First Drive Review
Sadly, the Car and Driver time machine was irreparably damaged recently in an attempt to go back to 1982 and uninvent the Cadillac Cimarron. But let’s imagine for a moment it’s still working, and that we can use it to send this brand-new Honda Civic Type R 10 years into the past.
There’s no doubt that the car itself would be a sensation. This is a 300-plus-hp, front-wheel-drive hatchback that’s capable of lapping the Nürburgring Nordschleife in less than eight minutes—and with styling seemingly inspired by the body armor of an Imperial stormtrooper. Yet the R would also have been highly controversial for being turbocharged back when the Honda brand was still practically fetishizing natural aspiration. So the question for 2015 is whether the ends really justify the means.
First we need to make the sad acknowledgement that this is a review of some sweet-tasting forbidden fruit. The Euro-spec Civic Type R won’t be coming to the U.S. soon or ever. But this isn’t just another entry in our continuing series of Awesome Cars that Automakers Deny Us, because Honda will admit that this Type R is dropping some very broad hints about what we can expect from the U.S.-spec version of the next-gen model. Yes, that Type R has already been confirmed for American sale in the near future, and it almost certainly will use the same Ohio-built turbocharged engine.
Bringing us back to the big issue: Is this a good idea? The growing ubiquity of forced induction among small-capacity engines means the idea of a turbocharged Honda isn’t as shocking as it would have been a decade ago, but it still stands out as radically different. Outside Japan, the only turbocharged gasoline engine Honda has ever brought to market was the one fitted to the first-generation Acura RDX. And with so much of the character of earlier Type R models derived from the linearity of their power delivery and their ravenous enthusiasm for revs, the big concern is that this new turbocharged engine is going to be a very blunt weapon in comparison.
The specific output is certainly impressive. A total of 306 horsepower from a 2.0-liter four puts the Civic’s engine just slightly above the brawny, 292-hp version of Volkswagen’s EA888 TSI engine, as fitted to the Audi S3 and the Golf R. Indeed, it practically matches the output of the BMW M235i with two fewer cylinders and 50 percent less displacement. The engine features a small single-scroll turbocharger and a VTEC variable valve-timing system that will overlap exhaust and inlet slightly to reduce turbine lag. Much is made of the engine’s ability to rev to a 7000-rpm redline, with peak power coming online at 6500 rpm, but that ceiling is a full 1000 rpm lower than managed by the last Civic Type R.
The output is shuttled to the front wheels via a standard six-speed manual gearbox—there are no plans for any other transmission option—and a mechanical limited-slip differential. The front suspension struts get separate steering knuckles (similar in principle to the GM HiPer Strut and Ford RevoKnuckle) in a bid to reduce torque steer. Two-stage switchable dampers are also standard, with these and various other dynamic functions falling under the control of a mood-shifting “+R” button that’s claimed to sharpen the Type R for track use.
That comes later, but we make initial acquaintance on the busy streets of the Slovakian capital, Bratislava. And it’s immediately clear the Type R’s dynamic character is nearly as outgoing as its design. The chassis feels impressively pliant when asked to deal with broken city blacktop, but even at low speed the engine feels turbocharged. Very turbocharged. Initial response is keen enough, there’s no lag between pressing the throttle pedal and feeling the engine respond. But there’s then a noticeable pause before the turbo spools up fully. Even with a reasonable number showing on the rev counter there’s a proper one-one-thousand pause before the full boost arrives. There’s lots of torque, of course, not a characteristic that defined any previous Type R, and the gearshift has a predictably nice mechanical action. Honda claims the 1.6-inch throw across the gate is one of the shortest on the market.
There are absolutely no doubts on the performance claims. Having once seen Midnight Express, we stay in close proximity to speed limits when driving anywhere east of Germany, but a less-imaginative colleague from another title reported seeing an indicated 168 mph on a quiet stretch of divided highway. The R drones at cruising speed, with some low-frequency harmonics from the sports exhaust, but once the turbo is spinning the engine pulls solidly all the way to the limiter, the arrival of which is flagged by a sequence of LEDs that light on top of the instrument binnacle.
We get to cross the Austrian border without stopping. The former Iron Curtain is now marked by nothing more than signs and ramshackle customs sheds. And then, shortly afterward, the route takes us onto some proper mountain roads. The Type R’s steering has been set up to make it feel responsive, and the initial turn-in is sharp enough to get us thinking of metaphors involving surgical instruments. It dives toward apexes with just a few degrees of steering input, Honda’s Agile Handling Assist torque-vectoring system also applying light braking pressure to the inner wheel to quicken things up further.
The new front suspension seems to work—despite the abundance of torque, there’s very little torque steer, even over rough surfaces. And as the front tires start to run out of grip, the mechanical LSD can be felt doing its thing and trying to pull the car back onto your chosen line. The brakes work well, the pedal weighting is good and it’s well positioned for heel-and-toe rev-matching. In short, it’s a very proper hot hatch.
But it’s also short on finesse. Neither of the two previous European Civic Type Rs would stand the faintest chance of being able to keep up with this one in a straight fight, but each also offered the chance to revel in both their linear power and the never-grow-bored moment when their VTEC cams shifted to the more aggressive profile. Comparatively, the new car feels brutish, especially in +R mode, which further sharpens the throttle response and turns the dampers up to at least 11.
Honda also lays on some time at the Automotodróm Slovakia Ring and the chance to take the Type R for a few laps. Most of what’s true on road proves equally so on the circuit, although the higher speeds of the track make the engine feel slightly breathless as the limiter approaches. The Type R turns and grips extremely well, the differential and stability-control system working together to fight understeer in the slower turns. We also confirm that cornering lines can be influenced instinctively by easing the throttle pedal. It’s at home here, as its Nürburgring time suggests it should be.
The Type R needs to be seen in the context of Europe’s current crop of similarly powerful megahatches. It’s priced hard against rivals like the Golf R, and in most markets it costs more than the Renault Mégane R.S. 275 that most Euro fanboys will tell you is the current front-drive champion. Hence the need for the powerful turbocharged engine and the importance of that scorching Nordschleife time. You can’t argue with the raw numbers, but the result is a car that lacks some of the fizz that made its predecessors different and special. We leave Slovakia with the suspicion that this Type R might be a better car if it didn’t try quite so hard. That said, we eagerly await its successor’s arrival in America.