It’s a Monday morning on the German autobahn network, somewhere in the rural east The new Honda Civic Type R is cruising at 240km/h, 30km/h short of its potential, perpetually frustrated in its attempts to reach maximum velocity by traffic on this two-lane stretch towards Leipzig.
The Civic is rock- solid – testimony to the considerable attention that’s been paid to aerodynamic efficiency, to the extent that Honda claims that the Type R is the only hot hatch to generate real downforce, not merely caned lift. I can almost sense the vortices, gusts and eddies tumbling from the porcupine ridges of the vortex generators at the end of the roof and onto that brazen rear wing. Ahead of me, the bonnet is vibrating unashamedly in the slipstream, the new central air intake that protrudes into your peripheral vision wobbling like the hump of a Subaru WRX from two decades ago.
And in a way, the comparison isn’t so far-fetched. Why? Because at $50,990 the Honda apes the relative affordability (inflation considered and for performance relative to the mainstream) of the fabled Impreza. That it has four doors, loads of room in it and a generous boot; that it absolutely pulverises a challenging road while remaining everyday useable; that it hails from Japan; that it’s an object of derision for many on account of its looks… well, you must admit, it’s not a completely outlandish comparison. And yes, I did say ‘everyday useable’ intentionally – the latest Type R is nothing like the last one.
Hideki Kakinuma is described by his colleague and translator as a “living legend within Honda”. A suspension engineer, he created and led the team that has developed this new car. His job was made infinitely easier thanks to the arrival of the new Civic model, and for some fairly obvious reasons. It is quite simply a far better starting point. It’s 20mm lower overall, so the quasi-MPV look has been consigned to the past. It’s 38 per cent stiffer torsionally and the body-in-white is 16kg lighter. The weight distribution has moved slightly rearwards, which is helpful, and in the Type R the driver’s hip point is 25mm lower than before. The wheelbase, meanwhile, has grown by 105mm. Allied to that is the return to a multi-link rear axle, not seen on a Civic Type R since the halcyon days of the EP3 model at the turn of the millennium. Kakinuma is candid on what this means for the Type R.
“The multi-link [setup] is of huge benefit to [suspension] geometry stability. A torsion beam has a certain movement under lateral forces, which is not always good for toe stability. It tends to toe out,” he says. As such, the new car has much more precise control of its rear suspension, the rear wheels toeing in under braking for stability. I ask if that contributed to the record Ring time for a front-driven road car of 7min 43.8sec. “It’s particularly good at Aremberg,” says Kakinuma, referring to a deceptive right-hander approached at very high speed. “The Nurburgring is the only known environment to evaluate all aspects of the car. We wanted the car to be fast, but also confidently fast, and for that to be replicated on the public road. You can induce oversteer at low speeds with this car by lifting the throttle, but it’s much more controllable than with the old car. It’s very important that the car is fun to drive.”
In addition, Kakinuma notes that the multi-link setup improves ride quality, negating the awkward lateral forces on the dampers that compromise their performance. Talking of dampers, they now have three settings tied to three driving modes (instead of two): Comfort, Sport and +R. We are promised a greater breadth of ability in both directions. The engine, six-speed gearbox and brakes are largely carried over from the FK2, with only detail changes. Honda has shied away from the power race, finding only another 7kW to take the total to a still feisty 235kW, with torque remaining at 400Nm. It needs to be noted, however, that Australian-delivered cars (due in October) will have 228kW.
The increase in performance is mainly due to reducing exhaust back-pressure, but there’s more to the story than that. One of our key criticisms of the old car, after its firm ride, was the driveability and refinement of the engine. Honda has started from scratch with its calibration, apparently stripping away a lot of the code that was supposed to aid refinement but which inadvertently dulled response. Switching to a single-mass flywheel has helped, too, and there’s been a seven per cent reduction in the final drive ratio (partly negated by larger wheels). The shift quality of the manual gearbox was one of the best bits about the outgoing car, and the engineers proudly state that its 40mm shift stroke is just 5mm more than that of the S2000. Why is it so good? Because it’s ‘a Honda gearbox made by Honda’ is the gist of the reply. The same logic also explains why there’s no twin-clutch auto option, as Honda doesn’t have one, and as Kakinuma remarks with a laugh, the nine-speeder from the NSX doesn’t fit. He also makes the point that real hot hatches don’t have automatic gearboxes.