I approached my long-awaited first drive of the 2017 Honda Civic Type R wondering how it could possibly be the quickest and fastest front-driver money can buy. And then I came away from the Australian launch of the claimed Nurburgring lap time smasher pondering how it possibly couldn’t.
It’s moments after an intense, tyre howling, brake punishing session at Tasmania’s Baskerville Raceway, preceded by a spirited 300-odd-kay punt around the Apple Isle’s finest public hotmix. Honda Australia’s Neil McDonald, clipboard in hand, bails me up.
“What’s your favourite and least favourite aspects of the Type R?” he asks, pen poised. “I’m asking all of the journos here. It’s good for Honda. They want to know. Warts and all.”
Easy. For me, the best part about the Civic Type R is that, holistically, the entire package feels thoroughly honed – as well honed as an effective point-to-point driver’s tool that the front-driven Civic hatchback format allows.
The least impressive aspect is the gearshift placement and quality: it’s good, but lacks the tight gating and rifle bolt precision of classic Hondas such as the DC2 Integra Type R and S2000 and, once I've adjusted the seat forward for up-close circuit work, the shifter’s positioned a little too rearward in the centre console.
The nutshell, then, is broad-reaching positivity and, admittedly, a big call, countered by quibbles in a relatively small detail. And it's the why, how and where of that convincingly well-crafted execution that deserve the bulk of the narrative below.
The Civic Type R is more impressive than I’d anticipated. And a quick survey of other journos at its local launch suggested I'm not alone.
I’ve joked as long and loudly as anyone that a replacement for the last-available fourth-gen Civic Type R – Australia skipped the fifth-genner – would never see the cold, hard neon light inside a local Honda dealership. But, under the warm spring sunshine in Tassie I quick realise the curse of the wait has been a blessing. There's not been idle hands in the car’s long drawn out development.
But here it finally is. And, as seems the case with Japanese performance figureheads of the past couple of decades, those responsible are keen to demonstrate their efforts in the final product – every gram, millimetre and degree committed – in a long-winded manner and lots of graphs. At the Civic Type R launch, providence to prosperity is detailed by way of a 304-page, individually numbered, hardcover book as a gift to those present.
But it's how those details all come together, rather than the actual details themselves, I'm most keen to explore. Back at our first drive at its international launch in Germany, we scored it an eight out of ten through a broad view as a $50,990 mrlp performance pitch.
While it’ll surely have its day to compete against (all-paw) Ford Focus RS, Subaru WRX STI and Volkswagen Golf R rivals for King Of Reasonably Price Fun Cars accolades, today I’m keen to measure how it performs as a mediator between the driver and hotmix below, across road/track venues where Aussie punters might expect it to shine.
Crawling out of Hobart’s morning peak hour, it’s friendly and extremely driveable. Comfort mode tempers the adaptively-damped ride and dulls the throttle take-up nicely in the bumper-to-bumper crawl. Having bookended my Type R experience with Subaru’s Levorg STI Sport and Toyota’s 86 Limited Edition just after, I can tell you the Honda is not simply more comfortable, tractable and easier to commute in that its Japanese compatriots, it also has more hardcore and purposeful vibe cruising around the ’burbs. Good early signs, then.
Though it defaults to Sport mode at start-up, its Comfort mode doesn’t leave you short changed for most normal driving. As we peel off onto Tassie’s byways, the softest of three drive modes – +R being the most visceral – merely takes some of the tangible edge off what’s clearly firm, ready for business character.
Tyre noise from the 245mm Continental SportContact 6 rubber, its spec bespoke to Type R, is noticeable on hotmix, downright rowdy on coarse chip, but perfectly acceptable for a device conspicuously dripping with land missile mojo, taste notwithstanding.
Subjective tastes, eye of the beholder, et cetera… this new, aggressive exterior styling should be familiar enough by now to anyone with passing interested in the Type R who'll undoubtedly formed their own, possibly polarised, opinion. What I will say is it looks more squat and aggressive in the flesh than it does on screen in pictures, that opting for black paint – one of five colours available – tames its fussy façade down the most effectively. Incidentally, three out of four of the 350 examples presold prior to launch are white, though the battleship grey (Sonic Grey, officially) is my personal fave.
Its styling really was the butt of many jokes amongst the scribes at its launch.
“Do they make one for adults?” quipped one scribe. “Styled by 12-year-olds on a red cordial bender,” suggested another. Uncharitable, yes, but no harm intended. Besides, the ‘bewinged Transformer’ look has become more a Japanese high-performance trend rather than exclusively a Honda one.
Form as functionality, then. The bonnet and guard vents keep under-bonnet temperatures at bay, that third exhaust outlet becomes an inlet at light throttle to eliminate booming, and that rear wing creates downforce above 100km/h. Back on the German Autobahns, and the Type R remained rock solid at an indicated 261km/h.
Today, across Tassie back roads, the velocities are tamer, yet the composure at whatever clip we brave, is unwavering. Everything from the bump control and compliance of the suspension to grip of the tyres, from the electronic rev-matching up and down gearchanges to the linear nature of the turbocharged 2.0-litre engine, conspires together to promote sheer pace in an engaging yet near idiot-proof manner.
It’s not the size of the numbers; 228kW – not 235kW as we’d previous surmised – and 400Nm that makes this engine effective and friendly, but the linearity achieved by blending newfound turbocharging with old-school VTEC valve control.
While it doesn’t quite feel terribly torquey, it’s a deception of the engine tune: there’s no low-rpm lethargy or top-end breathlessness, and no torque peaks or troughs in delivery, as the needle swings between 2500rpm, where peak torque arrives, and through to the 6500rpm redline.
