Ever so slowly, a sleeping giant is being woken. The Honda we remember from its halcyon days of the NSX, Type-Rs and Formula 1 may seem a distant memory, but it is in the process of being gently prodded back to life.
The Honda of today is a poor shadow of its former self: the cars it sells, the Civic, Jazz, Accord and CR-V may be worthy of consideration by those looking for competent transport, but none is class-leading and none have much spirit about them.
Honda CR-Z: no longer available in the UK
The one that did, the under-rated little CR-Z hybrid sports car has fled our shores after an indifferent performance in the marketplace. True, a Honda supported team has been dominant in the BTCC in recent years but so far as excitement on four wheels for UK based customers is concerned, that’s about it.
But come 2015, Honda engines will be back in Formula 1, a new NSX will be competing on the road with both Ferrari and its new racing partner McLaren and the Type-R Civic will be back on the road.
Honda not kidding with new Type-R
So the chance to drive an early Type-R prototype was not to be missed, even if it meant flying to Japan to do it. The Civic Type-R is a car intended for Europe only, all will be built in Honda’s Swindon factory and more will be sold in the UK than almost every other country put together, but the development work takes place out here at Honda’s vast testing facility at Tochigi a couple of hours’ bus ride north of Tokyo.
Civic Type-R testing at the ‘Ring
You often hear of car manufacturers reviving old brands and the results are rarely very edifying. Renault destroyed the credibility of Gordini by using the name as an equipment level, Fiat’s not done much better for Abarth and as for Rover’s attempt to revive BRM – it would have been funny were it not so shockingly awful. But you only need to look at the new Civic Type-R to know Honda is not kidding with this car. Not kidding at all.
Its stated aim is to lap the Nürburgring in less than eight minutes, and while I know we all stifle a yawn these days at this increasingly clichéd measure, as an objective arbiter of performance, there’s still probably none better. To put it in perspective, when the Type-R achieves this time (and I have a strong suspicion it already has), it’ll have gone eight seconds a lap quicker than any hatch in history and posted a time on a par with the stripped out NSX-R supercar.
To achieve this Honda has changed everything from the suspension to the steering, gearing, brakes and aerodynamics. And, of course, the engine. Honda says enigmatically the all new 2-litre turbo motor has over 280bhp, which I later and privately learned means 300bhp at present with a year’s more development to come. Yet it puts it through the front wheels of a Civic quite beautifully.
Sensibly Honda speed limited the Type-R I drove to 125mph at which pace it would circulate the track without requiring so much as a lift even when banging into the tight banking at the end of the straight. It felt stable, agile and very fast.
So quite what it will feel like after another year’s development is something to savour. Even as it is I’d call it a strong rival for the Ford Focus ST, VW Golf GTI and RenaultSport Megane. Come 2015, it might just be the car to beat. If it can do the same with the engine in the back of the McLaren and the NSX turns out to be as good as it looks, the dull old Honda of today may seem no more than a distant, distasteful memory.