manner. Having “just” 142lb-ft of torque, I expected to be found wanting for some low-down grunt, but to my surprise, the Type R dealt with the low speed town driving just fine.
We headed for the motorway to unleash the full potential of the famous K20 engine. This was the first time I was going to experience VTEC as a driver, so I was really looking forward to it. Glad to say the EP3 Type R didn’t disappoint. As I exited the roundabout casually in second gear, I grabbed third gear just as I was about to go down the slip road onto the motorway. At this point I was already at around 4000RPM, full throttle. The EP3 was moving briskly and gathering speed at a decent rate, but then immediately I got to 6000 RPM and I noticed a significant change in the engine sound. I felt an extra surge of power, almost like a very low-pressure turbo starting to spool. Within seconds the EP3 was already at the national speed limit. After all, the official figures state that the EP3 Type R can get to 62mph in around 6.5secs and top out at 146mph. I have no doubt these figures can easily be replicated if so desired.
The EP3 Type R was able to cruise down the motorway quietly thanks to the 6-speed manual gearbox. Putting it in six means you are not in VTEC anymore at the national speed limit, and therefore means decent fuel economy can be had on a long trip. As already mentioned, the Recaros also does a fine job of making cruising comfortable. The EP3 is not too bouncy when moving around, although some reviews back in the day pointed out some harshness in the suspension setup. It becomes clear later why the EP3 Type R was set up like.
Exiting the motorway to head for some B-roads, I tested the brakes at the roundabout as we came to stop. The brakes inspired some confidence in me as we looked forward to the roads ahead where they will play an active role. They did not feel spongy or soft and had a good feel to them. As high-performance Hondas with VTEC like to rev, I set off from the roundabout in first gear full throttle, hitting VTEC and getting all the way to the rev limit of around 8200 RPM. Barely any wheelspin as the EP3 has incredible traction due to the bulk of the power being right at the top of the rev range. Gears two and three followed in quick succession as the manual gearbox was a joy to use. The position of the gear lever did take some getting used to at first, but after a few miles of driving, it becomes second nature.
By this point, we were already on a B-road where the EP3 Type R immediately feels at home. The stiffness of the chassis becomes evident as we darted from corner to corner. This is where the Recaro seats works well to hold you in place, stopping you from sliding around through hard cornering. The EP3 is incredibly composed over the road undulations, even with the stiff suspension setup. This is where the suspension begins to make sense as it is not too soft to start wallowing around the bends and not too stiff to throw you completely off your line. At certain speeds you almost don’t notice that the UK version of the EP3 Type R does not come with a limited-slip differential. This is a standard fit item on the JDM version. The lack of weight within the EP3, at just over 1200kg, gives it a major advantage around these types of roads. This helps with the agility and the cornering ability of the EP3 Type R. Some may argue it becomes too agile to the point of feeling snappy during fast cornering.
Steering feel is something that is debated a lot in high-performance cars. These days most manufacturers fit an electrically assisted power steering system to their cars which tend to be progressive but removes any sort of feeling or involvement from the driver. Unfortunately, the EP3 Type R suffers from this slightly. Having a glance through the Type-R Owners forum, it becomes clear that most owners were switching to the hydraulic steering rack from the DC5 Integra to get some of the missing feeling back. This was a major criticism back in the day when the EP3 came out. These days, there are plenty of aftermarket solutions to help bring back some steering feel through various suspension adjustments.
Driving a 15-year-old car now highlights the major differences between modern-day hot hatches and the hot hatches from that era. The main one being weight. For comparison, the current FK8 Type R weighs in at nearly 1400kg, almost 200kg more than the EP3 Type R. You can never detract from the fact that the Type R from back in the day is incredibly fun to drive, especially on some back roads where it comes alive. Aside from the lack of steering feel which can be resolved through various methods, the EP3 Type R has cemented its name in the history books, taking on all the turbocharged hot hatches in its era, and out-performing them on the track. Having not driven an FK8 Type R yet, it will be interesting to see how much progress and engineering wizardry the Honda engineers have managed to make up over the last 15 years.