As Honda gets ready to unleash a new generation of high-performance Civics — including the long-awaited Type R — upon us, it is only appropriate that the car that propelled the 90s tuner movement into mainstream America finally join the 25 Year Club. That’s right, the fifth-generation Honda Civic, the entry-level economy car that would come to redefine the term “hot rod” and change the face of every Friday night suburban mall meet in the US of A is officially a Japanese nostalgic car.
Something for Everyone
Even without its outsized influence on the American “import scene,” the fifth-gen Civic would have warranted special recognition as it crosses the threshold into classic-dom. Its story starts in fall of 1991, when it was released for the Japanese market as a 1991 model year replacement for the beloved EF Civic. A few months later, the virtually identical 1992 model was released stateside and in the rest of the world. While there were multiple chassis codes for the fifth-generation Civic, we will use the EG nomenclature as it is the most widely known outside of the Honda world.
Honda took the hallmarks that made the predecessor EF Civic chassis as success and improved them across the board. Engineers softened up the absolutely stellar double-wishbone and trailing arm four-wheel independent suspension, upped the ante on its lineup of race-derived engines, and designer Kohichi Hirata smoothed the body lines into what would become an icon of the organic 90s style. Body styles included a sedan (called the Civic Ferio in Japan), the standard hatchback with a clever clamshell tailgate, and for the first time in Civic history, a true two-door coupe.
Beyond body styles, the Civic was offered in a number of grades beyond the typical three-step DX-LX-EX Honda hierarchy of the time. Rarely in history had an automaker debuted a single model with as vast a range in purpose and capability. Not only did Honda do just that, but ensured that each variant excelled at its given objective.
At the top end was the SiR and SiR-II, with the famed B16A twin-cam capable of 170 horsepower, giving it an astounding Lamborghini-esque 106.25 hp/L specific output way back in 1992. Sadly, it was also a forbidden fruit sold solely in the Japan domestic market, which would only throw more gasoline on the JDM craze that was to come.
For Americans, the D16Z6 engine in the range-topping Civic Si was the big story. Although the EG saw many technological advances over the EF, from an OBD-I diagnostics system to a hydraulic clutch, it would be the first availability of Honda’s VTEC system in the American Civic line that cemented its popularity.
Short for Variable-valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control, the system actuated a second set of cam lobes at high rpm, essentially providing two distinct valve timing profiles on the same head. That way, at low rpms the engine could be optimized for, say, a smooth idle, while remaining optimized for power at high rpms. The ingenious trick helped resolve the lack of low end grunt in older performance four-cylinders like the 4A-GE. This is not to say that a Z6 is known for roasting tires, but it was a big jump in the creation of the smooth, brawny powerbands we get in modern fours.
Eventually, Honda did toss Americans a bone and give us one variant of the EG with the venerated B16A, albeit de-tuned to 160 horsepower. The Del Sol was the targa-topped replacement for the CRX, based on the same chassis as the EG Civic. And while the While the D16Z6-equipped Del Sol Si carried the model’s performance torch for the first two years, in 1994 the Honda released the B16-powered Del Sol VTEC.
The profound effects the B16 engine had on the American sport compact scene were immeasurable. Despite carrying more weight than its predecessor and a reputation for being a hairdresser’s car, the Del Sol was ensured popularity throughout its six-year lifespan due to the B16 alone. Keeping with the trend of not giving America the coolest versions, however, Honda’s JDM Del Sol had an option called the TransTop, which lowered the targa roof and stowed it in the trunk with the push of a button.
On the other end of the Civic spectrum, there was the Civic VX hatchback, an ultra light-weight fuelsipper with unreal mpg ratings thanks to technology gleaned in Formula One and touring car racing. Features like additional underbody trim — common now but not in 1992 — reduced air resistance under the car came directly from the smooth undersides of Honda’s race cars. Engineers dropped curb weight with innovative use of aluminum and commissioned light-weight 13-inch Enkei alloys unique to the VX. Honda even added a drag racing-style shift light to the gauge cluster, alerting the driver to the most efficient shift points.
The VX used a modified VTEC system called VTEC-E, which conserved fuel at low rpm. It worked by cutting injector load and having one of the valves barely open, just enough to keep unburnt gas from pooling up on the intake valve. Once the engine met its rpm threshold, throttle position and vehicle speed, the VTEC cam lobes would engage and the car would return to standard-but-thirstier performance numbers. This translated to 48 city and 55 highway mpg according to Honda’s numbers. Factoring in updates to fuel economy testing formats and real world driving conditions, it still averages in the low 40s — better than a new Prius V.
