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Probably the most capable front-wheel-drive car in production today, with only limited edition specials getting close

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The new Honda Civic Type R has had the kind of build-up that could make a US presidential election campaign look short.

The last naturally aspirated version went out of production five years ago, doing so with the biggest of bangs in the form of the Type R Mugen, which hit 237bhp and a jaw-dropping £39,000. It was hailed as a suitably feverish curtain call for one of the most affectionately regarded fast front-drivers ever produced. But that’s not how the story ended.

The switch to turbocharging has meant a fundamental change in engineering philosophy for Honda

Shortly after the unveiling of the new-generation Honda Civic hatch in 2011, Honda started discussing plans for a new, turbocharged Type R compatible with the tighter European emissions standards that did for its predecessor. By 2013, the firm was showing teaser videos of disguised prototypes; shortly thereafter, successive concepts appeared.

At Geneva, we saw the finished product. And now it’s here – so frequently previewed, so hotly anticipated and such a long time coming that you almost need to be within touching distance to believe it.

That lengthy preamble speaks volumes about the departure this car represents for Honda and the ambition bound within its swollen arches. The hot hatchback market has been transformed since the days of the much-loved ‘EP3’ Type R that was the first to be built at Swindon and the first to strike it rich on UK sales.

But 200bhp is now no longer nearly enough for a full-size hot hatch. And Honda, a dyed-in-the-wool champion of fast-revving atmospheric engines, could no longer afford to maintain its long-running indifference towards forced induction.

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The switch to turbocharging has meant a fundamental change in engineering philosophy for Honda,  and it comes on a car that is reputed to be nothing less than the fastest front-wheel-drive hatch money can buy – faster, of course, around the Nürburgring than all of its rivals.

It seems rather a shame then that this generation Honda Civic Type-R only has had a short stint at the helm, with the tenth generation Civic also bringing a hotter, far more aggressive Type-R as part of the package in 2017.

DESIGN & STYLING

Honda Civic Type-R rear
Civic Type R has a cult following

We’ll dive straight in at the obvious place: the previous Civic Type R didn’t produce its 198bhp of peak power until wound up to 7500rpm.

This new one has got 50% more power and, more important, more than twice as much torque, which is available from 3000rpm lower in the rev range than it was with the old car.

The car’s driveline consists of a six-speed manual gearbox - not so coincidentally with precisely the same shift throw as the 2002 NSX-R supercar

Improvements like those would oblige any car maker to throw away most of the driveline and chassis technology it had used before and start again from scratch.

And as well we know, where there’s an opportunity to innovate, Honda rarely needs asking twice.

So the new Civic Type R gets not only a new turbocharged engine but also completely overhauled suspension and steering systems relative to those of the standard car. Its drivetrain has been painstakingly re-engineered and its body aerodynamically perfected.

The new engine is unusual among turbocharged four-pots for being ever so slightly oversquare in its bore and stroke dimensions. Otherwise, it’s directly injected and air-to-air intercooled, with variable valve timing and lift, a compression ratio of just under 10:1 and a capacity of 1996cc. It produces 306bhp and emits 170g/km of CO2 – the latter being competitive for the power on tap, without being outstanding.

Wheelarch extensions cover widened axle tracks. Up front is the biggest chassis innovation: a system of arms and links Honda calls its Dual Axis suspension set-up.

By separating the steering knuckle from the strut, it in effect features two kingpin angles and less kingpin offset and transmits much less torque steer than a conventional MacPherson strut would – working much as Ford’s RevoKnuckle set-up does.

The rear of the car is suspended via an H-shaped torsion beam, with an entirely different cross-section than that of the standard Honda Civic and much greater rigidity. Coil springs, magnetorheological adaptive dampers and stiffened bushings feature at all four corners.

The car’s driveline consists of a six-speed manual gearbox (not so coincidentally with precisely the same shift throw as the 2002 NSX-R supercar), a dedicated transmission oil cooler to keep it from overheating on track and a helical mechanical limited-slip differential (worth three seconds a lap around the ’Ring, they say).

/car-reviews/hondaHonda went to Continental for the special ContiSportContact 6 tyres, which are wrapped around 19in alloy wheels, and to Brembo for its drilled iron brake discs, measuring 350mm up front and clamped by four-piston calipers.

Last but not least, the styling is decidedly unsympathetic on the eye – but this is function dictating form to an extent rarely seen on a £30k performance car. So the front splitter, rear diffuser, panelled underbody and rear wing apparently produce a modest amount of downforce -  they’re not just for show, or for balancing out aerodynamic lift.

And, according to Honda, they work without adding significantly to the car’s overall drag coefficient.

The 2017 Type R which was seen in the flesh at the Paris motorshow will definitely benefit from a new aerodynamics package, including two new rear spoilers and a front splitter, to help keep the new front-wheel drive hot hatch in touch with its all-wheel drive rivals. 

