Honda have been out of the hot hatch game for five whole years, ever since the Civic Type R succumbed to emissions regulations and was put out to pasture. Unless you have the attention span of a Californian Redwood five years is a long time, but in the automotive world it can seem like decades. The market has rushed ahead and for a hot hatch to be considered a serious contender it needs over 300PS and 350Nm, figures that the Type R could only dream of.
The problem for Honda is that those figures require turbocharging to extract the power while keeping nasty emissions at a level that Eurocrats consider acceptable. That went against Honda’s love of naturally aspirated, high-revving engines, but with the last Civic lagging behind even at launch, something had to be done.
So there are big changes afoot as the new 2015 Civic Type R steps into the fray with 310PS and 400Nm. Gone is the fizzy engine and 9,000rpm redline, say hello to a turbocharger, low-range torque and a 7,000rpm redline.
More Power, More Torque, More Speed
The last Civic Type R boasted 200PS and 193Nm from its 2.0-litre VTEC. 62mph arrived in 6.6 seconds and top speed was 146mph. The new model manages 310PS, 400Nm, 5.7 seconds and 167mph from the same 2.0-litre capacity. See the difference?
OK, so we lose that stratospheric rev limit, and the engine replaces its banshee wail for whooshes, snorts and whistles, but in terms of pure performance there’s no argument – turbocharging works. If you don’t like it, tough. Blame the regulators and go look for FN2 Civics on Auto Trader.
The new engine is the most powerful and advanced to appear in any Type R product, even the legendary NSX, and also the first turbocharged car to bear the red ‘H’. The VTEC system remains but Honda have tuned the engine to behave as much like the old engine as they can.
That 7,000rpm limit is high for a turbocharged engine and it requires a reversal of the VTEC logic to make it work. Where VTEC used to change the cam profile for more fuel delivery at high revs, now it does that at low revs to compensate for turbo lag. Then, as the turbo kicks in, the cams take on a normal profile.
There’s still a hint of lag. Peak torque arrives at 2,500rpm and if you catch the engine napping at tickover speeds it can take a second or two to wake up, but when it does – BANG! The power comes with an increasing ferocity that makes it feel very different to the flat torque delivery of rival engines.
Function Over Form
There have been mutterings that this new Civic Type R has the sort of face only its Mother could love. As long as she put a paper bag on its head first. Utter nonsense.
In a world of increasingly subtle designs we need someone to stand out from the crowd. When even the SEAT Leon Cupra and upcoming Focus RS look remarkably like the cooking models you know things are starting to get a bit dull.
Not that the Type R’s extrovert design is simply an effort to stand out. The size and shape of the big rear wing, splitter, undertray and diffuser are all dictated by aerodynamics and the quest to make the Type R faster and more stable at high speed. The wings, scoops and grilles have all been carefully tested in Honda’s wind tunnel at Sakura, Japan, the same motor sports facility where Honda design their F1 engines.
Look behind the wide front arches and you find vents to allow hot air to escape from the engine bay and around the wheels, reducing pressure and allowing more cool air to enter the engine bay. Not only that, they reduce turbulence around the wheels and help the air flow more freely down the Type R’s flanks.
Look just below the rear lights and you’ll find a little winglet tacked onto the side, there to tidy up the flow of air as it passes behind the Civic. Look up to the curvy wing and you find that it’s more than a place to prop your can of Red Bull and bacon sarnie, it produces genuine negative lift (i.e. downforce). All dictated by function, not fashion, which is a lot more than can be said for some big-winged hot hatches.
It’s not just the exterior that’s wild. The interior takes the Civic a step further with red highlights throughout. Again, the Type R stands out from a crowd who seems to think that making everything black, from carpet to roofliner, is the way to make a car feel ‘sporty’. Give me a splash of colour any day.
The two-tier dash remains, digital speedo up high close to your line of sight, flanked by a pair of F1-style shift lights that go through green, yellow then red before flashing angrily as you reach the limiter. It’s all part of the race-car drama. To the right of the speedo sits a multi-function screen that includes G-meter and dials for throttle and brake input. Perfect for a trip to the shops or impressing your passengers.
The instruments are backlit in white and are easy to read, but press the +R button mounted to the left of the speedo and they take on a crimson hue, matching the colouring of that famous red ‘H’ on the grille.
The Civic’s 19-inch wheels are wrapped in a set of bespoke Continental tyres, the same grippy rubber that allowed it to snatch the Nordschleife FWD record from the Megane 275 Trophy. They’re ideal for track-based fun, and on the scorching tarmac of the Slovakia Ring they proved more than adequate when asked to cope with the Type R’s prodigious power and torque and the inputs of an excitable driver.
