With a hot hatch that’s already at the pointy end of the segment when it comes to handling and performance, Honda hasn’t needed to go back to the drawing board for the 2021 Honda Civic Type R.
In the way that Japanese brands like Mazda and Lexus so often do, Honda has instead focused on fine details and incremental improvements. The result is a Civic Type R that certainly looks like a Type R, and drives like a Type R, just, better.
Currency pressures and market moves have seen a small price bump to $54,990 plus on-roads costs, up $3000 on the outgoing version. You don’t get a slew of new equipment to offset the difference, but things have changed.
Honda knows the Civic Type R is already held in high regard as a serious performance machine, so the engineering aim was to broaden its abilities. More capability on the track, and more liveability as a daily drive.
While the previous 228kW and 400Nm outputs from the turbocharged 2.0-litre engine haven’t changed, they arguably didn’t need to. That’s a lot of punch for the close-ratio six-speed manual to send to the front wheels as it is.
Instead, the changes focus on getting more out of what’s available.
|2021 Honda Civic Type R|
|Engine||2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol|
|Power and torque||228kW at 6500rpm, 400Nm at 2500–4500rpm|
|Drive type||Front-wheel drive|
|Fuel claim, combined (ADR)||8.8L/100km|
|Fuel use on test||11.9L/100km (incl. track time)|
|ANCAP safety rating (year)||Type R unrated, regular Civic hatch 5 stars (2017)|
|Warranty (years / km)||5 years / unlimited km|
|Main competitors||Ford Focus ST, Hyundai i30, Volkswagen Golf R|
|Price as tested (excl. on road costs)||$55,640|
Lateral stiffness in both front and rear suspension bushings has been increased, but to offset the impact of ride quality, the adaptive dampers have had a software recalibration. Suspension monitoring takes place 20 times per second (10 times more than before) for more effective real-time road response.
Steering ball joints adopt a low-friction design, so the whole package should, in theory, feel even sharper than before.
The brakes also received attention – brake pedal stroke has been shortened by 15mm for a more immediate response. Two-piece 350mm front rotors replace the previous cross-drilled items for a 2.3kg unsprung weight saving, plus better thermal management in concert with a new, more fade-resistant pad material.
What better way to put it all to the test than by sitting in queues of pre-Christmas traffic and shuffling to and from the office?
Here’s the thing, though – whereas the old Type R could feel just a little like it wasn’t always a weekday delight, the new suspension calibration is more in line with the duality you might expect from the hatch part of a hot hatch.
Free of jittering and jarring, but still tightly tied down, the CTR lets you know you’re in something far above a rental-counter Civic, without being preposterous about it.
The clutch weight is firm but peak-hour friendly, and the steering is sharp, well weighted and fine for parking… If only the turning circle were a little more Westfield-friendly, but at 11.4m it’s just a shade wide for tight spaces.
Of course, the Type R isn’t just workday commutes and car park seven-point turns.
To put the suspension and brake upgrades to the test, Honda brought us to Phillip Island to take to the track and see how the reshaped and re-weighted gear lever, redesigned front grille aperture for improved engine cooling, and Alcantara-trimmed steering wheel impact the package overall.
All that, plus a play with Honda’s LogR app, which lets you plug your smartphone in and see lap times, driving behaviours, plus keep an eye on critical temps and pressures around the car in the pursuit of the perfect lap.
While it may not seem like a big deal, the new gear lever actually is. Already the CTR lays claim to one of the shortest, sharpest shifts in the hot-hatch class.
Previously, the bulbous gear knob was always just a little wrongly shaped for human hands, but definitely cool to look at. It’s now more ergonomic than before, and you find you can grasp it side on, rather than from the top for a more natural rowing action.
It’s still milled from aluminium, too, which is a neat, nerdy touch and absolutely scalding on a summer’s day.
Personally, I’d have never called the pre-update Type R underdone in terms of its handling, braking or grip. It impressed before, but that’s not to say Honda couldn’t squeeze a little more out, and it has.
The most impressive aspect has to be the grip. There's a stack of it. A limited-slip differential helps there, but the suspension geometry also plays a part.
Between relentless front-axle traction and well weighted but super-direct steering, the Type R channels some serious race car energy.
On the track at Phillip Island, there were even a few moments where I needed to remind myself, this is a full-fledged road car on a track, not a dedicated racer. Okay, to be fair, it is still very much a road car, but many times it behaved like something much more dedicated.
If you do hit the track for a spot of free-rein fun, you could do much worse than the Civic. The turbo engine has a frenetic urgency to it, but also demands you keep revs up. It’s not all boost all the time, and maintains a hint of old-fashioned depth and character. Not quite the atmo screamer of past Type Rs, but a fairly happy middle ground.
Peak power arrives at a decently high 6500rpm. Peak torque, instead of being generated just above idle, chimes in from 2500–4500rpm and creates a nice, tractable pocket to play with.
There’s a gear ratio for every occasion, it seems. While ratios aren’t quite stacked atop each other, it’s easy to find a slingshot slot for any corner, but still enough of a spread to cruise at 100km/h in sixth at just a touch under 2500rpm for fairly relaxed touring.
