Port Shepstone - Honda's new Civic Type R arrived in South Africa this week as a more track-capable hot hatchback, but surprisingly it’s also a more comfortable drive.
Japan’s answer to cars such as the Volkswagen Golf R and Ford Focus RS has shed 16kg of weight and received chassis and aerodynamic tweaks to make it a better driver’s car. The 228kW and 400Nm outputs of the familiar high-revving two-litre turbopetrol are unchanged, but the four-cylinder Vtec engine’s undergone a number of refinements including new software and a single mass flywheel to improve throttle response and tractability.
Like the latest-generation Civic, the new Type R employs an all-new platform that’s lighter and stiffer than before, with 38 percent more torsional rigidity.
The former torsion-beam rear suspension has been replaced by a more sophisticated multi-link design for improved high-speed stability and ride comfort. Stability under braking has been improved and body roll has been reduced too.
Power goes to the front wheels as before, but the front suspension geometry has been refettled to minimise torque steer and I didn’t feel much steering tug when driving the new Type R at its media launch at Dezzi Raceway near Port Shepstone. With the aid of a limited-slip differential the traction is superb, even in tight-corner exits where lurid wheelspin would usually be the order of the day in a car without all-wheel drive.
Boot the throttle and this Honda just grips and goes, with just a little steering wiggle to remind you that power’s going through the front wheels.
It’s very settled and forgiving in full-attack mode, faithfully sticking to a chosen line without getting unruly when the driver gets a little too frisky. The dreaded understeer of front-wheel drive cars is absent; the car turns in crisply and hugs curves like an affectionate feline.
The proof is in the stopwatch. Though the performance figures are unchanged at a claimed 0-100km/h of 5.8 seconds and a 272km/h top speed, the new Civic Type R lapped the Nurburgring Nordschleife in a time of 7m43.8s, which is seven seconds quicker than its predecessor and a new record for a front-wheel drive production car.
The high-revving engine redlines at 7000rpm to maintain the Type R’s familiar gung-ho nature, but at the same time it has a very flat torque curve with all 400Nm available from just 2500rpm.
As a nod to purists the car’s not available in automatic, and a six-speed manual’s all you get. And ‘tis a sweet-shifting thing indeed, with a positive action and a short throw reminiscent of the Honda S2000 roadster. It also has rev match control which means there’s no need for heel-and-toeing when shifting down.
Looks-wise the Type R is no shrinking violet. Taking centre stage in the interior are lurid red suede bucket seats, and the cabin’s further pimped-up by red trim and carbon fibre accents, and a D-shaped racing steering wheel. A machined aluminium gear lever knob pays homage to the Type R legacy.
Outside, the Type R is festooned with enough wings and spoilers to make a Subaru STi jealous, but all this show-and-tell serves an aerodynamic function too and there’s now more rear downforce.
A triple exhaust juts out from the rear diffuser, and this too serves a practical rather than purely visual function, as the smaller central tailpipe manages the enhanced exhaust sound of the new Type R which is 2dB louder than the previous model.
The triple-exhaust layout also creates negative pressure at specific engine speeds to reduce boominess, which prevented the car from droning excessively on the long cruise from King Shaka airport to Dezzi Raceway.
What that long drive also revealed was the most surprising aspect of this fire-spitting Honda, its improved driving comfort. As before it comes with Sport and +R modes which at the flick of a switch changes the engine and steering response, adaptive suspension, and the intervention limits of the stability control.
But now a new Comfort mode has been added which softens everything up and makes the Type R a more mild-mannered creature when you want it to be, with lighter steering and a softer ride.
The sporty Civic is comprehensively equipped with features such as a turbo boost pressure gauge, G-force meter, and lap time recorder. A full-colour touch-screen infotainment system has integrated satellite navigation and a reversing camera, and dual-zone climate control and cruise control also come standard.
The Honda Civic Type R is yours for R627 900 which includes a five-year or 200 000km warranty and five-year or 90 000km service plan.