It was a car for everybody. The base model started at around $8,000, and even buyers of the lowest of the range were guaranteed — whether they knew it or not — handling derived from its Honda’s F1 racers. Without question, the EG was a hit, and promptly won the prestigious Japan Car of the Year award.
From Commuter to Champion
Unbeknownst to most Americans at the time, however, the new Civic took to the Japanese Touring Car Championships immediately, picking up where the EF chassis left off. From the onset the EG was a tour de force on the circuit, with Mugen and Mooncraft sweeping the JTC-3 class podium in 1992 and 1993.
While the SiR hatchback was the weapon of choice for the first two years of the EG’s racing tenure, from 1994-95 Honda began switched to the Civic Ferio sedan. The Civic was so popular that even that heroes from Toyota and Nissan racing history got behind it — Drift King Keiichi Tsuchiya switched from piloting the Taisan R32 GT-R to the Team Kunimitsu Civic Ferio.
As the Civic raced, the Japanese aftermarket industry boomed. The EG enjoyed a huge following of young enthusiasts watching JTCC races, and soon buyers began to emulate their favorite drivers with performance and body parts designed to mirror the touring cars.
Companies such as Spoon and Mugen fully embraced the EG chassis and built some of the most iconic demo cars produced during this era. Even today, devoted Honda heads are still hunting down every last part to create replicas of these catalog cars.
In the Japanese street racing subculture of Osaka, the EG joined the EF and EA Civics, in the tribe of the Kanjozoku. Although rarely over 200 horsepower, the short wheelbase and performance orientated suspension of these Civics gave the car unmatched agility. Even today, the Kanjozoku are still known for running these cars, although a few of their endeavors are on legitimate race tracks now.
A Movement is Born
As Civics terrorized the highways of Japanese metropolises, back in America young enthusiasts, perhaps raised on 80s Hondas or given a hand-me-down Civic for college, were becoming aware of its racing pedigree. An affordable car with actual performance merit meant that driving fun could be had for the everyman, or — if said everyman was oblivious to the race car suspension underpinning his daily driver — his children, when they inherited it.
By the start of the 1990s, Hondas were already at the forefront of import tuning, branching beyond its SoCal nisei roots. When the EG came out and offered VTEC from the factory, it was as if God had personally blessed the burgeoning tuner community. Looking back on old Super Street or Sport Compact Car magazines, you could regularly find articles on “How to embarrass a Mustang with your Civic.” By the mid-1990s, you couldn’t pick up one of those titles without seeing an EG featured.
The title of first car photographed by Super Street magazine goes to LJ Garcia’s EG hatch, a build that perfectly exemplified the 90s sport compact boom. In 1996, he had it all — a turbocharged B16 swap, Del Sol seats, clear tail lights, and constantly changing vinyl livery. Just about every part made by the shop he worked at, Speed Trends Racing, could be found on the car. On top of creating one of the premier show cars of the era, Garcia was no slouch on the drag strip either. When the fastest Hondas in the world were just hitting the 10 second range, he was still able to hit 13s with a show car.
Not everyone with an EG back then cared about looking good. The heart of the sport compact car movement came from the street racing subculture. It didn’t take long for people to learn that the factory SOHC D-Series wasn’t the only option available. “Swap Shops,” as they were known, began charging thousands of dollars for JDM or Del Sol B16 retrofits. Some were very dodgy, doing things like hacking together OEM mounts to shoehorn the engines in. Some could accomplish tremendous things, but others ruined the car as a whole.
Fed up with the constant axle binding and engines sitting at bizarre angles from the inconsistent quality of swaps, a man named George Hsieh devised a solution. He used his CRX and a B16 from a Del Sol to forge the maiden engine swap kit for Hondas. The “Motor Swap In A Box,” as it became known as, revolutionized the the sport compact community.
When combined with the open-to-the-public electrical diagrams, what once was considered alchemy was now an attainable project that someone with the right tools could do in a weekend. Soon backyard wrenchers were experimenting with swapping VTEC mills into non-VTEC models, and even other swaps including the mammoth 2.2-liter H22 from Preludes of the era. It was a level of innovation not seen since the 60s, and heralded as the second coming of the hot rod.