INTERIOR

Honda Civic Type-R dashboard
Subtle lowering of the hip point does little to alter the Civic's naturally high driving position

Throwing away the Honda Civic’s underside or using a wind tunnel to reshape its body is very much in Honda’s nature; overhauling the cabin is not.

Consequently, Honda’s overly fussy dashboard, fiddly switchgear and fascination with questionable plastic trim finishes remains, necessitating only minor alterations for the Type R.

The Civic's electric windows wind into the door with a commercial vehicle clunk. Not a fatal flaw, but the noise is deafening compared with the classier VW Golf R

The meat of this is the replacement of the conventional front seats with high-backed, suede-effect sporty alternatives. So sporty, in fact, that the thigh support will have you getting in and out of the car as though it were a stand-alone bath.

Honda claims a 30mm lower hip point for the Type R, but only by taking into account the seat’s lower-density foam and a 10mm lowering of the floor; the mounting remains the same.

We’d have preferred to be able to drop deeper still into the Type R, but the Civic’s fuel tank lives beneath the front seats and represents an immovable hardpoint that prevents them from going any lower.

In the back, Honda has ditched the middle seat and tip-up ‘Magic Seats’ to save weight, although the bench still folds 60/40 to reveal a pleasingly flat boot, whose maximum volume remains the same. So does almost everything else; only the steering wheel and gearknob change.

The latter is the carried-over ball of machined aluminium familiar from previous Type Rs; the former has had its spokes slimmed for a better grip. Otherwise, there are a few new features on Honda’s latest infotainment system and a button marked ‘+R’ on the dash – both of which we discuss elsewhere.

Being the range-topping model for the Civic range the Type R is certainly well-equipped. Besides the aggressive bodykit, huge rear spoiler, wide wheelarchs and Type R decals, the hot Civic also gets Honda's Active City Braking technology, adaptive dampers, cruise control and hill start assist. Inside there is Honda's 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system with multimedia connectivity, Garmin sat nav and DAB radio chucked in, while there is also a rear view camera and climate control also included.

The Type R GT models get added luxuries such as dual-zone climate control, front and rear parking sensors, auto wipers and lights, and fully electric windows.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

The 306bhp Honda Civic Type-R
The Civic Type R is as happy to work at its extremities as it is to rev to its limiter

Owners of previous-generation Type Rs are chirpily realistic about – and not a little affectionate towards – the performance of the old naturally aspirated 2.0-litre VTEC motor.

They will merrily persevere with the engine’s docile, almost exasperating low-rev idleness in return for the churning fast-forward fury supplied by a change in camshaft profile at higher speeds. Unexpectedly, the vestiges of that character – the dawdler and the deranged – have not been entirely expunged in the latest iteration of the four-cylinder unit, despite the addition of a turbocharger.

Combined with a dose of old-fashioned turbo lag, the engine’s impersonation of its forebear is uncanny enough for you to begin working the snappy manual gearshift in a state of near déjà vu

Forced induction is largely responsible for the substantial increase in peak torque (295lb ft versus just 143lb ft in this Type R’s predecessor), although it doesn’t arrive with anything like the smooth swell of a comparable Ford or Volkswagen unit.

Where a Volkswagen Golf R delivers 280lb ft from 1800rpm, the Civic dithers until 2500rpm (at which point the previous model already made 90% of its twist) and doesn’t feel as though it’s under way until closer to 3000rpm.

Combined with a dose of old-fashioned turbo lag, the engine’s impersonation of its forebear in a high gear and at low crank speeds is uncanny enough for you to begin working the snappy manual gearshift in a state of near déjà vu.

Fortunately, the hunt for a better ratio is one that’s worth pursuing. The motor doesn’t respire through its mid-range with quite the venom of the Renault Mégane RS 275 Trophy’s engine, but the arrival of the torque signals a snowballing build-up of speed significant enough to have the reinforced Civic tensing up on its haunches, followed, a split second later, by the unmistakable needle lunge of the VTEC effect.

The physical impact and duration of this final-rev thrust is inevitably lessened (peak output is achieved at 6500rpm and limited by 7000rpm) compared with its bipolar ancestors, but it remains a far more compelling prospect to rev out than most of its rivals and, at a verified 5.5sec to 60mph, is about as accelerative as front-driven cars get.

Which, save for the lack of endearing rasp or rort that comes with it, scarcely leaves much for a new buyer to complain about.

RIDE & HANDLING

Honda Civic Type-R hard cornering
The Civic Type R excels in both outright grip and a tangible sense of track-fostered composure

We tend not to dwell on lap times, but as so much of the Honda Civic’s development was track-based (and given that its front-drive Nürburgring lap record was the subsequent fixation of Honda’s marketing department), the car’s performance at MIRA is illuminating in more ways than one.