The upshot is that once you throw Type R through a corner, the engine seems to never get caught off boil as so many small-capacity turbos might. There's no need to chase the engine's sweet spot. And, with Sport engaged, the rev-matching function not only facilitates rapid-fire gear changes from the conventional, close-ratio six-speed manual, but leaves the driver to focus more on the precision braking demanded by the frankly hellacious corner speed the Type R manages to carry through an apex, without the frivolity using the old 'heel and toe' technique.
The front end has so much grip and accuracy that it takes some acclimatisation as to how deep and hard you can push into a corner. So, naturally, there’s more than a little alarm once you discover a decent bump in the middle of curve you’ve committed serious red mist to.
But the wheel control is such that even across ‘oh crap!’-sized dips and imperfections, the Type R refuses to budge off its line. Balancing such compliance – with licorice-strip 245/30 rubber mounted on 20-inch rims, no less – with this much sheer road-holding tenacity takes rare talent, even for performance heroes twice the Honda’s asking price.
The rubber does scrabble a bit if you launch hard from a standstill, but the helical-type LSD tames the wheelspin quickly. And while the LSD works well in a straight line, it's at its most impressive exiting a corner under full noise and on the move, providing unflappable drive. Torque steer, bar the occasional faint nudge at the steering wheel, is nigh on non-existent.
Rear end grip isn’t merely assertive, it’s absolutely riveted to the blacktop. And my gut feel, without a rival present with which to compare, is that the Type R doesn’t dance and shimmy in response to throttle changes in the way, say, a Focus RS or WRX STI might through the same corner and the same speed.
On road, at speeds that won’t risk your licence, the Honda is benign. Perhaps a little too much so for some driver tastes. But what it does do, it trades playfulness for pace, and the kind of heady pace that’ll plaster a stupid grin across your mug while suggesting, in the same moment, that there's much more pace left in reserve should you find a more suitable off-street venue on which to sample it.
Such a dynamic character leans heavily on the capabilities of the steering and braking systems, and both are impressively well sorted. It’s a variable steering rack, a little slower off centre to remove some dirtiness and nervousness around the straight-ahead position, and the feel balances linearity, weight and lateral load-up nicely. Similarly, the Brembo brakes are confidence inspiring and powerful without excessive bite, making it easy to modulate scrubbing off velocity accurately.
Impressive? You bet.
If there’s an example that demonstrates that front-wheel drive and conventional manual gearbox formula is a heavy burden or hindrance in A-to-B progress across a fine piece of blacktop, I can’t think of a more shiner one than the Type R. Bum-draggers do get a bum wrap.
For instance, it could be argued that rear-drive hamstrings a car's power-down traction and stability, or excessive weight would anchor an all-wheel drive’s ultimate potential, and neither gets an airing quite like the so-called compromise of front-drive when it comes to high performance.
Closer to the truth is that it really depends on how well whatever drive format chosen is ultimately tuned and executed, and in the pursuit of pace, the Type R’s execution is exceptionally fine. The heroic Honda does seduce you into believing that I could leave a great many rear- or all-wheel-driven heroic rivals in its tyre tracks across certain twisty backroads.
Properly uncork the Honda on track, with its +R drive mode engaged, and it ups the pace further. It really comes into its own once you climb above public road speed limits. Stand on the brakes from around 200km/h and the Type R squirms around on tyres a little to let you know it’s working hard for its keep. But, dynamically, it never feels overdriven and doesn’t loses its cool.
I'd expected the chassis to become more lively in response to animated driver inputs on track, but it doesn't. If anything, it’s simply too benign for drivers who relish a chassis that likes to dance around when manhandled, because its rear end seems interminably drilled into the hotmix and refuses to budge off line. While certainly the quickest bum-dragger I’ve punted around the Baskerville circuit, it doesn’t rank that highly for sheer fun factor.
The hardware package and core engineering seem well up to the task for a thorough track belting. After four 10-minute sessions at essentially full-noise qualifying pace, it remained essentially daisy fresh, though it does work the front tyres hard for their keep – over 60 per cent of its static weigh balance sits over the front axle – and on the cool down lap in the final session, the Brembos pads did lose some of their bite.
I’ve seen many pricier, more fanciful go-fast figureheads sweat harder for their keep treated this way around a track. And, in fact, if you wanted a quick, affordable road rally car with a safe-as-houses demeanour that'd require minimal modification and would keep the consumable (tyres, pads) costs low, the go-fast Honda makes a compelling case.
Sorting through the features, the spaceousness, the niceties and gadgetry is a task for when we get the Type R through the CarAdvice garage and live with it for a week. Today, though, is mostly a measure of outright heat, of ability and dynamic talent, of pace and driver friendliness. Is it a giant killer? Generally speaking, no. But under certain conditions and situations, perhaps so.
A great hot hatch? Not by traditional 'pin the throttle and steer your way to glory' measures. As a hyper-hatch in the vein of, say, the old Renault Megane RS stock, it's brimming with pace, if in sacrificing fun factor. As an instrument of impressive precision skewed more towards driver engagement than outright ferocity, there's ‘proper’ Type R in its DNA, turbocharger or not.
By those measures, it delivers with aplomb what it states on the box.
Sure, $51k is a bomb for a front-driver. But, equally, it's a paltry ask for what could be considered a thoroughly well-sorted, bespoke, driver-centric weapon. That it’s not the highest-calibre weapon in motoring’s vast armoury shouldn’t detract from Honda’s impressive achievement.
It's core goodness and talents might be little wasted in the daily commute or weekend trip for cafe breakfasts. Our advice is that if the Civic Type R is on your shopping list, make sure you let it off its leash and indulge in its high-speed sweet spot on a regular basis.
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