Honda gets it. They know that enthusiasts have been rabid for another taste of the Red Badge for years. They also know that they created something of a monster in the first EP3 Civic Type-R, one which would prove incredibly difficult to surpass. And, with a new NSX on the horizon, they need to show the world that driving pleasure is a check-box that their R+D team ticks on day one of the development process.
On this European launch of the car which will carry the Type-R genus forward, Honda were very keen to show just how seriously they’ve taken things. And though this, the UK built Civic is probably very different to the one which American streets will echo to the sound of, it still represents Honda’s global intentions for the brand.
Warning: This is a long one. Settle down, get comfy, enjoy the ride.
This was not a project which Honda have entered into on a whim. The Type-R designation signifies far more than a chip tune and graphics kit. Indeed, this project was sired by the intent of Takanobu Ito, Honda’s CEO, for the Type-R to become famous as the fastest front-wheel drive car in the world. On the launch there was quite a long list of technological advances to run through, but far from being dry and tedious, the presentation was like ear nectar to those of us looking for Good Things From Honda.
For starters, the big news is the adoption of a turbocharger in addition to VTEC, except this time around the operation is reversed, with the clever camshaft positioning electronics doing their thing to maximise valve lift at low revs, e.g when the Turbo hasn’t started its shift yet. With both systems on duty the result is 306hp at 6500 RPM. Moreover, there’s 295 lb-ft of torque to go with it at just 2500 RPM. These are big numbers, but will they ruin the screaming tendencies that Type-Rs are famed for?
We’ll find out soon. As will we about the dual-axis front struts which reduce torque steer by 55%, the adaptive damping system, the ABS-linked Agile Handling Assist, helical-mechanical LSD and the six speed close ratio gearbox with a shift of only 40mm from gear to gear. These geek-friendly ingredients make up a pretty tantalising recipe.
The overall look of the car certainly inspired my inner hooligan to jump straight in and make merry with the accelerator, but I reined myself in and spent a while looking around instead. The Type-R stylists had a head start, this generation Civic is a unique looking little car, quite aggressively shaped for what it is and a go-faster kit was always bound to look good. I’m not a big fan of plastic addenda unless it serves specific purpose, but what we have here is something different. The more you look at it, the more there is to like.
Everything here is functional. We were told that the aero kit on this car, combined with its flat underside, actually does generate downforce, moreso than on any other car in this category. The rear spoiler was developed in conjunction with the Honda World Touring Car Championship team, so its ostentatious, exaggerated form is perfectly excusable.
The stick-on plastic strakes south of that spoiler look terrible enough to obviously have some vital purpose, just as foul-tasting medicine must be good for you. Moving to the front of the car, the preposterous looking vents below the exterior mirrors actually extract warm air from under the hood, maximising internal airflow, consequently reducing the necessary size of the front grille and thus reducing drag. The same can be said for the grilles aft of those slabby, flared front arches.
Suddenly fighter plane analogies make sense. Or cutting-edge sportbikes. In fact, there are echoes of Fireblade in the brake porn lurking behind the front 19″ alloy wheels. Here you’ll find 350mm ventilated and drilled discs, gripped firmly by Brembo four-pot calipers. Stopping shouldn’t be a problem, then.
Right now I’m more interested in starting. The door opens shopping-hatchback wide but the first obstacle to successful entry is the dam-like square section bolster on the seat base. The fabric will probably wear through in short order as the less nimble of arse clamber over it before and after every journey, but once you’re installed the contours of these seats hold you as if they never want to see you leave. I immediately found a perfect, simply perfect driving position, albeit with the seat tracked right back to accommodate my unnecessarily long legs.
The view ahead was, largely, of standard Civic dashboard, with its multitude of separate zones and display screens. Thing is, here, it feels in context. The rev counter is central and straight ahead, the digital speedo is central but further forward, almost like an HUD. It seems to fit with the new persona the car has adopted in Type-R form. As does the steering wheel, which in size, shape and texture comes damn close to perfection. I look around. This looks like a fun place to be.
The engine starts with Civic-like immediacy at a prod of the start button, and settles into an innocuous, even tickover with just a hint of extra resonance over your usual four cylinder hum. Dial up a few more revs and it’s immediately clear that the exhaust has been tuned for things other than low noise. You can certainly hear this thing exhaling. The same is true of the air coming in. Push the go pedal hard, and you will, repeatedly, and there’s a maelstrom of activity vying for aural dominance. And all the noises are being generated by honest, hard-working mechanical apparatus – you can tell this after the first five hundred yards.
You realise that this is no mere go-faster hatchback. A Civic is trained to become a Type-R from a very early age, the way it does things is very different to other cars from its family. Clutch, accelerator, brake, all three pedals are Civic smooth and precise, yet have a new authority. The gearshift, from being the digital switch-box of lesser Civics, is imbued with a new and deliciously mechanical feel. As a clumsy, hamfisted oaf I found imprecise, careless gearshifting to be met by a sensation not unlike bending a bone the wrong way. Furthermore 2nd and 4th, 1st and 3rd are very tightly packed in the gate, a beginner can be excused for ending up landing a gear rather lower than the one he fished for.
Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth was actually inspired by one of the potholes found on Bratislava’s tram-lined avenues, and when the Type-R plummeted into one of them, on reaching the bottom a seismic thud shuddered through the whole structure of the car. The nature of the shock underlined how rigid this car is. There’s no feeling of twist or shimmy, just BANG. This bear evidence to Honda’s claim that car’s twisting moment is been reduced by 18° thanks to use of structural adhesives in vital places.
Initially I was concerned that this was the harbinger of a firm, crashy ride, the kind that pollutes the joy of a road trip in so many self-styled “sporting” cars, but the bumpy ride never materialised. We pushed out of Bratislava and onto the A6 into Austria. These roads are smooth, for sure, but I would still have expected a stiffly set-up pocket rocket to have exhibited a degree of skitter. There was none, all was controlled and ruly. Nor was there an atrocious degree of road noise, though the exhaust was a tad boomy, becoming more so on provocation. My only annoyances were that, due to the high, wedgy waistline, the window frame was too high to perch my elbow, and the armrest was too low so that was no good either. I resorted to having to keep both hands on the wheel instead.
In between the radar traps there was ample opportunity for playing with the throttle, whence the car doesn’t so much accelerate as jump dimensions. It doesn’t matter what speed range / gear combination you’re in, acceleration is either very strong or surreal. This was fun to experience on the motorway, but really came into its own on the twisting roads towards Mannersdorf.
Here the car really came alive. The one thing that we had already got the most out of was the steering, which is quick as you like but never conveys a huge amount of information. Blame modern times for this, it seems steering feedback went out with dial-up modems. It never fails for accuracy, though, point and shoot is something at which the Civic Type-R always excelled. Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Load the Civic up into a corner and it’ll just go round. No fuss, no drama, just the proverbial slot-car directional obedience. I started with caution and gradually raised the stakes to what I thought were unreasonable levels, yet still the car just gripped and went. “You just took that hairpin at 40” said David, my driving partner for the day. I hadn’t even realised my speed, I just did what felt right.
It kept getting better. That unstinting generosity of grip means that speed between corners can be kept high with confidence, and the ferocious engine pick-up means speed can be adjusted upwards at any exaggerated whim. Oh, man, you could do this all day. Fast in, fast through, faster out, faaaaast. For real progress you’ll work through the gears, which is a rewarding experience once you’ve mastered the shift. Get it right and it’s beautifully positive, slotting home with a determined click, and the alloy gearknob feels terrific in the hand, though a firm grip is mandatory lest you slip off and whack your elbow on the centre armrest.
Or just pick a gear and stay there, revelling in the flexibility of the engine. Third is a good chioce; the plentiful low-end torque means bogging down is a non-issue, and there are seven thousand glorious revs to play with. We found ourselves quickly growing more and more confident and taking risks which perhaps we shouldn’t. Slower traffic was dispatched at the twitch of a toe, the flick of a wrist. Queues of cars were shortened to the length of a bicycle.
Later in the day, people mentioned turbo-lag as a bugbear. I can’t say I really noticed it, and if it was present it obviously didn’t give me reason for frustration. If anything, I would have enjoyed a bit of a power step; the feeling of a turbo coming on boost is one of life’s pleasures. I’m sure I felt a bit of a surge, a gentle kick at around 4000rpm, but by the time the needle is in that part of the tach you’re well on the way towards interesting velocities. At any rate, maybe the old “VTEC kicked in, YO” meme needs updating?
At the halfway point we stopped for photos. The car looked better than ever out of the shadows of the hotel garden. The new question was whether to pick red or white. Competition White is the Type-R colour, of course, but I’m rather drawn to this red. It has enough pearl to it to emphasise the details, both subtle and outrageous, that make up the Civic’s complicated form. It’s not short of presence, either, though it’s hard to believe those wheels are really 19 inches across.
If you do overstep the mark with the Civic, the brakes are always on hand to bail you out. They’re astonishing and feel like you could abuse them all day long. These are surely more than fast-road brakes, and if they’re used as judiciously as the throttle, point to point speed across country can be very impressive indeed. Hence the success at the Green Hell. What stood out in this context was that all this riotous entertainment is on tap without any excess of adrenaline, sweat or raised heartbeat. If this sounds boring, it really isn’t. Adrenaline is usually released when you’ve just about got away with something; with the Type-R the limits are so high there just isn’t any question of risk.
On the return journey we relaxed into a cruise at “legal limit plus discretionary margin”. The on-board computer told us that we were sipping petrol at 7 litres per 100km. That’s 40mpg. I tend to be wary of dashboard MPG displays, but Honda’s quoted 38.7mpg combined figure looks to be achievable. On considering that, if we wanted to, we could up that cruise speed beyond 160mph my co-driver and I burst into fits of barely controllable laughter.
The Type-R presents a pretty formidable case for itself. It can DO town driving because it’s a Civic. We never had any doubt that it would be excellent when the going got twisty, and it’s fast. Very fast. And as if it wasn’t already smug enough, it’s economical. But all this morning’s exercise has proven is how very good it is at being a car in the hands of a pair of muppets from the motoring press. In the hands of folk who can actually drive, the possibilities are endless.
Hopefully, this afternoon, people much cleverer than us will help us determine how good it is on a track, where it really matters. In short, how good it is at being a Type-R.
(Full Disclosure: Honda UK flew me by private charter to an impossibly swanky Bratislava hotel and richly dined and watered me. They then handed over the keys… which was by far the best bit)
(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2015)