Usually at a manufacturer track day, cars hit the circuit for three laps and get called back in to cool down and recuperate. Honda was far less strict on time limits in the Civic this time, allowing open-ended sessions – within reason.
That’s telling, as brakes, tyres and engine temps are at the mercy of the driver. On a factory-spec production car that may not always go well, but on a day with the mercury pushing beyond 30 degrees Celsius, the Type R never faltered.
The brakes, in particular, kept digging in. No fade, no squishy pedal. While I wasn't running an enduro, by any means, my commitment behind the wheel faded long before clamping pressure did.
The shorter pedal stroke is another of those changes that’s hard to define without back-to-back pre-update exposure, but even with a shorter travel, the pedal never feels abrupt, but instils plenty of confidence.
Playing around with the LogR app shows a huge range of info, and lets you keep an eye on vitals like coolant and oil temp, oil pressure, intake temps – as a basic rundown.
Beyond that, once you’ve logged your laps you can review graphical overlays of brake, accelerator and steering inputs, plus a course outline for where you’ve applied your race craft to the track.
It’s a neat addition to the car as a whole, and for novice track drivers looking to up their game (and I’ll include myself in that), it provides an in-depth, reviewable dossier on what you’ve just done. This allows you to dissect your style and see where improvements can be made.
The simple integration through CarPlay makes set-up and use a breeze. It’s also just a bit of fun to have your lap times auto-logged and see if you’ve improved or fallen behind.
It’s not as if the aftermarket hasn’t already got this corner of the market well served. Adding in an OEM solution is a nice way of getting people more involved, though.
Away from the track, though, you still get Honda’s well-served standard equipment fit-out.
There’s the obvious, like the wider body kit and unmissable rear wing, 20-inch black alloy wheels, and unmissable red ‘suede-style fabric’ front seats, plus a new matching Alcantara-trimmed steering wheel. Honda has also kept up the R-specific serial numberplate.
The cabin remains a four-seat affair, and the rear seats are covered in black fabric, which makes them less distracting as you glance through the rear-view mirror. Front seats are fantastically grippy, but if you get excited with rear-seat passengers in the car, they have a fairly flat bench and no seat sculpting to keep them in place.
You’ll also find a 7.0-inch touchscreen with AM/FM/DAB+ radio, navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, USB and HDMI inputs, and an eight-speaker audio system. Bonus points, it’s a decently punchy system, which you'll need to combat the freeway tyre noise that's a constant companion.
Both front seats are manually adjusted, there’s dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and ignition, auto lights and wipers, LED headlight with adaptive high beam, adaptive suspension, three-stage drive-mode control (comfort, sport and +R), auto-dimming interior mirror, and electric park brake.
Active Sound Control with sports sound has been added, augmenting the exhaust with some additional sporty notes in sporty situations. While it's easy to be critical of fake-noise systems, this one proves the tech can work pretty well.
Safety and driver support are well catered to as well, with adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist and road-departure mitigation, auto high beam, forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking, a left-hand lane-watch camera, tyre pressure monitoring, and six airbags.
If you're keeping an eye on fuel consumption, Honda's official rating sits at 8.8L/100km. But after a week with the Civic, including a day at the track, I returned an 11.9L/100km figure. Perhaps not the most useful comparison metric, but none too shabby for a week that included a day of hard driving.
Honda keeps ownership relatively simple, with 12-month or 10,000km service intervals priced at $323 each. There are additional charges for regular items beyond standard servicing, with their own set cost and intervals, so you may pay extra for cabin filters, brake fluid or air cleaner elements as they come due.
Warranty spans five years with no kilometre limit. There are exclusions for vehicles used in timed or competitive events, but – within reason – friendly track sessions won’t negatively impact that coverage.
The perfect hot hatch may never exist. Some like theirs wild, others prefer to fly under the radar. In Honda’s case, the styling won’t work for everything, but has an undeniable Type R-ness about it.
Arguably, there’s more that could be done inside. A 7.0-inch screen feels a little compact as brands move into the 8.0–10.0-inch infotainment space. The lane-watch camera is clever, but still doesn’t like low light, and would be twice as handy if there were one on the right as well.
Finally, the lack of centre seat seems to take away from the all-rounder appeal of a hot hatch. Most owners may never fill their rear seat to capacity, but that one extra seatbelt could really make a difference.
Realistically, Honda has done exactly what it needed to with this update. The already acclaimed Civic Type R never needed to be reinvented, and the changes made have created a car that’s easier to live with around town or across your favourite challenging road.
It rides and handles with physics-defying adeptness, and while it might still be firm, the compromise isn’t impossible to live with.
Most importantly, though, the Civic Type R is a ridiculously huge amount of fun on a track. Any weaknesses or shortcomings in daily use (and even those are few and far between) are immediately forgiven in the right no-limits environment.
It may be the only Honda to wear the hallowed Type R badge currently, but with a product this good, that’s all it needs.