Fun to drive, but stripped of a little soul
I really wanted to like the new Honda Civic Type R. It was important to me. When I first started testing cars, hot Hondas were magical devices with tiny, jewel-like engines that revved higher than those built by Ferrari and came with superior specific outputs too. At maximum chat they sounded like small flat-plane crank V8s and featured technology such as computer-actuated variable valve timing that was unknown in any other remotely comparable car. And while other hot hatch manufacturers fobbed customers off with strut-type front suspension and a simple torsion beam at the back, the hot Civics came with nothing less than double unequal length wishbones at every corner.
And then Honda had a change of heart at the end of the last decade. It left F1, canned its NSX, killed the S2000 sports car and all the Type Rs. Honda became as sensible as a mildly sedated stockbroker. And do not infer that I think a car without killer performance is not worth having: tearing the heart out of its product lines seemed also to mess with Honda’s head and convince it that merely adequate products would suffice, when rivals such as Ford and VW strove for excellence.
But now and at last Honda appears to be waking up. It is at least back in F1, we will drive the delayed new NSX next year and the Civic in front of you proves that reports of the death of Type R have been somewhat exaggerated. What’s more it is now one of the most powerful hatchbacks in existence and the Nürburgring lap record holder for this kind of car. And for what it’s worth, this four-cylinder Honda hatchback laps quicker than a brand-new BMW M4 costing almost double the money.
At its heart lies a new 2-litre turbocharged engine developing a punchy 310bhp directed to the front wheels alone via an exclusively manual gearbox. Honda did consider a twin- clutch paddle-shift transmission that would have done wonders for claimed performance and probably economy and emissions, but its engineers decided that approach would simply be less fun. It is an attitude I applaud.
The car looks slightly cartoonish with its superhero body kit and, regardless of its actual ability, this alone will therefore restrict its appeal to extroverts only. Then again, it’s making no promise it can’t keep in full.
It is phenomenally quick, failing to clock a sub-5sec 0-62mph time for traction reasons alone. The engine is far more flexible than you might expect of one in such a high state of tune and its power is meted out evenly through the rev range.
The chassis struggles to cope at very low speeds but as soon as the front tyres can handle the torque being thrown at them, the Civic is very fast, very fluent and as fun as it looks across country. The ride is firm, but perhaps less so than its looks suggest and far better than that of the previous Civic Type R.
But for all its power, the engine does limit the car’s appeal, especially to those who can recall how old Type Rs used to sound. Their heavenly howls have been replaced by a toneless blare.
It spoils just slightly a Type R that otherwise could be welcomed without reservation. A hot Renault Mégane is more engaging still, a VW Golf R a far better every day proposition, but neither is ultimately as quick and nor do they offer such a sense of occasion. If that approach is to your liking, the car will be too.