Honda’s fabled Type R brand is something that must be handled with care. Not the cars themselves, of course – they’re so robust they could grate parmesan at thirty feet with a single menacing flash of the headlights – but the premise: that ‘R’ stands for ‘Racing’. Or ‘Really Fast’. Or ‘RaaaaaarrrrRRRRGGHH!’. Something like that.
So it’s a badge that gets glued only to the most special, the most exciting, the most finely honed road cars that the company produces. These aren’t cars designed for chauffeuring your grandmother to the Lyons Corner House (although they’ll happily and politely do that too) – they’re for dominating apices, shrugging off braking points, laughing in the face of camber changes. They’re the best of the best, in the most Top Gun way possible.
The Civic Type R, then, is a hallowed beast. The original EK9 that appeared in 1997 set the template for all that was to follow: red badges offset by glowing Championship White paint, hand-ported head, helical LSD, stripped out soundproofing, red seats, titanium gearknob… it had a bonkers specific output that made grown men tremble at the beauty of its engineering magnificence.
The EP3 of 2001 built on this splendour. Brilliantly (for us), it was made in Swindon as a UK-specific model, and it’s widely credited as being one of the finest front wheel-drive chassis of all time.
The third-gen Civic Type R is where it got a bit complicated, as Europe got the FN2 hatchback (y’know, the one with all the triangles that looks like a spaceship) while Japan had the entirely different FD2 saloon. But let’s not get bogged down in geekish minutiae. The latest iteration of the breed is the FK2 which, as you might imagine, has been hyped up quite a bit. And having driven it, I can tell you with some boyish excitement that it’s just as stellar as you might hope. Like, supernaturally good.
With snapper Chris Frosin in tow, I made for Bratislava in Honda’s private jet (…is a sentence my inner child is thrilled to reel off, despite making me sound like a total ponce – I don’t care, private jet, PRIVATE JET), to be met by a fleet of fresh new FK2 Type Rs – half in Championship White, half in Milano Red. Naturally, we went with a white one. Hell, I was raised on Gran Turismo, I’ve been (virtually) driving this bloodline for generations, it would be wrong to have it any other way.
With the nose pointed toward the Austrian border, I made merry with the throttle to see what was what.
Now, certain grumpy killjoys will tell you from behind the safety of their keyboards that forced induction is the death knell of the Type R brand. I can tell you with some fervour that this is a bucketful of cobblers. The new Type R may be the first such car to feature a turbo, but it’s actually all the better for it. Sure, the redline’s a bit lower than previous generations, but it’ll still howl round to 7,000rpm, where the needle seems happiest, and that little whistlin’ snail provides the kind of shove that, twenty years ago, would have had supercar drivers reaching for the nerve tonic.
You don’t have to worry about turbo lag either – what infinitesimal soupçon exists is more than compensated for by the 2.0-litre motor’s low-down torque. And anyway, the VTEC (Honda’s interpretation of going to Ludicrous Speed in Spaceballs) is variable, and comes in surprisingly low down. The upshot of all this is that the FK2 Type R is really bloody fast, all the bloody time.
Which is a good thing, of course. Life’s too short to drive dull cars, you should have something that makes every journey an event and an adventure. (Although, if you need to justify your purchase decisions to a spouse, bank manager or personal demon, you can always fall back on the fact that this car can also return 40mpg+ if you behave, as well as having a vast boot and ISOFIX points in the rear. So it’s a proper grown-up’s car too.)
But enough of these effusive ejaculations. You were promised a nerd’s guide by the title, and a nerd’s guide you shall have. Here, in a handy little nutshell that I’ve already opened for you so you don’t need to find the nutcrackers, is the new Honda Civic Type R:
Honda knows a thing or two about bolting a screamer together, and this 2.0-litre turbo VTEC example represents the culmination of years of surprising valvetrains and revving to the sky. It’s also, as previously highlighted, the focal point of much ire for the diehard VTEC fanatics who get really competitive about revs and don’t want to concede a single solitary rpm.
