Road cars

I was saddened by the news that the Honda Civic Type R, legend of many a BTCC encounter, is due for the cho p before the year is out. Apparently its screaming 197bhp, 2-litre motor does not meet forthcoming European emissions legislation and, with a new Civic due to be unveiled next autumn, the amount needed to make it compliant would never be justified by the extra sales.

Still I shall miss it, not least because there is no Type R in the product plan for the next Civic. True, the current car is not a patch on the previous generation, not least because Honda abandoned its purist wishbone suspension in favour of a rather more space (and cost) efficient combination of struts at the front and a torsion beam rear axle, but that motor remains a gem. In a world increasingly taken over by engines that owe their specific outputs to the blunt instrument of exhaust-driven forced induction, living with a car powered by an engine with the ability and inclination to hit 8500rpm in every intermediate gear always made a pleasure out of the shortest journey. I’ll miss the throttle response too.

The Type-R’s passing highlights the endangered status of Japanese sporting cars. By this I don’t mean ultra-low volume supercars like the Lexus LF-A or Nissan GTR, but cars that are both fun and affordable. Toyota has binned the lot, from the MR-2 past the Celica to the Supra, meaning somewhat bizarrely that now the most fun you can have in a Toyota is from behind the wheel of the vast Land Cruiser V8 SUV. Nissan’s tally is one: the two-seat-only 370Z, while soon Honda will have just the slow and small enviro-maniac CRZ to bolster its once impeccable sporting credentials.

True, Mazda has its ageing MX-5 and Mitsubishi wouldn’t be Mitsubishi without an insane Lancer on the stocks, but the overall trend is worryingly downwards. Nor do I think it a coincidence that there is no longer any Japanese manufacturer in F1, even as an engine supplier.

I know times are tough and sporting cars a luxury many cannot afford, but walking away is a mistake. Cars that are fun enliven whole brands and if you need proof of that look no further than at what the 240Z did for Datsun 40 years ago. There is no problem with a car manufacturer selling dull and worthy cars to address a strategic and short-term demand for such machines. The danger arises when it does so to the exclusion of everything else and becomes known as an inherently dull and worthy brand. That way lies big trouble.

News continues to pour out of Land Rover. After the recent unveiling of Victoria Beckham as its next top model, the latest revelation is that, for the first time in over 60 years, a Land Rover will be available without four-wheel drive. Front-wheel drive only will be available on the facelifted Freelander (top right) later this year and will be easy to engineer because it sits on the platform of a Ford Focus.

Is Land Rover abandoning the very ground on which it built its reputation, or merely responding to changing circumstances in a fast-changing world? Probably both. But on balance, I think we should relax. I was among the first to get stuck into Porsche for the gross abrogation of its values represented by the Cayenne until it was pointed out that the money made building these not very Porsche-like SUVs helped keep the 911, Cayman and Boxster on top of their game.

In the meantime Land Rover’s future looks more interesting by the moment. If I understand correctly, the Range Rover sub-brand will be allowed to separate itself almost entirely from the mothership when the Range Rover, Range Rover Sport and just announced Evoque spearhead a style-led assault on the hearts and minds of practical fashionistas around the world. That would leave Land Rover as the rugged, authentic and sensible brand with the Freelander and an all-new Defender to its name. Spot the missing name? It may be that this new strategy means the end of the road for the Discovery. If my source is correct it’s expensive to make and its current customers can be directed either into Range Rovers or a forthcoming seven-seat Freelander. A pity, though – I think it’s LR’s best product.

As if all this isn’t enough, it’s just been announced that, as of next year, Land Rovers will also be assembled in India.

There are some fuzzy shots of what purports to be a new Lancia Stratos doing the rounds. The car (above) looks like a cack-handed pastiche of the Bertone original and I can’t believe Fiat/Lancia are serious about making it. But it does provide food for thought.

The Lancia experiment of the 21st century, reinventing the marque as a luxury brand, has not worked. But as Alfa Romeo showed with its limited release of 1000 8Cs and 8C Spyders, invoking former glories can provide a welcome shot in the arm for an ailing company. So if Fiat was minded to put Lancia back where it belonged, a new Stratos could be just the thing. Like the original it could use Ferrari power and other group components (the 8C was all Maserati under the skin). Executed correctly it could be hugely exciting. But where to then? With Ferraris getting ever more expensive, Maseratis becoming softer and more luxurious, and Alfa finding its feet at the family hatch level, space exists above Alfa but below Maserati into which a new generation of driver-focused Lancias could fit, set on stealing sales from more affordable Porsches and Jaguar’s XE sports car. A pipe dream? Quite possibly, but still a pleasant one.