By Wayne Gorrett
I was in Slovakia June last year to drive pre-production models of the much-awaited Honda Civic Type R. The morning’s route traversed public roads in the foothills of the Austrian Alps east of Vienna. In the afternoon we swopped rubber with professional racing drivers Matt Neal and ‘Flash’ Gordon Sheddon from the Honda BTCC team at the Slovakiaring near Bratislava. Good times!
• Hugely improved driving dynamics now a match for brutal performance.
• Eccentric styling cues may not suit all tastes.
If you’re going to spend five years in the wilderness sans any performance models, you’d better have one almighty bang up your sleeve when you return to the fray. After a lengthy hiatus, Honda has launched the most eagerly-awaited performance car for 2015.
The all-new Honda Civic Type R has taken five years in development and sits on the new FK2 chassis. International followers of Honda’s Red Badge number in their tens of thousands and over 400 UK advance orders have so far been received – sight unseen.
Headline news in terms of the drivetrain is a switch from natural aspiration to turbocharging – a first for a Type R category product. Some purists will bemoan the inevitability of a turbo, particularly as its introduction impacts on the engine’s audio character. That aside, this fourth-generation Type R is arguably (and I’m prepared to) the best fast Civic so far.
➤ Engine, drivetrain and performance
Manufacturers of latter day hot hatches now face a benchmark of no less than 300 bhp, but with environmental regulations becoming ever tighter, the days were pretty much numbered for the outgoing naturally-aspirated Type R engine.
The new 2.0-litre, four-cylinder Earth Dreams i-VTEC turbo unit produces 310bhp at 6,500 rpm and 400 Nm of torque from a lowly 2,500 rpm. It still uses the VTEC variable valve timing system, however.
All of that brutal power is received by the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox only – no dual-clutch, flappy paddle options here – and a helical limited-slip differential. Honda claims 0-62mph in 5.7 seconds and 168mph flat out.
During the product briefing in Bratislava, Honda execs advised that blending VTEC technology and turbocharging was the only way to meet emission regulations along with the base power levels now expected in this class and to maintain the high-revving character of previous Type R’s. The low-inertia turbocharger coupled with an incredibly high compression ratio (9.8:1), wring maximum heft from this engine at pretty much any point in the rev range.
The new Type R is not your common or garden Civic given a mere hot hatch makeover. All facets of the car – the suspension, chassis, engine, drivetrain, interior furniture, body stiffening and aero – were revisited and re-developed from scratch.
The front suspension now uses a strut arrangement with a bespoke ‘dual-axis’ design to reduce centre offset, reducing torque steer by an incredible 55 per cent. Ford and Vauxhall have used a similar system in the past and Renault still does.
The rear suspension uses a rather simple torsion beam setup rather than an intricate multi-link system as underpins some of the Type R’s direct competitors.
Once underway, adaptive damping actively monitors each corner of the car and makes thousands of minute adjustments per second as the driving style or road surface changes. The UK is expected to be a large market for the new Type R and engineers undertook months of UK B-road testing – you know, the ones with all the twisty bits.
As fundamental as it is to make a halo performance car go fast, Honda engineers made sure it stops with the same urgency. Fortunately, the no-nonsense Type R brakes are by Brembo – the ventilated front discs are 350mm in diameter – and both performed exceptionally well on road and track.
Factory-fitted rubber was a set of Continental Sport Contact 6’s on 19-inch wheels. On the road they’re fine and performed adequately. However, around the Slovakiaring I found them wanting and by hot lap twelve were already going off. (Track stats: Track temperature was a near-perfect 52C, air 32C and wind speed around 2.4 mps.)
To the left of the grippy steering wheel is a button marked +R. This sports setting immediately changes all the dials in the car to red – a.k.a. fighting mode. The result is a change in engine mapping for greater, sharper performance, tighter steering, vehicle stability assist to maximise grip, while adaptive damping is increased by a spine-crunching 30 per cent.
While it will undoubtedly be played with in the first few days, the +R button is not something you’ll find yourself pressing on the road too often, because in its standard state the Civic Type R is very firmly set up. The Type R is not difficult to drive and demands to be driven hard. The control weights are rock solid, the six-cog 40mm short throw gearbox is fairly slick but engine response can be a tad lazy while the turbo awaits the hurry-up memo.