These naysayers lack vision. It’s not just the fact that everyone’s going turbo these days by emissions-led necessity (even Ferrari and Porsche are getting in on this game) that’s informed Honda’s decision. It actually all stemmed from the Type R development team’s awareness of how well various Japanese aftermarket tuners were getting on with turbocharging the FN2 Civic. They rolled the dice on the new turbo and the gamble’s paid off. A few noses out of joint pale in comparison to the engine’s astonishing power.
Seriously, it’s weirdly good – a turbo motor that’s eager to rev out stratospherically, with sufficient torque to fill in the gaps; Honda claims a top speed of 167mph (in a Civic, for crying out loud!) and a 0-62mph time of 5.7s. On the launch, a certain British magazine brought some timing gear along and actually figured it at 5.3s. Snakes alive.
It’s got comfortably north of 300bhp, and all the torque comes in at just 2500rpm. That’s the kind of physics that would make Faraday weep.
Oh, and you can only get it with a manual gearbox. This makes me very happy indeed. Proper car.
All of this otherworldly horsepower would be pointless if you were just spinning it all away through the wheel that had the least traction, of course. And hot hatch fans will undoubtedly remember the launch of the Ford Focus RS back in 2002, when all the contemporary road tests agreed that ‘bloody hell, this torque-steers a bit,’ as journalists emerged blinking from cornfields, trying to work out how they’d got there from the road that’s on the other side of a rather dense hedge.
Thankfully, Honda is on top of this. The Type R has a sodding great LSD to make sure all the power’s in the right place. But the best thing about it is that it’s not annoyingly intrusive. I tried my very hardest to break the limits of logic with the Type R, and on the rare occasions that I did manage to force it into a smidge of understeer, the diff just pulled it back into line and the thing carried on. Not in a wrenching-the-wheel-about way, just as if it was saying ‘Come on now, sir, we really ought to be pressing on’. Magical. It’s as if Jeeves is under there with a hefty spanner.
This power delivery and unwillingness to understeer are aided by some pretty natty suspension tech. The Dual Axis Front Suspension System does something clever with angles and triangulation and, er, diagonal lines – it’s complicated, ask Honda – while the adaptive dampers work very cleverly indeed to keep the car planted. I’ll be honest, I was taking the mickey with it a bit, trying to unsettle the thing, but it just wouldn’t come undone. Frosin and I found a section of tight hairpins up a steep hill and he leapt into the bushes with his camera while I drove up and down, over and over, as fast as the damn thing would go; I was trying to see where it’d come unstuck, as well as provide some suitably leaning cornering angle shots for the snapper’s lens. But, weirdly, it just doesn’t lean – it corners totally flat. How on Earth is it doing that?!
Witchcraft, that’s how. It’ll let you playfully wag the tail a little if you fancy, but on the whole, it just wants to get to the horizon as quickly and dramatically as possible, like some kind of lascivious cyborg.
All of that suspension trickery is neatly augmented by a very clever aero package. While it may look like there’s a lot going on visually, every bit of external addenda is necessary to keep the Type R sucked to the road. Developed with Honda’s WTCC team, the spoilers, flat floor and suchlike work together to create genuine negative lift. That rear spoiler’s blade may look a little odd at first glance, but the reason the leading edge is angled upwards is to aid airflow off the roof. Those various vents at the rear of the front wings? They help with cooling, sucking the hot air out of the engine bay, making it all more efficient, and this also has an aerodynamic advantage – the air flows through, rather than just filling up and turning into a brick wall of drag.
We tested this aerodynamic effect as hard as we could. Chris wanted to find a jump so that we could get photos with all four wheels off the ground. But we just couldn’t get the thing to leave the Tarmac, the aero is astonishing. Honda is billing the Type R as ‘a race car for the road’, and there’s no hyperbole in that. Aside from the fact that it has rear seats and no roll cage, obviously.
Oh. My. GOD. You think you’ve tried good brakes? Have a cheeky swig of what the Type R’s got hidden in its hip flask, it’ll alter your perceptions forever.
