Tim Oldland gets behind the wheel of Honda’s new hot hatch and finds out if the drive can match the wild looks…
Those of you old enough to remember the late 1980’s will know that it was the golden age for the hot hatch. The Peugeot 205 GTi and Golf GTi ruled the roost then in the 90’s the hot hatch grew up and by the turn of the century we saw the wildest hot hatches released – the Ford Focus RS and the Honda Civic Type-R. These weren’t the first hot hatches from Ford or Honda, but these two epitomised the way that performance motoring was going in the new millennium. The Focus RS used a turbocharged 2.0 litre lump to produce 210bhp while the Civic used the high revving VTEC 2.0 litre engine to put out 198bhp and at the time, this was considered to be the absolute maximum you could put through the front wheels alone before the cars became undriveable. Fast forward to the present day and the hot hatch has got even hotter, with some of the cars in the class nudging 400bhp – though these have AWD to help. But Honda still makes a Civic Type-R and it’s still front wheel drive, so can it keep up with the rivals with two less wheels being driven?
Short answer – absolutely, yes it can.
Long answer…. When the rather nice man from Honda arrived at my house to drop the Civic Type-R off, it was a lovely sunny day and as luck would have it I was already standing outside my house. When I saw the deep blue car round the corner I was filled with the kind of child-like excitement you used to get when you saw a friend had the proper Millennium Falcon toy and he was actually going to let you play with it. Spoilers, wings, massive wheels, red stripes, my inner child was jumping up and down like he’d just been given far too much chocolate.
When I first saw the Type-R in pictures I admit I was a bit shocked and not in a good way. I thought it looked far too over the top, really awkward from some angles and had been designed by a blind monkey with ADHD. But in person it works far better and you’re able to take in all the details. It basically looks like a BTCC racer and as I’ll come to later, the looks give you a real idea of how it’ll drive. Starting at the front there’s an aggressive front bumper (actually, given that this is pretty much the most aggressively styled car I’ve seen in years, just mentally prefix everything I write with ‘aggressive’ from now on) with a large central intake at the bottom and two intakes either side housing the fog lights. There’s a low splitter that juts out beneath, with the usual red Type-R detailing across it, which leads you around to the front wheelarches. I never thought a road car could make the arches on an Audi RS6 look weedy, but these are straight off the BTCC race car – boxy arches that add a couple of inches to the wings, with slatted vents at the back to relieve pressure in the wheel wells (we doubt they do much though, as there are only small holes behind the slats. But they look awesome). The front of those box arches even has a cutout section for aerodynamics, while atop the original front wing sits another slatted vent.
Chunkier sills lead you to the rear arches, which have an extension too, though nowhere near as extreme as the front. These arches house a set of gorgeous gloss black 19-inch alloy wheels which carry over the red detailing with a rim stripe. Behind them sit massive Brembo brakes with red callipers. Of course the main focus of the Type-R has to be the rear end, as sitting atop the bootlid sits a tiny lip spoiler. Oh, and a MASSIVE spoiler above that. It really is huge, sitting 8 inches above the bodywork at the middle and features a deliciously curved profile, with ends that have aero fliks to further tease the air. The final touch to the rear end is a functional diffuser (with red trim) that sits between two sets of dual exhaust pipes which look fantastic – more on those later though. Honda claims that all of the Type-R’s addenda are aerodynamically proven to achieve actual downforce, without affecting the car’s drag coefficient – an impressive feat and a rare showing of function overcoming form in car design.
The rest of the engineering is just as impressive, starting with the 2.0 litre turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. Honda purists balked at the loss of VTEC and the switch to forced induction, but this new lump produces 306bhp and 295lb/ft of torque – that’s over 100bhp more and over double the torque of the previous model. The front suspension has some serious tech too with Honda’s Dual Axis setup, which separates the steering knuckle from the strut and allows less kingpin offset – which all means less torque steer. Coil springs and magnetorheological adaptive dampers complete the setup and there’s a mechanical limited slip differential up front to help put that power down after it has passed through the 6-speed manual gearbox.
The interior is a real masterstroke too. When you look at the interior of the Focus RS it’s utterly uninspiring and just like a standard Focus. This is where Honda has really done some good work – after all this is actually what you see 90% of the time you’re driving, not the outside. There are a stunning set of Recaro sports seats in bright red, while there’s a flash of red and carbon on the passenger side of the dash and the steering wheel has lovely black and red leather with a small red tab at 12 o’clock just like a race car. As with all previous Type-R models there’s also a gorgeous titanium gearknob. It’s very easy to overlook and underestimate the importance of details like this, but aside from the wheel this is the item you touch the most in a car and this wonderfully smooth lump of titanium is a joy to touch. There’s also the fact that it sits much higher than in other hatchbacks (shared with the normal Civic) which makes the gearknob only a few inches away from the wheel, a real bonus when driving hard. The rest of the dash is pure Civic, with the triple dials ahead of you and a secondary display above that, nearer the windscreen. You need to play around a bit with the wheel position to avoid the rim obscuring one or other of the dials, but you can get it just right. This GT model has a nav/infotainment screen that upon initial impressions looks a bit aftermarket, but when you start using it shows to be one of the best I’ve used. The satnav was intuitive, clear and quick, while the integration with my phone was simple and provided all kinds of interactive control – definitely an example of not judging a book by its cover.
