You could say the return of the iconic Honda Civic Type R is the beginning of a new chapter for Honda as a car company.
Honda, which has spent the greater part of the last decade (arguably) trying to forget its motorsport past, has finally reversed course. The Japanese car maker has been accused of going from a motorsport- and innovation-focused brand to a mainstream 'cars for everyone' manufacturer, while forgetting its sports car heritage in the meantime.
Although we can dwell on the past few years and ask why and how, it’s best to concentrate on what’s coming from Honda in the near future, and the answer to that question is finally exciting - and doesn’t include the word 'hybrid'.
There’s an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission; 1.0-, 1.5- and 2.0-litre turbocharged engines in 1.0-, 1.5- and 2.0-litre form that are not hybrids; a new Honda NSX supercar; a change in design language; an array of safety systems; drive-by-wire steering; entry into Formula One; and much more.
While the Honda NSX will not join us until after the Honda Civic Type R launches in early 2015, it’s the hot-hatch that will provide the affordable performance alternative for Honda fans.
Powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine, the Honda Civic Type R develops at least 206kW of power and 400Nm of torque. This puts it above the current class-leading Renault Megane RS265 in terms of power and torque, though below the upcoming 221kW, all-wheel-drive Volkswagen Golf R.
The Type R will be based on the current-generation Civic shape, which by 2015 will be in its last year or two of production. This has all the tell-tale signs of a car that was given the green light a little later than usual.
But better late than never, because the Honda Civic Type R prototype we drove around Honda’s research and development centre in Tochigi, Japan, is unbelievably good.
The Hondahot-hatch, at least in prototype form, is an uncompromising weapon of choice that promises much for diehard hot-hatch enthusiasts.
The company is heading back to Formula 1 in the same year as the Civic Type R’s launch and there’s no doubt it intends to make full use of its motorsport credentials (queue a Honda Formula One car going past the Honda logo with “power of dreams” tagline).
Honda says the Honda Civic Type R will be the fastest front-wheel-drive production car around the Nurburgring before it’s launched, which is a subtle way of saying it will be quicker than its rivals.
But while you may have to wait until 2015 to buy one, we came to Japan to drive one.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in a little town two hours out of Tokyo, the weather is a near-perfect combination of sunshine and breeze, and waiting for us at a 4km oval track is a matt black Honda Civic Type R prototype.
A Honda engineer awaits inside with a clipboard ready to take our feedback. A quick exchange of hellos and bows and we press the start button for the 2.0-litre turbo to come alive. The six-speed manual transmission feels instantly at home as we select first gear and make our way to the starting grid for our one and only lap around this long and fast track.
Honda is a paranoid car company and it’s for that reason it flew us halfway around the world for just one lap in what will be one of its most important brand-building cars over the next few years. Best to make the most of it then.
The cabin is clearly in prototype mode, not much in terms of Type R insignia, but the hard and hugging seats are an instant reminder this is going to be something special.
A quick glance at the engineer and we question the merits of using either a seven-speed or the new eight-speed dual-clutch transmission for the Civic Type R, to which we are told a clear “no”. There’s even a joke about a hybrid, to which there’s no response. Okay then, Honda. We’ve missed you.
The flag is a go and we flatten the accelerator in first gear, unsure of what to expect. The induction noise is similar to the Megane RS in that brutal and harsh manner that a hot-hatch should be. The 2.0-litre turbocharged engine bursts to life with a flat-out acceleration that is unbecoming of a Honda, in that it’s fast. Very fast.
Before our brains had a chance to process the excitement it was time to select second, and a quick throw of the gearstick meant we were ready to merge onto the track.
Torque steer is evident, but it’s controlled; besides, you’re too busy being blown away by just how quick this thing is to even care. Change up at 7000rpm and the Type R engages third to begin its climb past 110km/h, 150, fourth gear, 160, 199… and it suddenly stops accelerating.
The Honda engineer looks over. “Sorry, speed limited,” he says. That’s the power of dreams being ruined, right there.
But of course, it’s a 4km track, so we get to do the 0-200km/h run a few times while also getting to test the steering around the bends.
Honda won’t say how quick the Type R is but we suspect it will be in the low-sixes if not high-fives for the 0-100km/h time – and it’ll need the latter to beat the Megane RS (6.0sec).
The steering felt precise with plenty of feedback, though we didn’t get a chance to really test it out as thoroughly as we’d hoped. The ride is firm and we suspect it will be hard on poor roads, but that’s nothing new or unexpected.
The previous-generation Honda Civic Type R was axed in 2010 amid the introduction of the new-generation Civic. It started from $39,990, which is a good indication of where the new one will be positioned.
Honda is not mucking around any more. It’s serious about reclaiming what it once was: a premium Japanese brand with a focus on sporty cars.
The only concern we have is the delay in the Type R’s introduction. It needed to come out this year, if not 2014. But 2015 will likely see it face a new generation of competitors and that’s not going to be an easy task to handle.