What we’re looking at, in essence, is a set of vast Brembo four-pots at the front clamping 350mm discs. Three hundred and fifty millimetres! It’s absurd. The evening before the launch, a number of the grown-up journos were scoffing at how the rear brakes were so puny in comparison and it must be inherently unbalanced, but I’m pretty sure I saw some of them actually eating their hats the next day. The Type R’s brakes are so good, they could genuinely ruck up the road like a poorly secured rug.
That complex of hairpins we found was an excellent test. Having pounded up and down that winding hill, as fast and hard as I could push the lairy monster, the brakes were stinking mightily. We decided to stop for a bit and let them cool down, pretending to have at least some semblance of mechanical sympathy. But you know what? They never faded, not even a tiny bit. I mentioned this to a race instructor later on as we prepared to unleash the Type R on the mighty Slovakia Ring. "Yes," he said, "we've found that with the demo cars here too. Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden have been giving these cars hell here for days, and it's a punishing circuit, but the brakes just will not fade. They're incredible. And I'm not from Honda, so I don't have to say that." I later went out for a ride with Shedden, and can confirm that he wasn’t giving those brakes any quarter. But they didn’t mind a bit.
The red stuff
You’ve got to have red stuff on a Type R. Because it’s a Type R. You’ll have spotted the red badges, of course, and there’s also red bucket seats, red seatbelts, red brake calipers, red pinstripes around the wheel rims, red steering wheel detail, the red cam cover, the red mist that descends every time you bury the throttle into the bulkhead… oh yes, and the dials turn red when you press the +R button.
The +R button
What’s the +R button, you say? Oh, I’m glad you asked. You see, for some people it’s not enough to have VTEC, and a turbo, and the aerodynamic package of a Touring Car, and galactic brakes that could pull the moon out of its orbit and bring it smashing down into Central Europe, and a suspension setup so cunning that it could out-QI Stephen Fry. No, some people just have to take an extra step into madness. This button is for them.
When you press this naughty little circle, the engine’s torque-mapping shifts to a more aggressive and performance-oriented curve. Even more performance-oriented than before, if you can imagine such a thing. Throttle response is heightened. The power steering is slackened off to give you a bit more weight. The dampers all puff up their chests to become 30% stiffer. And what happens when you’re in the +R zone? Well, to return to that Spaceballs analogy, everything goes to plaid. It’s just loopy. Tighter, firmer, stiffer, quicker, sharper, lots of words that end in –er. Excitinger, is that one? Yeah, let’s go with that.
The GT Pack
Phew. That all got a bit sweaty for a moment. Let’s take a look at something a bit soberer and logical shall we, while we all fan ourselves with newspapers and do things with stiff brandies?
The GT Pack is, in the most literal way, an option to upgrade the hellstorm of fury that is the Civic Type R into an amenable, continent-munching Grand Tourer. For a modest sum, your car is lavishly furnished with an integrated Garmin sat-nav, auto headlights, auto wipers, parking sensors, a really fancy stereo, dual-zone climate control, lane departure warning, collision warning, blind spot information (which flashes in the wing mirrors, very cool), traffic sign recognition, and all sorts of other gadgetry to make the car all modern and flash. And it’ll still do 167mph, and corner like a forklift, and handle like a laser beam in a vacuum, and rearrange the architecture of your face with its scenery-pummelling acceleration. It can do it all, and it’ll keep coming back for more.
The Civic Type R is, in short, a riot of detail. The gearshift has a 40mm throw, so shifts are super-short; the quad exhausts ape those of the Subaru WRX STI, a keen price rival that feels surreally outclassed next to the CTR; the 235/35 R19 Continentals were developed specifically for this car’s outrageous abilities; the damping is just as supple as it is stiff, so the brilliant handling isn’t supplemented by being on first-name terms with a chiropractor. But most importantly of all, it’s got that Type R badge. That counts for a hell of a lot. Thank goodness Honda is looking after it.
Photos © Chris Frosin