Honda Civic Type R: Old school for new opportunities

For so many years it was Japan’s forbidden fruit, but now we’ve had a taste. The Civic Type R comes on sale in September – but we’ve just driven it at Hampton Downs.


PERHAPS you’ve heard it said that nostalgia often just isn’t what it used to be.

Fortunately, that’s not remotely the case with the Civic Type R. Not at all.

This snarly, wheel-spinning, hoon-tempting five-door is a total ‘remember when’ trip down memory lane to the only other car bearing that high-performance badge that sold here in factory-authorised format.

Which was? Agreed, even those with decent memories will struggle to pick the year when the Kiwi distributor put up an R-rated screening.

Clue: It wasn’t a Civic, though some have come in as used imports, all three preceding generation ultimate hotshoe editions of the medium hatch were never available from the showroom. Yeah, agreed, that’s sad. Moving on.

Neither was it the very first Type R road car, an ultimate NSX. That stunner restricted to Japan (which is where I drove one. Great day).

Given up? In fact, there’s only been one model that was available locally new with the red badge of courage … the Integra Type R that came out in 1995.  Ask your parents.

Back then, we had every reason to think that Honda would Type-cast everything with sporting spirit. But that never happened. Instead, a recession did. Honda thereon decided to play safe. The Integra was in a class of one. The S2000 that followed, and ran here in very small volume to 2009, was the most recent proper sports car Honda has had here until this one. So wrong, right?

Much has changed for Honda since then. But, remarkably, even after all this time, not so the basic ‘R’ recipe.

For sure, there are now more – actually, there are now some – safety and driver assist aides. And it’s more complex on the suspension side, with a ‘Comfort’ mode as an option to Sport and Race. Yeah, Comfort. What’s WITH that?

Otherwise, same old goodness. Now, as then, a Type R compact car has a high-revving thumper 2.0-litre VTEC four-cylinder engine – only now it’s turbocharged – a six-speed close ratio manual gearbox (now with rev-matching function) and a tricky (helical) limited slip differential, with all that power and torque – respectively 228kW and 400Nm – transferring through the front set of (20-inch) wheels shod with 245/30R 20 performance tyres, stopped by Brembo four-pot aluminum calipers squeezing 350mm cross-drilled rotors and 305mm behind, with everything wrapped up in a visually beefed up Civic shell, which comes in four colours – red, white, black and silver (or, as Honda calls it, ‘polished metal’). Serious? You could call it that.

Given what constitutes, in air and raw ability, a serious turning back of the clock is seriously priced to sell at $59,990, it’s clear this car’s effect within local Honda sales circles is going be seismic.

Indeed, it’s hard to say who is going to be the more shocked more by this fully hard 272kmh, zero-to-bejesus hot hatch from Hell: Honda’s rivals … or its traditional friends.

Clearly, this rebellious tyke is designed to blow the doors off every cited category competitor in a nicely nasty niche, not least those that dare, as this has, to lay down a Nurburgring lap record gauntlet.

On the other hand, it’s also a car that, through being so divorced from the more mainstream fare that Honda has delivered here for years, is just as set to scare the incontinence pants off traditional clientele.

A risk? Yes, probably. Moving on.

Two questions from just three laps of Hampton Downs Circuit: Could it be any better? And when can we have more like it?

The one challenge to ownership of the most potent and fastest Civic road car ever created, is that it serves up purely in old-school manual gearbox format.

Honda says this allows for a purity of balance no automated manual car could ever have. In saying this, it does not ignore that buyers have long shown preference for two pedal layouts; especially with the category’s top seller, the Volkswagen Golf GTi. A car spanning $58,990 to just under $62k achieves 90 percent of its volume in DSG format.

The trend is such that, while Ford’s Focus ST and RS ($53,000 and $70k) are set to also remain manual, the incoming Hyundai i30 N and the next RenaultSport Megane are offering with both kinds of transmission.

Nonetheless, Honda has no plans to offer any kind of gearbox beyond what they have now so the issue is … not an issue. You either live with this snappy little six-speeder, with its firm clutch and mechanical and precise feel, or look elsewhere.

Perhaps the city is where this box will prove a bore. Around a circuit, though, it is perfect. But why stop there. It seems only proper to start this assessment discussing the drivetrain in it full presentation, because it is stunningly effective.

Fire up, and the car defaults to mid-ranking Sport mode. If you were heading off a shopping trip, the brand recommendation is to click it into Comfort, to achieve the calmest ride, quietest most docile experience.

So, no need for this on the track, right? Actually, we were asked to undertake the first lap in the softest setting, then bypass Sport and hit Plus Race for the next two. This, we were told, would give good understanding of the car’s flexibility.

