2017 Honda Civic Type R review

Flashes of brilliance from Honda's front-drive five-door hot hatch, though it's not so easy on the eyes

2017 Honda Civic Type R review

The new Honda Civic Type R will arrive in Australia in October, and customers are already queuing.

Front-drive five-door hot hatch with lively turbo 2.0-litre four and lovely six-speed manual transmission. It’s not pretty, but is quick and well equipped

To find out if the latest Type R is better to drive than it is to look at…

The Ford Focus RS and VW Golf R manual may have all-wheel-drive, but they’re priced like the front-drive Honda Civic Type R. Its closest front-drive competitor is the less powerful, and less expensive, Peugeot 308 GTi 270.

There was a time, long ago, when Honda was unquestionably Japan’s most spirited and daring car maker. There are flashes of brilliance from the new Civic Type R, but not enough of them to make it a completely compelling car.

PLUS: Manual gearbox; mid-range and top-end power; steering; brakes; practicality; equipment
MINUS: Ugly exterior; not nearly as quick off the mark as all-wheel-drive rivals; exhaust drone

THE further you are from the Honda Civic Type R, the better it looks. It’s hard to say exactly how far is far enough. Just keep walking until the details of its designer-frenzy exterior begin to blur…

It’s hard to believe this hot hatch comes from the same company whose studios once turned out the calm and cleanly elegant shape of the 2003 Accord Euro. The new Civic Type R is instead a visually shouty assembly of aesthetic offences.

Honda’s design language may be incoherent gibberish lately, but this hasn’t entirely extinguished the brand’s appeal. More than 250 customers ordered the new Type R even before the official price – $50,990 – was announced.

Maybe the deposit-placers have more faith in Honda’s engineers than disdain for the Civic Type R’s designers. It was engineers, after all, who carved the cornerstone of the company’s reputation. And, what’s more, the new Civic Type R has proved itself quick. A development car running on road-legal tyres recorded a 7 minute 44 second N
ürburgring Nordschleife lap time back in April. It’s the best ever lap time there, claims Honda, by a front-drive car.

Great lap times aren’t a guarantee of all-round greatness, but maybe, just maybe, the Civic Type R engineers got it as right as the car’s designers got it wrong…

The Type R is based on the new Civic hatch that recently went on sale in Australia. But while the regular line-up is produced in Thailand, the hot version is made in England. Honda’s big Swindon factory is, in fact, the only one in the world assembling the Civic Type R. But the USA is where the Civic Type R’s engine is made. The turbocharged and direct-injected 2.0-litre four is from a Honda facility in Ohio. The Anna plant has been building the engine, designed specifically for the Type R, since 2015.

Only minor changes to the engine were made for the new fifth-generation Civic Type R. Power rises (in Europe) by 7kW, mainly because the underfloor layout of the stiffer platform of the new Civic hatch can accommodate a straighter, freer flowing exhaust system. The system ends in a trio of tailpipes. The outer outlets are full-time, while the smaller centre pipe provides a route for exhaust gas only when needed.

While the output of a European Civic Type R engine is 235kW, for Australia the maximum is 228kW. It’s a difference that reflects the poorer quality of fuel stipulated for Australian certification testing. This is why the Australian Civic Type R burns more fuel in the official consumption test.   

Other noteworthy drivetrain changes compared to the fourth-gen Civic Type R include a seven percent shorter final-drive, which pushes the six-speed manual’s ratios a little closer together. The adoption of a fly-by-wire throttle enables a rev-matching system that blips the throttle for smooth downshifts.      

The most important of the chassis upgrades over the regular Civic hatch is a new front suspension design. It delivers different geometry and more stiffness. Some stiffer Type R parts are also installed in the rear multi-link set-up.

There are three-stage adaptive dampers all round. Their behaviour changes according to the driving mode selected; firm Sport is the default on start-up, with softer Comfort or stiff +R just a flick of a centre console switch away. The modes also alter throttle sensitivity and the level of assist delivered by the electric power steering.

The Civic Type R rolls on 20-inch wheels wrapped in hefty 245/30ZR20 Continental SportContact 6 rubber. Big four-piston Brembo calipers bite the Honda’s hefty drilled and ventilated front discs, while the solid rear discs are larger than on the standard Civic.

And that wing isn’t just for looks. It really does generate downforce, apparently.