All you need to do is press the +R button to unleash the full potential of the Type R. Sharper throttle response, torque remapped for top-end kick, heavier steering, and dampers stiffened by 30% for more control. This is where the first half of the ‘race car for the road’ tagline can be felt.
The Type R tears down the straights with enthusiasm, the gear changes coming thick and fast as you try to keep up with the engine’s appetite for revs. Hard on the brakes for the corners and you can feel the rear go light, squirming gently as the speed drops, and then it settles, allowing the Type R to turn in quickly and decisively.
Through the bends it’s flat and composed, massively reassuring, and you can get back on the power early and with confidence as the diff gets to work. You can provoke the rear into playful sides if you have the space and talent to try, but for the most part this is a car that flatters the driver.
It’s one of the best of the current breed of hot hatches if you plan to do any track days. In fact, that’s what +R mode is all about – turning the Type R up to 11 on the dial so you can have some real fun.
Soothing The Savage Beast
Take the Civic off the track, disengage +R mode, and you find that it settles down significantly. The smooth tarmac of our Austrian test route may have flattered the Civic’s ride but it was only in the rough streets of Bratislava that the firm suspension felt at all harsh. It won’t rival a Golf GTI for comfort but it is better than a Megane on a Cup chassis.
The Civic flows beautifully at a fast road pace, the steering feeling sharp, the front wheels keyed in perfectly to the road surface, the short-throw gearbox snapping delightfully from gear to gear. The Civic lets you get into a rhythm, not fighting you but working with you, with the differential doing a great job of maximising torque to tarmac without kicking back at the wheel. If you’re familiar with the Drexler differentials fitted to Vauxhall’s VXRs you’d be amazed at how civilised a mechanical diff can really be.
The exhaust can be a bit intrusive at motorway speeds, but apart from that the Type R is reasonably comfortable as a cruiser. Considering its on-track abilities Honda have struck a good compromise between handling and ride quality, testament to the adaptive dampers fitted as standard.
Top End Of The Market
At £29,995 the Type R is pitched at the top end of the market but that price is backed up by the performance on offer. Obvious rivals include the Volkswagen Golf R and Audi S3, both of which cost more and are less involving to drive, while the Megane 275 and Leon Cupra 280 are cheaper but lose out on power and pace. Ford’s Focus ST is comprehensively outgunned (although the upcoming all-wheel drive RS should be a worth adversary) and the Astra VXR seems inert in comparison.
Standard kit is generous – 7-inch touchscreen with DAB radio and Bluetooth, climate control, keyless entry and start, cruise control, speed limiter, heated mirrors and LED headlights. Honda’s City-Brake Active system is also there to reduce the chance of low-speed shunts.
Upgrade to GT spec (an extra £2,300) and you get auto lights and wipers, auto-dimming mirror, parking sensors all round, dual-zone climate, and the premium sound system with Garmin sat-nav. On top of that you get the full Driver Assistance Safety package, with blind spot and cross traffic monitors, forward collision and lane departure warnings, high beam support and traffic sign recognition.
Keen Type R spotters will be able to spot the GT thanks to red highlights around the wheels, diffuser and front splitter, but there’s no badging to highlight it’s an upgraded model.
There are five exterior colours to choose from. Milano Red and Championship White were included on the launch with Polished Metal (silver), Crystal Black pearlescent and Brilliant Sporty Blue (yes, that’s its real name) available to order.
Practically speaking the Type R is just like any other Civic – a five door hatchback (no three door option) with a generous 487 litres of boot space, Honda’s flip-up ‘Magic Seats’, and reasonable head and leg room for rear passengers.
Resetting The Bar
Have Honda managed to beat the all-conquering Megane? On the Nordschleife, yes, by almost four seconds. In the real world? Also a yes, but it depends which Megane you’re looking at.
The Type R is a better all-rounder than a Megane 265 on a Cup chassis, and the extra cost is offset by the performance advantage. Specify the Megane in 275 Trophy spec with sticky Michelin rubber and Ohlins dampers and you’ll have a better drive on road and track but suddenly the Megane looks very expensive at over £32k. That makes the Type R seem all the more impressive – you can access its full and impressive range of abilities without resorting to expensive options. The rest of the competition barely gets a look-in.
Honda have made sure that the performance bar is now firmly set above 300PS. Anything less is inadequate and the Type R will be a tough act to follow. One thing is for sure, we’re in for a treat as the competition scrabble to keep up!
It also means that the Type R name has returned from five years in the wilderness with a fire in its belly. Having sampled what Honda’s engineers have achieved with a humble hot hatch it makes the return of the NSX (due later this year) a truly enticing prospect.[table “73” not found /]