One generally buys a hot hatch because it combines performance with everyday practicality and the Civic doesn’t disappoint, because after all it’s still a Honda Civic – so there’s a decent boot, lots of space in the rear and as good visibility as the standard car. This is good point as I assumed the rear wing would impact the rearward visibility but as it sits so high it’s actually totally invisible out of the rear window. There’s still the odd split line that affects the normal Civic though.
So once you’re sitting in the lovely seats it’s time to see what this new Type-R can do. Thumb the Start button and you get to the first of only two issues I have with the car – the noise. I want my 306bhp hot hatch that looks like a race car to be awoken with a blare of revs and a snarling, barking noise emanating from those four pipes, but you get a slight burble and a four cylinder engine noise up front, that’s it. If you look in the rear wheelarch you can see why too – a small pipe leading to those exhaust finishers, so it’s no wonder there isn’t more aural pleasure. Anyway, exhausts are easily changed, so that’s an easy fix.
Clutch down, hand on the lovely gearknob and slip it into first. Ooooh. Let’s do that again. OoooooooOOOOOooooohhhhh – what an utterly lovely gearchange. A short throw (identical to that in the old NSX-R apparently) and a firm, positive action, a joy to use. As you pull away you realise the Type-R fills its hot hatch brief on one point certainly, it’s very easy to drive in traffic with a light clutch and that positive gearchange. As I exit the built up areas though I drop it from 3rd to 2nd gear (once more revelling in the joyous action) and floor the accelerator. Good. Grief. That’s rather quick. There’s a moment of hesitation before the turbo comes onto boost but when it does you’re catapulted towards the horizon with reckless abandon until the shift lights tell you grab another gear just before 7000rpm and you get to do it all over again. The rate at which the Type-R gathers speed is certainly one for the argument that you don’t need anything quicker, any overtake is made easy and you’re at licence losing speeds with very little trouble.
In the dry I didn’t even notice any torque steer, just relentless power and huge grip from the tyres. When I got to my favourite bit of twisty road it was dry and sunny too, and very early so thankfully empty of other traffic. A few cursory runs driven how I would drive a RWD sports car revealed that the Type-R needs a totally different driving style, it’s a motoring cliché but you really do have to grab it by the scruff of the neck and throw it around to get the best of it. Fast in, hard on the brakes, drop down a gear or two, turn in and floor it – that diff hooks up and the front end bites like not many other cars to grip and throw you around the corner. Once you realise how to get the best out of it cornering in the Type-R becomes addictive, that morning I think I drove my favourite set of corners about twenty times, turning around and doing them over and over again.
The slight issue with the noise doesn’t improve massively on the move though, with more mechanical noise coming into the cabin than lovely exhaust sounds. I’d really like to see Honda offering a lovely titanium sports exhaust option (or stainless steel for those with more modest budgets) with a valved setup so it could be quiet when using the Type-R for daily duties or loud and lairy when you want it to be. The other issue is that despite the seats being incredibly comfortable (especially for sports seats) and gripping you very well in the corners, I really wished they could have dropped down a little more. Admittedly I’m quite tall at 6ft 3, but visibility wasn’t the issue, more the feeling of sitting on rather than in the car (motoring cliché number 2). An extra inch or two of movement would be very welcome.
The ride is firm normally but not uncomfortable, with good bump absorption and wheel control. One thing that has got a lot of coverage is the +R button in the Type-R – when pressed, you get red dials inside and there is a torquier engine map, along with less ESP intervention and the dampers are firmed up. I didn’t get to try the Type-R on track, but on the road the +R mode is just far too firm, to the point that it actually makes the front end lose grip as it bounces over the bumps and undulations our pock marked roads have. I’m sure it works very well on track, but I just wish you could fine tune the settings so you could have all the other parts with normal dampers. That would be a very interesting drive.
The next day there was torrential rain, so once it slowed to drizzle I took the Type-R back to my favourite roads to see how it coped. In the wet the torque steer is far more noticeable, understandably given the reduced grip levels and when you drive it the same way as in the dry you’re left fighting with the steering wheel as you exit the turn. But at the end of the day this is a front wheel drive car with over 300bhp and as good as Honda’s engineers are they still have to obey the laws of physics. So yes, there’s less fun to be had in the wet and all-wheel drive would probably cure this. But I think this would ruin the character of the Type-R completely, it’s a manic, darty, grippy, scrabbling Yorkshire terrier of a hot hatch and is absolutely the most fun it can be as it is. Would it get my £30,000 over the competition from Ford, or even Audi or Mercedes (both of which are up to £10k more)? Tough choice but for me the interior and gearchange seal the deal. I’d get a Civic Type-R, visit Milltek for a fruitier exhaust and get someone to figure out a way of mounting those seats a bit lower. Then it would be perfect.
Stunning images by Steve Hall Photography