Clearly confident that the new Civic Type R could cope with repeated spankings, Honda hired the EuroSpeedway Lausitz for the car’s international launch. Situated in the forested flatlands of eastern Germany, not far from Dresden, the place has a 4.3km Grand Prix circuit and a 3.3km tri-oval. We’re using a bit of both…

What joy it is to drive a Honda-made manual again! Quick, slick, and perfectly precise, this is a great gearbox. The metal sphere atop the stick is a treat to touch, too. It doesn’t take long to discover the Civic Type R’s new rev-matching feature is excellent, too. It can be switched off, but it’s hard to think of a reason why you’d want to.

Around the Lausitzring it’s easy to keep the Civic Type R’s engine in its juicy zone between 3000 and 7000rpm. The Lausitzring layout chosen by Honda only requires third, fourth and fifth gears. While the keening, high pitched wail of earlier generations of atmo Type R engines is absent, the turbo 2.0-litre sounds eager and, at the top of the tach, even a little angry.

The broad Continentals chosen for the car are quality rubberware. The Type R’s naturally nose-heavy weight distribution demands a lot from the pair on the front, but their turn-in bite and drive-out grip is strong through the track’s longer corners, though the latter is aided by a good limited-slip differential and torque-vectoring-by-braking-the-inside-wheel tech.

Cycling through the Comfort, Sport and +R modes in succession is instructive. The softest mode is reasonably crisp, but switching to Sport adds some weight to the steering and brings an appreciable increase in throttle responsiveness. Going to +R brings more of the same. Regardless of the level of steering assist, there’s useful feedback from the quick, 2.1 turns lock-to-lock rack.

Careful throttle management is the key to clean and speedy cornering, though there are occasional hints of playful lift-off oversteer. The Brembo brakes show no sign of wilting under serious pressure. The Honda is reaching more than 200km/h on the pit straight, and a heavy hit on the brakes is needed for the corner at its end.

Heading back to Dresden on sometimes unrestricted autobahn, the Civic Type R reaches an even higher speed. A gap in the traffic presents an irresistible opportunity to squeeze the throttle to the stop in sixth. The Honda leaps forward and the speedometer is reading 240km/h and still rising when the time comes to back out of it. The Type R’s stability at this speed is impressive.

It’s in city traffic that the Type R is less persuasive. The engine feels lethargic below 2500rpm, where it’s below the boost zone. Ride quality in Comfort mode is bearable rather than brilliant and Sport is only just tolerable.

Hot hatches are supposed to be sensible as well as speedy. Though the new Civic hatch is much longer than the car it replaces, the interior package doesn’t feel especially spacious, especially in the rear seat.

And while the steering wheel and deeply bolstered front seats hit the right hot hatch notes, the overall quality of the very well equipped interior doesn’t reach the heights that Honda once regularly achieved.

There was a time when Type R stood for something that you could find nowhere else; high-revving naturally aspirated engines that no-one else would dare build, in cars that few could rival for quality. This ain’t the case with the new Civic Type R.

There are better to drive hot hatches with turbo four-cylinder engines than the Honda, some of them with better interiors and all of them with better exterior designs. The way the Civic Type R looks is probably the least of its problems.

At it's heart
Yuji Matsumochi, the engineer who led development of the new Civic Type R’s equally new turbo 2.0-litre four, says the engine’s basics were inspired by the non-turbo 2.0-litre four of Honda’s 1999 S2000. He says that engine’s basic dimensions, including its square 86x86mm bore and stroke, were also perfect for the high-revving turbo Honda wanted for the Civic Type R. But everything else, says Matsumochi, had to be changed. The new turbo engine is a completely clean-sheet design, he says.   

Filling in the gaps
So why did the previous Civic Type R never come to Australia? Timing is the simple answer. The fourth-generation of Honda’s hot hatch went into production quite late in the life of the Civic five-door it was based on. So late, in fact, that it had a very short two-year life. Honda Australia could have imported the car, but local leadership decided they would prefer to wait for the following generation, which would be ready at almost the same time as the 10th-generation Civic hatch.

Model:  Honda Civic Type R
Engine:  1996cc in-line 4-cylinder, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max Power:  228kW @ 6500rpm
Max Torque:  400Nm @ 2500-4500rpm
Transmission:  6-speed manual
L/W/H:  4557/1877/1434mm
Wheelbase:  2699mm
Weight:  1393kg
Economy:  8.8L/100km 
Price:  $50,990
On sale:  October


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