This second coming was roundly dismissed by many who preferred to see Japanese cars as econoboxes. When Myles Bautista ran the first 12-second quarter-mile elapsed time in his CRX, heads turned. After Tony Fuchs ran 10s in his DA Integra in the mid 1990s, the deniers were scrambling dismiss the accomplishment. When Viet Lam’s EG hatch ran the world’s first front-wheel-drive, naturally aspirated 10-second pass in his H22 swapped EG at the 1997 Battle of the Imports, he planted a flag in the ground.
Finally, there was actual proof that imports didn’t need RWD and forced induction to be quick. Many other import drag racing greats, like Lisa Kubo, Kenny Tran and Jojo Callos, set and broke records in EG Civics as well.
The sport compact culture was reaching a critical mass by the turn of the century. Then Hollywood got into the game, with The Fast and The Furious. Though today it’s a mind-boggling $690 million box office juggernaut eclipsing even Star Wars: Rogue One, the opening scene that kicked off the franchise, featuring a trio of Bomex-kitted EG Coupes recreating the heist scene from Stagecoach is a classic, blew up the tuner scene even more.
Overnight it seemed like every EG Civic was rocking a body kit, cylindrical muffler(s) and 17-inch wheels. As it became a fad to have a modified Honda, a growing number these cars had quickly slapped-on exterior parts for show. While this style was the entry point for a lot of modern enthusiasts who build respectable cars today, the look has become the stereotype that the uninformed think of when they discount the capabilities of Hondas, or any front-wheel-drive cars for that matter.
The EG became the poster child of the JDM movement. To stand out from the hordes of Fast and Furious wannabes with their giant wings and Altezza taillights, builders began to emulate the style of an enlightened SoCal crew called FF Squad who pioneered the use of JDM parts. This was the first time a tuning style spread across the country largely from the then-new phenomenon known as the internet.
From their long-dead Geocities site, FF Squad replaced the massive US-spec bumpers and painted windshield wiper arms with the style known as JDM. The Japanese style of subtle modification to enhance the natural characteristics of the car took the American market by storm. Once the internet became the most common outlet for parts sourcing, the ability to achieve this look became much more realistic, and over the course of the next decade or so the majority of Honda builds migrated to the much preferred “clean JDM” style.
This relatively simple look was especially helpful for the survival of the culture during the Great Recession. A chassis with an entry price below $3,000 and that could still be considered a cool car meant enthusiasts flocked to build EGs.
With a fresh population of enthusiasts, once the recession subsided the Honda community saw a great boost of innovation. It was a second second golden age. The Honda community was not just drag racing now, though. Today the EG Civics can be seen running seriously quick lap times around the world. Even at Tsukuba, the once elusive sub-1:00.00 lap time is being beaten by naturally aspirated EGs.
That being said, drag is not dead by any means. Around 2010-11, the famous battle for the world’s fastest street FWD car throughout the 8-second range raged between Chris Miller’s EG Civic and Tony Palo’s DC Integra. It was one of the last great rivalries covered in print media. As of this writing, the title of World’s Fastest Outlaw FWD car is held by the Competition Clutch EG Civic driven by James Kempf. His fastest so far is 7.615 at 202 mph, which also makes him the pilot of the world’s first 200-mph quarter-mile pass in a stock unibody FWD car.
For a car that is now eligible for historic plates, world’s fastest anything isn’t a bad title to hold. 25 years ago, nobody seeing a new Civic leaving a Honda dealership would have imagined the impressive racing pedigree it would achieve. Today, as the EG becomes rarer by the day, people are seeing them as less of a wild project and more as a nostalgic car to preserve. Going to car shows and mentioning the EG can still result in the ignorant reciting tired 20-year-old one-liners, but no one can deny that the humble econobox has achieved the unimaginable.
Anyone can build a record-smashing supercar if enough money is thrown at it. Honda, however, pulled off something exponentially more challenging — a car that was simultaneously affordable, durable, stylish, and returned incredible performance whether measured by mpg or mph. It was a commuter, a hot rod, a reliable companion, and appealing enough to sell by the hundreds of thousands. That’s already a feat on par with putting a person on the moon, but oh, along the way, the Eg forever changed American car culture too, just for kicks. Welcome to the 25 Year Club, EG Civic.