If pressed to name one car that perfectly represents the import/sport compact pop-culture movement in its heyday, most of us can agree it'd be the '92-'95 EG Honda Civic hatchback. Sure, the JZA80 Toyota Supra and FD3S Mazda RX-7 were the halo cars, and the '99-'00 EM1 Civic Si or the '97-'01 DC2 Integra was what we lusted over, but the lightweight, infinitely customizable fifth-gen Civic hatch was what we had. And damned if we didn't make the most of it.
But as adequate as they were from the factory, and as great as they were for modification, there was plenty of room for improvement in their early '90s design. So when Honda announced the production of a new Civic hatch a decade later that promised to do everything better, imagine our excitement at how far enthusiasts would take it. Imagine our surprise when they didn't really like it.
Maybe the more powerful and aggressively styled DC5 RSX — out roughly around the same time — stole the limelight, or maybe there was an early lack of interest in the new tech when the older stuff was still breaking new ground. But when Honda announced the EP3 Civic Si hatchback at the height of the import movement—with an improved 2.0L, DOHC, i-VTEC K20A3 engine (sharing attributes with the RSX Type S's more powerful K-series engine), manual transmission, independent suspension, and compact body—nothing really happened among enthusiasts. It was almost as if they hadn't figured them out — yet.
Today, with a better understanding of Honda's K-series engines and increased aftermarket support, the EP3 is making a comeback. They're inexpensive, ripe for power-adders or more potent versions of the K-family (which have also come down in price), and they enjoy an underdog appeal no longer found in Civic/Integra options. Just ask Joe Pham and Jeremiah Santos—two EP3 loyalists who have seen it all over the past 12 years.
When the import craze caught fire in Southern California, Joe knew he wanted to be a part of the community. When his parents offered to help him out on the cost of his first car (something newer and reliable, they required), he tried his best to steer them toward an EM1 Civic Si coupe, but settled on a brand-new, Vivid Blue Pearl '05 Civic Si. It was his first car, and maybe not exactly what he wanted, but the gears were turning with thoughts of how to modify it.
Originally from the Philippines, Jeremiah had previously owned and built an EG Civic (B16A swap, suspension, TE37s, etc.) and had plenty of experience under his belt when he relocated to SoCal and bought his Nighthawk Black Pearl EP3, also new in '05. That year, Joe and Jeremiah modified their cars mildly—wheels, suspension, bolt-ons—and got more involved with the local scene. Joe's blue EP3 was the flashier of the two, flexing more and better brand-name parts than Jeremiah's, which was still being used for work, hauling duties, even serving as his bedroom for a couple of weeks before he and his girlfriend bought their first home together.
As two of a very small number of EP3 faithful, each with their own styles and set of friends, there was some "uncertainty" between the two rivals about each other. "I thought Joe was a douche at first," Jeremiah says with a laugh. "He had some gold Work VS-XX wheels while I had XXRs, and he never really talked to me." Conversely, Joe didn't think too much of Jeremiah. "We never really talked, so I just figured he was doing his thing with his own crowd."
But as the scene brought them together, they discovered they had more in common than not. Not much later, they began hosting "install days" at each other's house, where friends could hang out and work on their rides. This ultimately led to track days, family functions, and Joe and Jeremiah joining Team Ar-Kan, kicking their project cars up a notch at the same time.
Jeremiah upgraded his budget wheels and suspension for better gear; added his 'cage, seat, and safety gear; reduced weight; and improved aerodynamics. Despite his EP3s race-readiness and aggressive appearance, Jeremiah made it a point to retain its factory engine and maintain its CARB legality to continue enjoying it on the streets of California as well as at the track.
Joe's approach was a bit more ... eventful. He added a Jackson Racing blower to his stock K20A3 in '08, got pinched for street racing in '09, and had the car impounded for 30 days and then "refereed"—meaning everything under the hood had to be put back to stock. After a brief cooling-off period, he re-installed the supercharger, only this time he and Jeremiah took their cars to the track, drag racing at Fontana's Auto Club Speedway and later running in Speed Venture track days at Willow Springs. His most recent upgrade involved swapping his car's original 2.0L for a 2.4L K24A2—an upgrade Jeremiah is also looking to complete on his own car in the near future.
School and work for Joe, and family and work for Jeremiah (who recently welcomed his first son into the world), kept further upgrades to their EP3s on hold. Today, with a little more stability, both are looking forward to advancing their cars further. Who knows, maybe they'll finish just in time to enjoy a late boom in popularity for Honda's forgotten hatchback. Or maybe not — either way is just fine with these diehards.