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It’s understandable, why immense anticipation circles the new 2018 Honda Civic Type R. From a keen driver’s perspective, the Honda company that thrilled us in the 1990s with the likes of the NSX, Integra and S2000 has gone conspicuously AWOL in recent times.
Australia hasn’t seen the Type R badge since the 2012 Civic, the semi-entertaining CR-Z mild-hybrid hatch is discontinued, and you can no longer buy the most interesting of Honda’s two Accords (the Euro).
And while a second-generation NSX supercar emerged late last year after much delay, its $420,000 price tag makes for a great halo effect but little relevance for the normally waged.
So, after years of frustration, we finally find ourselves sitting in an uncivilised-looking Civic we hope can make more than just a visual statement.
We already know the Type R is quick: earlier in 2017 it set a record for a front-wheel-drive production car lapping Germany’s 21km Nürburgring. And we already know the hot Honda is handy on a racetrack, after fellow tester Curt belted it around Tasmania’s Baskerville Raceway at the car’s local launch.
That left us salivating at the prospect of getting it onto real-world roads – urban streets as well as challenging country bitumen – to discover whether the Civic Type R can be an easier hot-hatch to live with than its uncompromising predecessor. And, of course, to find out whether the $50,990 five-door is worth considering over all-wheel-drive rivals such as the Ford Focus RS, Subaru WRX STi and Volkswagen Golf R.
We should probably start with the looks.
With its big wing, chiselled surfacing, blistered wheel arches and triple-pipe exhaust, the Type R is the aesthetic antithesis of the conservatively styled Golf R. It’s even a bit wilder than the (Focus, not Civic) RS and, dare we say it, an STi.
Such daring design will divide opinions, of course, but is there anything wrong with that? For what it’s worth, plenty of CarAdvice testers are fans of the styling. In the metal, you certainly appreciate the car’s excellent proportions for what is a relatively big hatchback.
Honda also claims the wing and other carefully sculpted body details create genuine downforce.
The Type R’s cabin isn’t exactly for shy and retiring types, either. Whereas Honda’s use of red for the exterior is subtle (if you haven’t chosen the Rally Red body colour!), the company has gone to town with the angry hue inside. The company’s brand colour dominates the sports seats, while it also features on the steering wheel and in the infotainment display graphics. There’s red stitching in various places, there are anodised-red trim strips on the dash and doors, and even the seatbelts are red.
At least one other interior colour option would be nice, though the red-black combination certainly suits the car’s character.
It only takes a cursory look around, though, to think the Type R’s interior-quality department must have been left short on its budget compared with the engineering and design divisions. Hard, scratchy plastics prevail throughout, and the cheap-looking steering wheel boss is a particularly sore thumb when the rim is wrapped in a lovely, smooth red and black leather.
The touchscreen display’s fonts and graphics also look neither sharp nor contemporary.
Yet while perception of quality is well distanced from a Golf R, it’s on par with a Focus RS and STi. There are also so many other positives to mention about the cabin.
It shares the sizeable boot and spacious rear seat with the regular Civic. And most importantly for us drivers is a driver’s seat that feels perfectly positioned – low-set to give it one immediate advantage over the Focus’s touch-too-high pew.
Then you get underway, and everything continues to feel just right. To Honda’s credit, the Type R’s default setting from its three vehicle modes is the middle, Sport.
If you’re commuting or travelling around the ’burbs, it’s worth switching to Comfort so the steering doesn’t feel too heavy and the dampers relax enough to ensure the still-stiff ride offers some semblance of elasticity.
The Type R’s high body rigidity and multi-link rear suspension both contribute to a ride quality that is vastly easier to live with than the last generation, rear-torsion-beam model sold here.
As crucial to the Honda’s newfound daily-driver credentials is a different breed of engine. Honda Australia opted against the short-lived fourth generation as it emerged uncomfortably close to the introduction of the latest (10th generation) Civic, making this the first Type R in Australia to adopt turbocharging.
While the transversely mounted four-cylinder remains 2.0 litres in size, it’s no shock to find greater engine flexibility when its 400Nm is more than double the last model’s 193Nm.
Whereas it was easy to find yourself in the wrong gear with the old, normally aspirated engine off the boil if you weren’t thrashing it, the new VTEC turbo unit allows you to short-shift to your heart’s content. Even in sixth gear at 70km/h, the strong engine will pull you along – albeit progressively.
The metal, spherical gearknob is almost a Civic Type R trademark, and drivers should love using it. (Though just like the aluminium gear lever of this pommy writer’s old Ford Puma, you may want to wear driving gloves if the car has been left outside in freezing temperatures or the cabin has been exposed to scorching sun!)
While not as oily slick as the five-speeder or six-speeder stick-shifts found, respectively, in the DC2 Integra Type R and S2000 sports cars, both the short-throw action and mechanical feel are hugely satisfying.
The Type R’s turbo engine doesn’t scream towards stratospheric redlines like the normally aspirated units in those cars, or the last Civic Type R, yet it absolutely rewards winding it out to its 7300rpm limiter.
The frenetic rush of revs may be linear rather than a step-change, though there’s more top-end power to be found with 228kW a giant leap over the former R’s 148kW (remembering that Australia skipped the most recent one before today's car).
It’s also matched by quite vicious in-gear acceleration – an area of performance where the Honda is far more competitive against its all-wheel-drive rivals, which inevitably are more than a second quicker than the Type R’s 5.8-second 0–100km/h claim.
There’s also surprisingly minimal torque steer whether you’re gunning the Honda from arrow straight or out of a tight bend.
In fact, the Type R’s ability to get its generous power to the ground effectively reminds us of the last generation, front-drive Focus RS, the Honda using both its mechanical limited-slip diff and brake-based torque vectoring for great traction and understeer avoidance even on slightly damp roads.
The Type R’s direct steering goes from lock to lock in just over two turns, and its weighting in Sport is nigh-on perfect even if there could be greater communication.
Flick the wheel quickly from left to right in fast S-bends and the Honda’s chassis responds at will, while the relatively long wheelbase (2.7 metres), widened tracks, and liquorice-thin 245/30R20 Continental rubber customised for the Type R all combine to give the Honda tremendous stability in high speed, constant-radius corners.
The brakes – 345mm four-piston Brembos up front – can feel a fraction sensitive around town, but deliver in sporty driving with the firm, progressive pedal feel and immediate bite.
They complete the Honda’s dynamic synergies, and place the Civic Type R ahead of the Subaru WRX STi as Japan’s best answer to Europe’s hottest Golf, Focus and Megane models.
The Civic’s $50,990 price tag means it’s not as accessible as previous Type R versions of the Integra or Civic, yet the bang-for-your-buck ratio has actually improved in terms of power. Whereas the last $39,990 Civic Type R, for example, cost $270 for each of its 140 kilowatts, the latest model works out at $224 per kilowatt.
More importantly, however, is that the Civic Type R – much more than the NSX supercar – is emphatic proof that Honda has rediscovered its sporty mojo.