Few automakers have revolutionized the international aftermarket scene the way the Honda has. Sure people hate on Honda’s with the lawnmower jibes, but the reality is, other manufacturers have always needed significant trickery to extract performance – in the form of either displacement, superchargers or turbochargers – to match the performance of Honda’s performance variants.
As the old adage goes, the replacement for displacement was VTEC. Whereas previous generations of the Honda Civic were branded the Ballade in South Africa, 1996 was the first time that Honda launched both the Civic hatchback and the Ballade sedan variants. And luckily for us, as a first for Saffas, both were equipped with the brilliant B16 DOHC VTEC 1.6-litre motor – even though the system first debuted in the 1989 Honda Integra.
This motor, from the family of B-series motors (B16B, B18C, etc) are renowned the world over as arguably the most legendary 4-cylinder naturally aspirated motors ever created and the most reliable too. The VTEC motors were essentially two motors in one. One docile, and once it passed 5500rpm it transformed into a complete rev happy race monster revving all the way past 8000rpm. Once modified, they can produce in excess of 1000hp.
The South African variants came with the B16A6 motor that made 118kw and 160nm, mated to a 5-speed manual. Unfortunately, we didn't receive the B16B Type-R motor in the EK9 Civic Type-R that made 138kw from its tiny 1.6-litre. Also interesting to note is how bulletproof the B16A motor was – with many claiming it to be the most reliable ‘performance’ motor ever built. While its outputs were less than cars like the VR6 and Superboss, those engines were essentially dinosaur technology compared to the hi-tech nature of Honda’s VTEC.
The Ballade VTEC redefined what a sporty, well-engineered compact sedan was, thanks to its sporty chassis – endowed with independent suspension all-round, and a slick 5-speed manual gearbox, as well as good looks. Launching was always tricky – because you needed to stay within the VTEC powerband (5,500-8,400rpm) to get the most out of full bore acceleration. Most guys, would dial the revs up to 7,000rpm, drop the clutch and play out the wheelspin by dabbing the loud pedal repeatedly, and as it catches traction, it would sprint to 100kph in the low 8 second bracket, running the standing k in around 30 seconds.
While these figures are not overwhelming in the least, out on the road, it was a very different story. The Ballade proved more than a worthy adversary for cars with almost double its power in the traffic light grand prix – it was all a case of launching and maintaining VTEC. While this may sound complicated to some, it became second nature and instinctual to the VTEC driver. The Ballade was loaded was luxury appointments which included the worst seats ever for hard cornering.
In 1999, it underwent a facelift that added a new sharper front end, a new steering wheel, cupholders, and a new rear bumper. Power remained the same, until the VTEC Sport edition was launched towards the end of the EK’s life cycle in South Africa. These days, it’s almost impossible to find an original Ballade VTEC as just about every example has been modified with lowered suspension, a booming exhaust system and spoilers all round.
Back in 1996, it launched at a price of around R112 900, significantly more than the equally sporty Nissan Sentra 200STI. In terms of sedans, nothing could quite touch the Ballade’s complete package of refinement, build quality and speed. To this day, the Civic and Ballade's have a massive cult following not only in SA but worldwide. Few cars get hated on as much as the Honda VTEC's because of their giant killing nature. A quick search on Youtube will showcase how these cars beat everything from Skyline GTR's to M3's to Lamborghini's.
It may always be the butt of lawnmower jokes, but jokes aside, the fact remains that VTEC re-invented a culture. Sure there are fast Superbosses, and fast Golfs, but Honda Civics are what made moved the international aftermarket scene into the 21st century. Whether it was the D-series, the B-series, the H-series, the C-series and even the F-series, it cemented the Honda name as a pioneer in every facet of motor racing.