This just seemed a good waste of a precious lap to me, but I did as told … and yes, okay, maybe this was a good point to prove.

The transition from one extreme to another is just as you’d hope. Except that the Civic actually feels quite a lot sportier in its least sportiest mode: It’s fast, nicely contained and quite precise.

One lap of that was enough. No time for soft edges or social graces now: Plus R also works as advertised, lending the most focused setting for the steering, throttle and dampers. Too hard for the road? Who knows. It is certainly ‘just right’ for the track.

So, yeah, as the line approached, I snicked back to third, switched modes and let rip. And, suddenly, having been 15 seconds away before, that first corner, a diving right hander that demands a clean line and perhaps only so much throttle, was instantly in my sights.

I was also vaguely aware that I needed to change up again, because the engine was revving out to its 7000rpm limit – I thought it might be also imagined it would give more aural or physical warning. But it doesn’t, insofar that’s theres’ not much snarl. Rather, the predominant exhaust noise is less a roar than a whoosh, as if you’re towing a piece of carpet (Mazda3 MPS owners will know the sound).

But it does revs incredibly cleanly, with little to report in the way of vibration. Part of this creaminess of power delivery is due the new single-mass flywheel, which allows the Civic Type R to better gain and shed revs, according to the position of the throttle pedal.

So it is feral. What a shame it doesn’t sound a bit more than way. As the Integra did. Honda doesn’t go into explanation why a car with three – yes, three – exhaust pipes doesn’t trumpet louder. But I’m sure there will be a tuner out their who could make it so. Maybe those people who put the titanium pipes on the Megane RS. One positive, though: While it is a shame the car it doesn’t sound more soulful, at least it sounds real, with Honda having avoided temptation to synthesise in a soundtrack.

And it is definitely muscular. This is a second time around for this engine, as it was a star of the preceding car, but it’s hardly a carryover. For all that, nothing major changes. Reducing exhaust back pressure and resetting the ECU liberates a bit more power, but torque and the performance times are unaltered, the 0-100kmh time remaining pegged at 5.7 seconds and the top speed climbs 2kmh. Are you interested that optimum fuel burn is around 8 litres per 100km. Nah, didn’t think so, but you know now …

All overseas commentators seem agreed that this one feels markedly more muscular than the predecessor. All I know is that it felt about four times as strong as the ‘regular’ edition mainstream hatches and sedans we also drove on the track. With none of the torque-steer or even push-on understeer those weenies demonstrated. I guess that’s the special limited-slip differential and the expensive Dual Axis Strut, which separates the steering knuckle and strut, which in turn divides steering and suspension loads.

All Civic hatches have a multilink rear. The body is stiffer, by 37 percent, and lighter, by 16kg, than the old Type R's – again, the rigidity difference between the racer and the regular road car is far more marked, still. Some clever tricks, here. They’ve glued as well as spot-riveted the seams.

Honda NZ brought along a gen 2 Type R, from 2007, for comparison today. That three-door car was a ball of fun, but far, far more lively. If it wasn’t trying to push its nose wide coming out of a corner, then it sought to lift, then kick out, a rear outside wheel going in. It wheelspun at slightest opportunity.

The new Type R does not do this. It is much tidier. In our track sessions, only a handful of us got the 20-inch Contis seriously squealing. But don’t think it is demure or delivate. It is simply more exact. And, in being that, it is massively – massively – faster. And hugely chuckable. And, well, I’d say that there is a lot more to its talents than our session revealed.

All I know is that, with me at the wheel, it seemed to move around fluidly and precisely, responding instantly and easily to steering, throttle and braking adjustments; acing apexes with monumental front-end grip. Trail-brake into a corner – and, yes, the stoppers are also primo - and I guess you can upset the rear. Some also say a bigger lift of the throttle mid-bend, when the suspension is loaded up, will see the rear tweak into oversteer. I need to discover this. Another day, for sure.

So what did I learn? Not nearly enough. Save that it is a car of immense talent. That the rev-matching function on downshifts (which you can switch off if you want to heel-and-toe yourself) is no simulated silliness. That those scarlet-upholstered Recaro-style front seats aren’t as firm or body-hugging as the real deal, but they are good enough. The cabin in general is not too chintzy with its carbon-fibre dash inserts and aluminium-topped gear lever.

That the styling is strangely alluring in its all-angles weirdness. That even a wing that perches atop the bootlid like a crashed crop-duster looks right.

I’m not surprised that so far they’ve presold almost 50 (not including this one; a pre-production car that cannot be sold) and that the first shipment has all gone. I won’t be surprised, either, if every single buyer is someone who has never even thought about buying any other modern Honda.

Three laps. Pah! I should have locked the doors and spent the whole afternoon out there.