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I drove a Type R to SEMA and saw the past, present, and future of car culture

The Nevada-plated Jetta in the left lane keeps trying to race me. It has blasted out of the past two intersections, baiting me. I’m not a proud man, and I certainly don’t need to prove what I’ve got at every set of lights. The Jetta is at least 7 years old and is no threat to me or my masculinity. There is nothing to prove here. So at the third intersection, as the lights go green, I drop the clutch at 4,000 rpms, spin tires through the first two gears, and blow the doors off the aged VW. Such is the power of being behind the wheel of the Civic Type R.

2019 civic type r
Image used with permission by copyright holder

I’m blessed to be driving the first Type R to grace the shores of America, and I’m on my way from LA to Las Vegas to attend the 2019 SEMA show. This convention in the inhospitable Nevada desert is a celebration of all things car customizing. It is a 4-hour drive from the city of angels to the city of sin, and I have plenty of time to reflect on the Civic, SEMA, and car culture in general.

Car customizing and tuning have been around for as long as the automobile has existed. From custom coachwork of the first horseless carriages, to racing Model Ts on dry lake beds, hot rod culture of the 50’s, all the way up to the Fast and the Furious franchise. Drivers have always tried to coax more speed and bestow more personalization on their rides.

For my generation, it was Civics, big stereos, nitrous, and underbody light kits. The early 2000s were the domain of Veilside body kits and Sony Xplode sound systems. Japanese import cars were our canvas, and questionable taste at Autozone was our paint brush.

SEMA is ostensibly a trade show aimed at auto parts store owners looking for new products to put on their shelves. In reality, it is a wild car show full of the most extreme customizations in the hopes that someone in the press (me!) will snap a photo and give the company free advertising. Here’s some work for Honda pro bono:

Image used with permission by copyright holder

I’m always excited to attend SEMA see what the latest trends in the aftermarket are, but the Civic Type R creates a strange conundrum for me. It has huge power and capability right out of the box, with a wild and winged body that used to require fiberglass skills and industrial adhesive to achieve. Half the pleasure in tuner culture is using your own time and skills to coax fun out of a basic family car. The Civic Type R comes with enough power and grip right out of the box to embarrass many more expensive vehicles. So is the future of tuning just letting the manufacturer do it for us?

I fully realize that gone are the early 2000s and the popular culture primacy of tuner culture. The former heady days of deuce coupes, American muscle, and lowriders have all come and gone in previous generations. For those in my age cohort, it is JDM and stance that are already fading away from the spotlight.

Civic Type R be happy
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Looking around the scene, it is clear that street racing speed, air suspension, and neon kits are no longer cool, or lit, or whatever… But all is not lost. When a hotrod like the Civic Type R arrives on our shores with new car smell and a factory warranty, the tuners inevitably go elsewhere.

That is why you go to Las Vegas every November. The SEMA show is always here to tell us what is going to be the new trend in the coming years. As you look around the show, your eyes fall not on Lambo doors or chameleon paint jobs. My JDM loves have grown old and unappealing. Giant turbos and esoteric rims are now actually old-school.

One glance around SEMA makes it clear what is going to be the biggest trend for 2020. It has been slowly growing for years now but seems to have actually hit critical mass and entered the mainstream now. I’m here to tell you that the builds you’re going to be seeing for the next few years is clearly overland and rally spec cars.

Image used with permission by copyright holder
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Porsches, Velosters, Subarus all lifted, kitted out with Jerry Cans, and enough lightbars to stage an EDM show were all over the show floor. There are roof tents as far as the eye can see. Offroading perfectly good road cars is officially what’s cool/lit/fire now. Start working on your Safari 911 and Monte Carlo Mini tomorrow if you want to have them done before the collective zeitgeist moves on to desiring brown 70’s vans or fetishizing plastic-clad 2000’s cars.

Image used with permission by copyright holder
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The rest of SEMA 2019 is just Supras with body kits. And maybe a neon light or two. So all hail the new hotness that is Overlanding! The hot Civic and I will limp home to LA (as much as you can limp with a 300hp motor in a front wheel drive car that is impossible to impose torque-steer on). I’ll race all the Jettas and Mustangs that I can find. As soon as I get home, I’ll start looking around for Type R lift kits and rally lights.

Civic Type R SEMA
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Adam Kaslikowski
Former Digital Trends Contributor
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