On a dry day, the Type R posted a 1min 16.1sec lap of the Dunlop handling course. That’s impressive, given that the undoubtedly quicker and all-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG managed only 1min 16.4sec when tested. 

Honda has made its light rack fast, faithful and pleasantly resistant to torque steer, but the immovable Type R wants for the irresistible force of a properly explicit and hefty tiller

However, hauled along for comparison, our long-term Renault Mégane Trophy (endowed with optional Öhlins dampers) managed 1min 15.7sec, while a trawl through the archives revealed that Seat’s Leon 280 Cupra (a previous owner of the Nürburgring front-drive record) set an even brisker 1min 15.4sec.

The upshot is less a victory for Spain and more a reminder that the margins between the current generation of hot hatches are as fine as a gossamer thread. More important still, although the Type R didn’t actually deliver a lap record at MIRA, it felt as though it was doing so.

Extravagantly purposeful and very precise, the car excels in both outright grip and a tangible sense of track-fostered composure. Its single-mindedness feels familiar. The previous-gen Type R Mugen was cut from a similar cloth, with the car’s relative ease of use barely concealing a chassis of touring car-like stiffness and intent.

The concession made to comfort is more sophisticated this time, however, with superior wheel control being a trait of its adaptive dampers. Even with them, bumps are less absorbed at a corner than chewed over by an entire axle, although usually not to the outright irritation of occupants.

Given its appearance, noise and hot-headed performance, one could have expected no more. The Type R’s missing commodity is in fact more nebulous than a manifest lack of comfort.

On the track, its exuberance is obvious enough, but out on the road, where your investment in driving is inevitably more relaxed, the trick chassis, sticky tyres and peaky engine fail to summon up either the sharp sense of connectedness evoked by the Mégane Trophy or the overt playfulness of a Ford Focus ST.

We’d willingly trade an additional half a second a lap for greater evidence of either attribute.
 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Honda Civic Type-R
Honda's new Civic Type R is powered by a 306bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged four cylinder engine

Performance value went a long way towards explaining the success of the 2001 Civic Type R. But back then, Honda was content with a lesser place in the hot hatch pecking order than it seems to be now.

That may be why it thinks it can justify asking a hefty premium over the likes of the Ford Focus ST, Seat Leon Cupra 280 and Renault Mégane Trophy for this car.

A starting price just a fiver shy of £30,000 puts the Civic worryingly close to the four-wheel-drive Volkswagen Golf R

A starting price just a fiver shy of £30,000 puts the Civic worryingly close to the four-wheel-drive Volkswagen Golf R, a very accomplished machine whose residuals – according to our market experts – set a standard the Honda can’t really approach.

Suffice it to say that Honda has some work to do before those market commentators are willing to accept that this car can justify and sustain its positioning.

Cost of insurance won’t come as particularly good news for private buyers, either. The aforementioned Golf ranks four groups lower on that front, while the Seat is lighter on the pocket, too. But standard spec is quite generous, with entry-level cars getting 19in wheels, adaptive dampers, a multimedia system with a 7.0in screen, cruise control, LED headlights and a parking camera.

We'd avoid the GT spec and keep the outlay sensible; our sources say residual values will be better on the cheaper cars. We'd also jazz up the interior with the optional carbonfibre pack (£495), which slightly lifts the cabin ambience with real carbon bits to the air vents, centre console and glove box.

Our True MPG testers recorded an average of 31.8mpg from the car – a pretty typical 18% down on the official NEDC claim but a close match for our results on a current BMW M135i and Focus ST. 

VERDICT

4 star Honda Civic Type-R
Honda Civic Type R is hard-edged, fast, uncompromising and wild to look at. There's a lot to like

The interminable wait has ended with an intermittently impressive result. The Civic Type R feels over-engineered, ostentatious, loud all the time and turbocharged in every regard.

It isn’t the most pleasant hot hatch to sit in, live with or even drive, but it strives to embrace Honda’s evolving Type R ethos – a spirit that remains likeably Japanese, even as the manufacturer stoops needlessly to concern itself with Rhineland lap-timers. 

The Civic Type R is fast and furious, but demands some sacrifice - as it should. A cult hero in the making

Certainly there is a school of thought that suggests the latest model might have been better shorn of quite so much aero, spring malice or turbo bloat.

That would have yielded a slightly slower, softer Honda Civic, yes, but a cheaper, more fun and potentially more feelsome one, too.

By opting instead for the extremes of power, purchase and price, Honda has delivered a hardline, idiosyncratic crusader.

It offers less for everyone than ever – but is all the more desirable if you’re on its wavelength.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Honda Civic Type R 2015-2017 First drives