Honda Civic 2.0 Type S review
by David Finlay (3 March 2003)
If you're familiar with Honda's naming system you might suspect that the Civic Type S was a mildly downgraded version of the pocket rocket Type-R. In fact they are quite different, as even the most cursory glance will immediately show. The Type-R is based on the three-door Civic and bristles with in-your-face styling add-ons, whereas the S is a good deal more subtle. It's a five-door, and you would need to know your Civics quite well to distinguish this one from the less powerful models.
The basic Civic attributes are, of course, carried over. Like all the cars in the range, it is beautifully built (at Swindon, the only factory in the world producing this model), and it has an extraordinary amount of interior space considering its modest external dimensions.
It also has its gearlever on the dashboard. On lesser models the significance of this is that there is a lot more floor space - no centre console, you see - but on the sportier cars there is the extra benefit of the lever being closer to the steering wheel. According to a particularly well-informed Honda chap, the gap between the two is the same as it is on a Porsche 911, which is not the kind of thing most hatchback owners can brag about in pub conversation.
There are five gears (the Type-R has six) and that's enough to provide a good match for the 157bhp two-litre engine, which has pretty decent mid-range pull, though it works better the more you rev it. Maximum torque is produced at a high 5000rpm, and you have to go to 6500rpm to take advantage of all the power.
If you're happy to keep down to lower revs, the Type S is very quiet. At low speeds it's also very smooth to drive, so you can potter along through city traffic without worrying about whether you're about to stall. And with one exception, which we'll come to shortly, it's a relaxed cruiser on the motorway.
It all sounds pretty good so far, doesn't it? A shame, then, that the Type S is the most disappointing performance hatchback I've driven for some time.
The last one to cause such gloom in the CARkeys camp was the Ford Focus ST170, and the Type S has exactly the same problem. Both cars feel as if they left the factory before anyone remembered to fit the front shock absorbers, with a resulting lack of front-end control.
This has a very small effect on motorways. Although the Type S doesn't veer around from lane to lane, you have to concentrate on keeping it on the chosen line. It's almost as if you're having to steer against a side wind even when there isn't one.
Take the car on to more interesting roads - the very thing you might expect a hot hatch owner to enjoy - and the case for the Type S crumbles. Crests are a problem because the front end wavers uncertainly as the road drops away from it, and the car seems unsure of where to go next. You quickly learn to treat bumps with great caution, getting ready to counteract an unexpected change of direction when the suspension compresses. Even at modest speeds, I occasionally felt that the car was trying to throw me into the scenery.
The road doesn't even have to rise or fall to confuse the Type S chassis. It can even lose the plot on smooth tarmac. Turn the steering wheel as you enter a corner, and by the time you have finished the process the amount of turn required may be different to what it was when you started. The angle of lean the car takes up in a bend seems to have more bearing on the direction of travel than anything the driver does.
All this wayward behaviour can be made much worse if you treat the throttle pedal with anything less than maximum sensitivity. The single advantage of this is that the Type S is very good for showing you how to use your right foot. If your throttle timing is spot-on, the handling is merely worrying. If you apply the power too early in a corner, when the chassis is still trying to make sense of what it has been asked to do, the handling becomes dreadful.
It really wouldn't take long to sort all this out. A couple of days maybe. Perhaps some aftermarket tuner will come up with a simple kit. But that doesn't alter the fact that Honda should have been able to get the job done properly before the car went on sale.
After this test I handed back the Type S with considerable relief. After thinking things through for a couple of days, my main feeling is one of annoyance that Honda came that close to producing an absolutely excellent, perhaps class-leading performance hatch, only to fumble the whole enterprise by failing to pay adequate attention to a fairly simple piece of suspension tuning.
If a mildly revised Type S is introduced soon, I'd love to try it out, because I think there are the makings of a superb car here. Until then, though, this is one model I'll make a point of avoiding.
Second opinion: Follow that, then! So much about this car, apart from the suspension thing, seems dead right. It looks the business, it displays excellent fit and finish of body panels and trim, it has interior space that makes you wonder what Honda's rivals are playing at, the control layout is well considered, it offers strong performance, and so on. I have to say I didn't get anywhere near the point, on similar roads, of dismissing the Type S as abruptly as our Ms Dynamite fan, but I defer to his appreciation of the finer points of sports-hatch handling. There is a really top-class car waiting to be released here, and, as pointed out above, a small amount of tweaking would sort things out completely. Loving the high revs - yes, this is a classic Honda i-VTEC engine. Ross Finlay.