Not so long ago, you couldn’t escape fast Hondas. There was a time when we had the mighty S2000, a car that for many is still the definitive modern roadster. Then there’s the Integra Type-R, a motor that proved front-wheel drive isn’t wrong-wheel drive, and the mid-engined NSX, Honda’s everyday supercar. The most attainable machines, of course, were the Civic Type Rs. The contentious FN2 version died off in 2010 - not long after the S2000 - and Honda has been left without a fast car since. But, the fast Honda boffins are back, and with a big bang.
The car in question is a new Civic Type R, and as a statement of intent, it’s rather serious. A quick glance at the spec sheet tells us it’s packing 306bhp, which doesn’t just make it powerful enough to give every other car in the class - barring the incoming Focus RS - a damn good kicking, but also makes it 50 per cent more powerful than the last Civic Type R. Oh, and with 295lb ft under the bonnet it has double the amount of torque.
‘As you might have gathered from that hefty torque figure, the new Civic Type R is packing a turbo. In fact, it’s the first production Type R to feature such a thing’
At 1378kg it’s fairly light - around the same weight as a Renault Megane 275 Trophy. It’s also littered with clever aerodynamic devices and the suspension is very plush too. But just how does this tantalising recipe taste in the real world? After spending some time with the car in Slovakia and Austria, we have the answer.
As you might have gathered from that hefty torque figure, the new Civic Type R is packing a turbo. In fact, it’s the first production Type R to feature such a thing. If winding the rev counter all the way round to 9000rpm is something you find appealing in the older Hondas, you’ll be disappointed here: peak power is at a less fruity 6500rpm. And, while it still has VTEC variable valve timing, there’s no discernible ‘kicking in, yo’ moment. Its primary role is actually to increase low-end torque to reduce the effects of turbo lag. Still, as all that twist is available low down (peak torque is at 2500rpm), it’s a hell of a lot more flexible than fast Hondas used to be, and it’ll kill off those ‘still more torque than a Honda’ jokes. Most importantly, this engine is a gem.
At 3000rpm-5000rpm, the single-scroll turbocharger comes on song, giving you a dramatic shove up the backside. That surge keeps on going all the way up to the higher reaches of the rev range - it’s certainly not a turbo’d engine that starts to run out of puff at the top end. It’ll hurl you from 0-62mph in 5.7 seconds, and will do so with a determined savagery. Find a strip of tarmac long enough, and it’ll hit 167mph.
It’s a characterful thing, with a tremendously loud sucking noise present under acceleration, followed by naughty chuffs from the electronically-controlled wastegate. Typically, hot hatches and other fast modern motors do their best to hide the fact they’re packing forced induction as if it’s some dirty little secret, but not here; this engine is loud and proud about being turbocharged. The exhaust is noisy as well, although the boom it sends into the interior at around 3500-4000rpm could get annoying.
Fortunately, Honda has given this belter of an engine a mighty fine chassis to exploit. It’s front-wheel drive, but like a lot of modern high-power front-drivers, it has several ways of stopping you from understeering into a tree or torque steering into the nearest hedge. There’s a helical limited-slip differential, an ‘Agile Handling Assist’ which brakes the inner wheels during heroic cornering, and a ‘Dual Axis Strut’ front suspension setup, which - like Ford’s RevoKnuckle system - separates steering and suspension forces to reduce torque steer (in this case by 55 per cent). The dampers themselves, meanwhile, are adaptive.
When you get to the corners, all this stuff works together brilliantly. Grip levels are absurd; you have to be piling into a corner particularly briskly to experience even a hint of understeer. The differential isn’t the sort to give you the feeling of being dragged out of corners, but what it does provide is very neutral, unflappable handling. To be honest, all that tech still isn’t quite enough to completely dial out torque steer, however it’s not enough to be an issue.
Body control is very tidy, and high-speed stability is reassuring, helped by the unapologetically butch aero package - comprising of a front splitter, flat floor, side skirts, rear diffuser and rear wing - and the downforce it provides. What’s most remarkable is how little the traction control intervenes. Even while steaming around the Slovakiaring in my usual haphazard track driving ‘style’, the electronic aids kept noticeably stumm, a testament to the grippy, stable chassis.
The steering is sharp and well-weighted, and the six-speed manual gearbox is a joy to stir - this car’s stick only, as it should be - with its sweet 40mm short throw. There’s a ‘+R’ button which is intended to sportify the experience, which, among other things, stiffens up the dampers by 30 per cent. However, other than the ride getting marginally more uncomfortable and the steering getting a tad heavier, the changes don’t quite transform the experience as billed.
This doesn’t bother me, as the car is impressive enough to drive when in its less shouty mode, but there are other elements that do grate. The steering doesn’t provide a huge amount of feedback from the front wheels, and that function-led styling won’t be to everyone’s tastes, particularly when the standard Civic doesn’t have the prettiest shape to dump all that aero gear on.
The interior is well put together and practical enough, and the seats are amazingly supportive, but it’s not a particularly exciting cabin. Then there’s the leather steering wheel, which makes your hands clammy, and therefore likely to slip off the metal gearknob. On the subject of that gearknob, while it’s an exquisite item, I’d worry it’d end up getting scratched to pieces by a hand with a ring or two on it. I also get the feeling that the ride will be particularly firm on bumpier roads, given the way it crashed over the occasional imperfections on our relatively smooth test route.
These foibles are relatively minor, however, as the overall package is very impressive, particularly considering this is Honda’s first fast car effort in years. It’s affordable, too. Sure, £29,995 sounds like a lot, but considering the engineering that’s gone into this thing, that’s not so bad, especially as it’s well equipped. Even more so in £32,195 ‘GT’ form, which adds a whole load of safety sytems, parking sensors, adaptive cruise control and a sat nav.
So, is this the new king of the larger hot hatchbacks? Not quite. The Renault Megane 275 is a touch sharper to drive and better in the feedback stakes, while the Seat Leon Cupra 280 will be easier to live with and less in yer face to look at. But you know what? That unashamedly aggressive aesthetic - along with its general hooliganistic nature - is what makes the Type R appeal so much.
Driving one of these cars is much more of an experience than what you get in other hot hatchbacks. With all those wicked turbo noises, the boosty yet revvy engine with its savage delivery, the gigantic rear wing filling your rear view and the way it wriggles under heavy applications of the four-pot Brembo brakes, the Civic Type R aims to misbehave. It encourages you to be the bad boy, like that kid at school you were told to stay away from.
Actually, despite being FWD, it reminds me of the current Subaru WRX STI, and not just because of the dirty great wing sat on the bootlid. Like the STI, its engine is as unsubtle as the bewinged exterior, it has an unruly charm, and is unmistakably Japanese. The difference is that the Type R is thoroughly modern, and doesn’t have the Scooby’s shocking thirst.
It’s not a car for shrinking violets, but if you want a thrilling, affordable fast car that shouts about the performance its packing at the top of its lungs, the Civic Type R is the car for you.