➤ The Style Factory
The new Civic Type R looks exactly like a Type R should look. Producing a useable amount of aerodynamic downforce was one of the priorities for the Type R engineering team. It’s gloriously shouty, it has a big mouth, a Kardashian-like rear and the de rigueur XXXL rear wing tuned for maximum downforce.
Other visuals include dual twin exhausts either side of a mahoosive (not a technical term) black rear splitter, a big front splitter, the flared wheel arches and the vents that adorn them. There’s not one millimetre of free-riding aero on this car – every outrageously wonderful thing you see has purpose and function.
Some may regard it as a bit over the top but Honda says these aren’t fashion accessories. Each contributes to cooling and aerodynamics – this is a car that creates real, actual downforce. And that’s much rarer on a road-going car than you might imagine.
➤ The Inside Story
Inside, it’s a mixed bag if I’m honest. The seats are fabulous with really tall side bolsters, great side support. They’re probably the best quick road car seats I’ve sat in for a while – probably since the F-Type coupé. The same goes for all the daily tactile elements, too – a sweet aluminium gear lever, shapely leather steering wheel and well-judged pedal weights.
The main issue is inherited from the donor car – the two-tier Civic dash is frankly a mess. There are six major screens and info binnacles, a steering wheel that blocks the digital speedometer and a driving position that some may find too high – despite Honda having already lowered it by 20mm. But hey, you get used to it.
There’s plenty of headroom front and rear and the view out the back is surprisingly good, entirely unimpeded by that lofty wing and the boot is huge, too.
As this is the first Civic Type R with a five door body shell, it’s also a practical hot hatch, so it’s full-on family fun!
➤ The Drive
The engine starts with an impolite boom which settles to a gargle-like burble. On light throttle openings around town the turbo waste gate chatters audibly. Plant the throttle when opportune and it all gets a tad thrashy and boomy.
On public roads without the +R activated, throwing the Type-R into sweeping corners inspires confidence as every judder of grip is fed back into the wheel, so you know exactly how far to push. In a front-wheel drive car this is reassuring and lets you explore – with a modicum of confidence – what the car can offer.
Those adaptive dampers ensure that smaller bumps are shrugged off with an ease that defies the low-profile tyres, although potholes still smash through the structure like you’ve run over a brick. A motorway cruise meanwhile can be enjoyed with perfectly acceptable levels of engine, wind and road noise.
However, start to use the performance and the engine adopts a monotonous drone that is neither pleasant nor inspiring. Honda’s engineers seemed pleased that they hadn’t employed any fake sound actuation for the Type R – after several brief spells of enthusiastic rural driving up to the 6,000 rpm redline and back, I began to wish they had.
If you’re given an opportunity to take one of these onto the track – grasp it with both hands. You’ll discover a car that’s exceptionally racy but also very manageable and fairly forgiving. Steering is weighty but precise, with none of the twitchiness evident on other race-tuned cars.
There’s loads of non-electronic feedback and just the right amount of assistance via features such as the (mercifully) mechanical limited slip differential and adaptive dampers. Both help you pull out of that corner like the proverbial off a shovel – and it sticks to the black stuff like said proverbial to an army blanket (again, not a technical term).
Your thoughts on the price of the Civic Type R will entirely depend on how much you value that driving experience. Two versions are available – a standard model at £29,995 and a GT with additional equipment at £32,295. To save you looking it up, the Golf R costs £30,820.
The new Honda Civic Type R is a seriously extreme car. It’s a thrilling machine and has been worth the five-year wait. Its target buyer will be the sort of driver who doesn’t welcome compromise – and sport deep enough pockets to live with that decision. It is an utterly brilliant piece of automotive engineering from the chaps at Honda and I fully comprehend and appreciate its appeal.
➤ Quick Specs:
• Price: From £29,995.
• Engine: 1996cc, 4 cylinders, turbocharged, petrol
• Power: 310bhp @ 6500rpm
• Torque: 400Nm @ 2500rpm
• Transmission: 6-speed short-throw manual
• 0-62mph: 5.7sec
• Top speed: 168mph
• Fuel: 38.7mpg (official combined)
• CO2: 170g/km
• UK release date: Production begins on 3rd July and both models are available to order now.