2015 Honda Civic Type R Euro-spec first drive: Can you handle Honda’s turbocharged halo hatch?

2015 Honda Civic Type R Euro-spec photos Photo 1

We’ll miss sky-high redlines, but we could definitely get used to this side of Honda

What is it?

With apologies to the Civic Si, it’s been ages since Honda built something about which its American devotees could get truly excited — at least where four-wheeled vehicles are concerned. Sure, Honda will sell you a street-legal MotoGP bike if you’ve got a spare $184,000 and a somewhat optimistic assessment of your riding abilities, but the S2000 went out of production years ago, and it’s been eons since we had the Integra Type R.

Honda fanboys could be forgiven for feeling a bit neglected, but there is hope: The automaker has promised to bring the Civic Type R, which our fellow gearheads in Europe and Japan have been enjoying for years, to the United States.

This 2015 Honda Civic Type R five-door, however, is not that U.S.-bound vehicle. 

The Civic Type R that will eventually make its way to our shores will be based on the all-new 2016 Civic arriving later this year (we don’t expect the Type R variant until, say, 2017 or so). But that doesn’t mean the current model isn’t a good taste of what’s in store for the future of Honda performance, so we jumped at the chance to give the Euro-spec car a shot in Slovakia.

A casual glance at the spec sheet should make even those with no particular allegiance to Honda take note: It’s not just that this is a Civic producing 306 hp from the factory — though do let that one sink in — it’s that it gets its power from an Ohio-built 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four. Yes, Honda has finally gone turbo; a few ultra-cute oddball 1980s kei-cars notwithstanding, this is a huge departure for a company famous for its rev-happy naturally aspirated powerplants. And it’s not a change that we’re totally comfortable with, yet.

2015 Honda Civic Type R turbocharged engine under hood

To make up for that radical change of agenda, the rest of the Civic Type R is traditional hot  hatch. While the Ford Focus RS is going all-wheel drive, the Civic sticks to just two driven wheels: the front ones, with a limited-slip differential squeezed in between.

Dual-axis front struts reduce steering-axis inclination, and thus torque steer; additionally, left and right driveshafts are rigidity-balanced. All in all, Honda claims, torque steer is down 55 percent compared to a stock Civic. The only transmission is a six-speed manual.

If you haven’t already noticed, the Civic Type R sports a body kit that makes the Subaru WRX STI look like a sleeper. You’re going to love it or hate it, or maybe both in equal measure — depending on the viewing angle and our mood, we could go either way. Honda claims all of it, from the front splitter to the side skirts to the rear diffuser to the absurd rear wing, is both functional and necessary to keep the car grounded at its top speed of 167 mph.

The interior is built around an extremely well-bolstered driver’s seat and a chunky, flat-bottomed steering wheel with a red leather strip serving as the requisite 12 o’clock indicator. Beyond that, it’s probably the nicest Civic we’ve been in; the Euro-spec dash is markedly cleaner than today’s U.S.-market Civic’s, and it benefits from the new touchscreen-based head unit that’s found on the HR-V and the Pilot.

2015 Honda Civic Type R interior Euro spec

What’s it like to drive?

Honda has always been at its best when building cars (and motorcycles) around exceptional engines — glorious, naturally aspirated engines that don’t even begin to wake up until around 4,000 rpm.

If this 2.0-liter turbo is a taste of what’s to come, there’s going to be a period of adjustment for the Honda faithful. For one, there’s near-immediate torque — 295 lb-ft of it — from just 2,500 rpm. What’s more, this motor doesn’t soar to the screaming rpms of its predecessors. Peak output is at 6,500 and it redlines at a mere 7,000. Don’t get us wrong: It’s not unpleasant by any stretch. But it is different.

Extreme boy-racer looks aside, the car feels well-suited to the sort of daily driving in which a generally law-abiding citizen might partake. Honda says the Civic Type R’s rigidity is up 18 percent compared to a stock Euro Civic five-door (gained, interestingly enough, by gluing body parts together rather than welding them), but it’s not too much to live with on Europe’s relatively smooth roads. Fortunately, it’s nimble enough to dodge spine-wrecking potholes.

The motor plays nicely with the exceptionally crisp short-throw six-speed, and you’ll never have to work to access this car’s power. While we did miss the old-fashioned naturally aspirated soundtrack, the dramatic whoosh of the turbocharger’s electronically actuated waste gate was an addictive alternative, if not quite a substitute.

Torque steer is indeed almost nonexistent, and all other onboard technologies work as promised — in a particularly tight set of switchbacks, we swore we could feel the car’s Agile Handling Assist system using the brakes to induce rotation.

2015 Honda Civic Type R exterior rear diffuser

Yet this is a car that packs more performance potential than any average driver will know what to do with. Punch the R+ button located just to the left of the steering wheel and throttle response is enhanced; power-steering assist is dialed back; the adaptive-damper suspension system gets 30 percent stiffer; stability control is adjusted. And, crucially, the instrument cluster takes on a red glow to remind you that you’re in Battle Mode.

For better or for worse, the Civic Type R is impossible to drive at anything approaching its limit without finding yourself in flagrant violation of local traffic laws. It was honed on the Nurburgring, after all — again, for better or for worse.

So we followed up our road driving with a few hours at the Slovakiaring. Unburdened by speed limits, and with no agricultural vehicles to look out for, we could focus on the car’s handling as we whipped through the track’s 14 turns: Very neutral (once you know what to expect from the AHA and stability control systems), with predictable understeer. You have to do something really stupid for this car to bite you, and for that reason we get the sense that it would be a great car to learn the ropes on. It offers plenty of fun for a track-day rookie, but there’s tons of dormant performance for a more experienced driver to tap.

And in competent hands, the Civic Type R can go like hell right out of the factory. If a couple of hot laps with a pro driver at the wheel were any indication, it seems to relish tire-shredding, gear-jamming abuse. Incredibly, the Brembo front brakes never seemed to fade; we guess those ducts and vents really do work. Nothing under the hood melted or caught on fire after an afternoon of punishment, so far as we could tell.

A race track may seem like a funny place for a bone-stock Honda Civic, but it seems slightly less funny once you’ve seen and felt what the Type R can do.

2015 Honda Civic Type R rear 3-4

Do I want one?

Unless you’re planning on packing up and moving overseas, that’s an entirely academic question. Though we don’t know if it will be a coupe, a sedan or a hatch, the Civic Type R we will eventually get won’t look anything like this. So a better question is, perhaps: Does the 2015 Civic Type R bode well for the future of Honda performance?

We’re going to go with yes.

On its own, this car is a somewhat bizarre but ambitious addition to the Honda lineup. It wants to be a halo car, a trackable daily driver that takes things a step or two further than any other car to wear the Civic Type R nameplate. But its brand-new turbocharged motor, a hugely significant piece of tech for Honda, has been stuffed into a model that’s been on the market for several years — one that will presumably be swept away once the upcoming 2016 Civic arrives.

Despite all that, it’s still an entirely credible, high-performing, thoroughly modern hot hatch.

If you’d asked an American Honda geek what he wanted in a Civic Type R, he probably would have described an edgier, more powerful Civic Si. This is a different beast entirely — and Honda still has a few years to refine the formula before it unleashes its successor on our shores.

We suspect it will be well worth the wait.

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