Johannesburg - Love it or hate it, you have to admire the audacious attitude Honda’s new Civic Type R brings to the hot hatch party. Like seeing that completely carefree rock star walk out on stage, shirtless, smoking, sporting chains and tattoos, skin tight jeans showing way too much bulge, while staring in awe secretly wishing you could pull off the same look.
The car certainly makes a statement. There are enough wings, flaps, ducts and fins to get Nasa’s rockets standing proud, and if you thought the previous generation was over the top with aero devices, this one’s even more so. And Honda swears it’s all functional. This version’s lower, wider and longer than the outgoing one, and even with all its bristling body addenda it’s 3 percent slipperier through the air.
To prove the point Honda took the new model to the Nurburgring and set a new front-wheel drive lap record of 7mins, 43.8secs, ousting the VW GTI Clubsport by 5.5 seconds. It’s also 7 seconds quicker than the outgoing Type R.
Of course that’s not all down to aerodynamics. It’s a little bit lighter (only 5kg) and it has the same engine with identical 228kW and 400Nm outputs, so it’s mostly in handling where the biggest improvements were made.
It takes only a few minutes behind the wheel to appreciate the effort Honda’s put in to fine tuning the suspension, and you get the distinct impression this isn’t just an ordinary Civic with stiffer shocks and springs. There’s an all-new multilink setup at the back axle, and a clever dual-axis arrangement with a new variable ratio steering rack at the front, which all contribute to making this one of the best handling front-wheel drive hatches we’ve ever driven.
In its Comfort setting it rides unbelievably well on its ridiculously low-profile 245/30/R20 tyres, and in both Sport and +R modes it clings to corners like a kitten to a curtain.
Torque steer is surprisingly non-existent even when hoofing it in bends, and a mechanical limited slip differential sees to it that no power is lost to spinning wheels on corner exits. It’s a seriously sorted piece of kit that could teach lessons to some of the best front-wheel drive cars out there.
Some credit must also go to the bespoke Continental tyres which give away their super soft rubber compound by plinking stones into the wheel arches at slower speeds just like a true race car would.
You can look at the six-speed manual gearbox in two ways: either Honda has lagged behind in transmission tech and can’t offer a quick-shifting twin-clutch auto like most other carmakers, or it’s catering to those buyers who still enjoy the hands on experience of a gear lever. While both are probably true, it’s important to note what a fantastic manual this is.
That signature spherical knob common to all Type Rs nestles into a palm so perfectly, and the mechanical H-pattern action is faultless in the way it snicks and clicks through its six gears. There’s also an automatic rev-matching function, affording drivers less proficient in the heel-toe technique the ability to blip throttle on downshifts. It’s a less obtrusive version of similar systems in other cars, and thankfully it can be fully disabled if you prefer performing blips the old fashioned way.
Obviously with powered traction coming from only two wheels, and no dual-clutch transmission to cheat time lost between gears, the Type-R will lose to most modern all-wheel drive hot hatches at the strip. Honda claims 0-100km/h happens in 5.8 seconds, but we couldn’t come anywhere near this figure in our tests at Gerotek.
A built in engine-saving measure won’t allow revs to rise past 3500rpm at a standstill, so loading the turbo on the line ahead of a clutch dump is impossible. In other words it’s extremely difficult to launch the Type R without bogging down, and after numerous attempts at tricky clutch modulation the best we could muster was 0-100km/h in 6.4 seconds and the quarter mile in 14.4. I have no doubt this Civic has the guts required for better sprint times, but they’ll remained locked away until Honda undoes this silly rev-locking feature.
Sadly those wicked looking triple tailpipes write a cheque the exhaust note can’t cash. It’s particularly nondescript in the aural pleasure department, with a very generic 2-litre turbo tone right through the rev range. Even so it’s an exciting thing to wring hard, and its relatively high 7000rpm redline lends a genuine throwback to the super high revving naturally aspirated Type Rs of the nineties and noughties.
With so many all-wheel driven, quick-shifting automatic hot hatches out there today, the Civic Type R could be considered part of a dying breed. And while it can hardly compete with these rivals in terms of off-the-line acceleration, it’s still an absolute hoot to drive. Possibly the most fun of all, actually.