Prior to the introduction of the EP3, Honda had not treated the UK to its own version of the Civic Type R. Officially speaking, the original EK9 model was JDM only, and a very rare sight on British roads even in its late nineties heyday. Consequently, rumour of its brilliance (many of the trick bits were shared with the DC2 Integra) did not spread particularly far - and with the notable exception of the lightly fettled 160hp Jordan, the Civic was more famous over here for its enduring popularity with the sensible shoe brigade.
Plainly, this needed rectifying. To meet the EK9 Type R in 1999 was like encountering a bootleg copy of the Basement Tapes thirty years earlier. It was a world away from the homologated saloons being imported en masse by Subaru and Mitsubishi or the cheery excess of the R34 Skyline. Its maker, of course, spurned forced induction, preferring the response and righteousness of its own mechanical solution to Japan's prohibitive road tax system. The 187hp 1.6-litre B16B motor found in the Civic announced Honda's VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) technology in the best possible way; at 5,800rpm, and didn't quit reminding you of its advantages until 9,000rpm.
Like the Integra, the model was about the flintiness that comes with low weight and seriously enhanced stiffness. There was even a Motor Sports edition, which helpfully subtracted almost all the electronically-powered equipment from the interior. Think RenaultSport Clio 172 Cup, and you're very much in the conceptual ballpark. The follow up, in contrast, was a little more grown-up. It was also a lot more European: the EP3 signalling a move from JDM to EDM for the Type R, with manufacturing shifting from Suzuka to Honda's giant facility at Swindon.
The sixth generation Civic has been built at HUM, too - but the EP3 marked the first time it would build cars destined for the Japanese market (no little testament to the quality of its output). Better still, it allowed Honda to gate crash the UK's famously buoyant hot hatch segment. The 'breadvan' model wasn't an ideal icebreaker - in its cooking format, the design was focused on increasing interior space, not enhancing performance - nevertheless, as with the EK9, the Type R was less about frivilous styling and much more to do with the occupant of the engine bay.
In the case of the EDM version, that unit was the K20A2; a 200hp DOHC 2.0-litre four-pot and a constituent of Honda's all-new K Series. For the A2, built specifically for Type R models, VTEC featured on both the intake and exhaust valves, with ludicious speed engaged at 5,800rpm. (For the JDM variant, it was a little later, and the output a little higher at 215hp - although peak torque came later, too.) Total horsepower was delivered at a heady 7,400rpm, but there was no limiter until 8,250rpm, and it was this tantalizing fact that earned the car instant acclaim in the UK.
It remains the Type R's USP today - and, because turbocharging is now virtually omnipresent, it stands out from the crowd even more distinctly than it did in 2001. Barely any rival back then drove like the Civic, and now none do - not even its more recent descendant, the FK8, which has gleefully absorbed the benefits of forced induction. The EP3, in stark contrast, makes you wade through the pitfalls before granting you access to the good stuff. This was always the way, and by design: beforehand you get docility and parsimony and quietness - afterwards you get the whites of your eyes and the whirring drama of a valvetrain gone bananas.
That said, the shift between the two was never quite as stark as in earlier iterations (where it felt as though some internal button had been pushed), the K20A2 moving through its phases a little more progressively. But the result is still much the same: below the watermark you could be driving any fairly peppy version a naturally-aspirated Civic, after it you could only be in the Type R. Between the two there will certainly have been a gearchange - possibly more than one - but that's okay, too, because the EP3 featured one of the best and most snickety close-ratio manual six-speed gearboxes to ever grace a hot hatch. Sure, it looks van-like mounted on the dash, but that just keeps it close at hand - where it absolutely needs to be.
Elsewhere, not everything about the EP3 could claim to be worthy of such superlatives. Contemporary reviews noted the firm ride quality and inconsistent steering feel, and even in the immaculate facelifted version driven, it's even easier now to find fault with the passive dampers and variable-ratio rack. Even so, the chassis is not without its smarts: it inspires considerable confidence in the dry, and even without the limited-slip diff that was fitted exclusively to the JDM models, traction isn't usually a problem. There's a feelsome sense of balance, too, once the initial tendency to roll is dealt with. By and large, it feels as good as the drivetrain needs it to be.
Because once you've dialled into the Honday VTEC way, it's very easy to obsess about the rev counter in the Type R to the exclusion of everything else. Extracting the engine's full potential means staying permanently above that 6000rpm threshold; short shift and you'll be momentarily stranded outside the power band. Consequently, there are no half measures in the EP3 (or none that seem halfway satisfying). You drive it sedately or else on its door handles - and accept that transitioning from one to the other typically requires determination on your part.
It's not for everyone, granted. But, if you're so inclined, it's very much the antidote to an age of effortlessness. There's never a feeling of nonchalance or detachment when driving this Type R fast because it wants so much pedalling - and it's that frenetic, take-no-prisoners attitude that makes it feel like racing bike saddle in a world of La-Z-Boys. This makes it a copper-bottomed Hero on spec - but it's worth adding that (for now at least) the EP3 also remains largely immune to silly secondhand values. You can get a perfectly decent example for less than £5k, and you won't need more than £10k to buy an immaculate one. When you consider that there's already practically nothing else like it - and never will be again - Swindon's very first Type R still makes the best kind of sense.
SPECIFICATION - HONDA CIVIC TYPE R (EP3)
Engine: 1,998cc, four-cylinder
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 200@7,400rpm
Torque (lb ft): 145@5,900rpm
Top speed: 146mph
MPG: 31.7 (NEDC combined)
On sale: 2001 - 2005
Price new: £15,995
Price now: £3,000 - £10,000