Honda is quite the expert when it comes to extracting big entertainment value from cars with comparatively little power. Even its flagship model, the S2000, offers less power than most of its rivals, yet in terms of sheer driving thrills, it possibly has the measure of all of them.
Now, with the new Honda Civic Type R, the Japanese brand is bringing its unique approach to the fiercely contested hot hatch segment, which currently is dominated by far more powerful machines using forced induction. Can it make up for its lack of firepower by offering more driving fun?
Edgy designWhen images of Honda's current Civic emerged for the first time the world was shocked. The car’s dramatically sculpted body features lots of sharp angles and flat surfaces, reminding some of stealth technology. In Type R form, the appearance is even more menacing.
Available in three-door shape only, the Type R is very easy to spot. It rides low on its striking 18-inch alloy wheels. The tailgate spoiler cuts rear vision almost exactly in half. In front, the full-width glass "grille" of the five-door model makes way for black mesh item with a red-backed Honda badge. The aggressively sculpted side sills and rear bumper/diffuser with triangular exhaust outlets round off what is visually a pretty hardcore package.
The interior continues the theme, with bold curves and slashes used to group and separate the various control interfaces. Just like the sedan, it uses a two-tier instrument layout, with the digital display at the top putting the current speed right in the line of vision, essentially doubling as a heads-up display. Reinforcing the theme of aggression, there's a lot of crimson in the cabin - the carpets, even, as well as a red starter button, inserts on the seats and instrument backlighting. The aluminium and carbon-fibre trim inserts are almost unnoticeable by comparison.
Spacious and well-equippedBased on a slightly modified Jazz platform, the Civic is a cleverly packaged car with lots of interior space. You'd never say it by looking at its edgy three-door body, but rear legroom is actually very impressive, and the boot is big, too. Unfortunately, it also offers a Jazz-like seating position, which is a bit too high for hot hatch requirements. There is not enough downward adjustment on offer.
In terms of standard specification, the Honda Civic Type R springs another surprise. It is no stripped-out street racer, being packed with six airbags, a comprehensive audio system, climate control, cruise control and electric everything. There's also a feeling of solidity and quality about the Type R's cabin fittings that is deeply impressive - it never rattled during our test term and all the controls work with well-oiled slickness.
Lacking in power?Of course, the Civic's solidity and luxury features do come at a cost. This is quite a heavy car, with a weight of nearly 1.5 tonnes. Now factor in the relatively low power and torque figures (148 kW and 193 Nm) and you can understand why some fanatics have been debating the Type R's hot hatch credentials even before driving it. It gets even more worrying, in fact... That torque figure is developed at a heady 5 600 rpm, pointing to a rev-happy engine that is likely to be comparative flat at low engine speeds.
Happily, this is not really the case. Honda's clever engine boffins have worked their magic on the company's legendary V-TEC system, among other things, and the result is a linear power delivery that is at odds with the claimed outputs. The Type R feels rather strong from low-down, and the power builds progressively and smoothly as the revs rise to the dizzy 8 500 rpm rev limiter.
Keep your wits about you, and you may even be competitive with a Golf GTI or Focus ST during a robot grand prix. But it does take some practice to come close to matching the stated 0-100 km/h time of 6.6 seconds. The engine is coupled with a six-speed manual transmission that reminds very strongly of the unit fitted to the S2000.
In short, this means it is magnificent, the best in this class by far, and probably the best transmission on the market, full stop. Shifts are executed via a stubby lever with shiny round head that falls perfectly to hand. The lever slides through the gates like a hot knife through butter, and yet never feels anything but mechanically indestructible.
AerodynamicsTorsion beam rear suspension. This little technical detail has been debated to death on V-TEC and Honda forums the world over. It's understandably controversial, seeing as Honda offers a multi-link design on the Civic sedan, and most new-generation hot hatches are moving to this technically sophisticated set-up that dramatically improves a suspension system's ability to cope with lateral and longitudinal forces at the same time. Honda, however, believes it has done enough fiddling to ensure a stable rear-end. The front and rear tracks are wider and there has been plenty of stiffening between the suspension turrets.
Dive into a corner and first impressions are favourable. Firstly, the steering is superb, even though it features electrical assistance. The weighting is consistent and the response precise. There's also superb front-end grip and this really allows the driver to build confidence for faster entry speeds. But unfortunately some of that confidence may be lost upon exit.
The rear end feels rather loose, and bumps that wouldn't trouble a car with multi-link, do indeed flummox the Type R's torsion beam to some extent. Of course, experienced drivers may relish the challenge of a car that is somewhat unpredictable at the rear...
VerdictThe Honda Civic Type R has a lot going for it. It certainly looks the part, is very refined and even faster than expected. That said, its charms are not as easily accessible as in its rivals. You have to concentrate and work hard to extract maximum performance, and you have to focus and be patient in the corners. For some, this will mean it is too much hard work, while others will appreciate the challenge. You know in which camp you are...
We don't like:
Comparative lack of power
"Loose" rear end
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, petrol
Power: 148 kW @ 7 800 rpm
Torque: 193 Nm @ 5 600 rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual
Wheels: 18-inch alloy
Top speed: 235 km/h
0-100 km/h: 6.6 seconds
Fuel economy: 9.3 litres/100 km
For about the same amount of money the Astra offers significantly more power (177 kW), massive torque (320 Nm) and scintillating performance. It does, however, lack finesse, and it's not as engaging as a Focus ST.
A regular winner of comparative tests, the Focus ST's charismatic five-pot delivers strong power and torque figures, and a lovely sound. Dynamically, the Focus strikes a fine balance between agility and comfort. Interior somewhat of a let-down.
Similarly powerful, but packing more torque, the Golf GTI posts similar performance figures to the Civic but is the more tractable car. Also offers a multi-link suspension design, which results in superb handling without sacrificing ride comfort.