WHITE PAINT, BLACK DETAILING, red logos and easily the wildest body addenda in the hot hatch market. No, you don’t need me to tell you this is the all-new Honda Civic Type R. And normally I’d leave it at that and let you make up your own mind on the looks. But not this time. The ungainly, slab-sided proportions and tacked-on aero of the old car made it highly divisive, and for many it was all a bit cringeworthy. Having had the benefit of walking around the new car, I believe that’s no longer the case. Yes, it’s still a riot of slashed lines, Manga-influenced forms and bonkers aero – Honda once again claims a class-leading balance between reducing lift and creating drag – and the deep chin, vortex generators on the trailing edge of the roof and the massive rear wing will still make a Golf R owner blush, but it’s all so much lower, meaner and more cohesive.
It might have crossed your mind that the outgoing Civic Type R wasn’t on sale for very long, and you’d be right. The go-ahead for that car didn’t come until well into the production cycle for its generation of Civic, and the engineers on the project had to make the best of what they were given. This included an almost MPV-like form and a torsion-beam rear-suspension setup.
As we’ve already explained, the all-new Civic is a much lower, stiffer structure from which to work from, and the provision for a Type R model was not only in the plan from the start, but also influenced key decisions throughout the standard car’s gestation. The result is a base Civic that’s 52 percent stiffer than before and 16kg lighter, with a centre of gravity 34mm lower and an H-point (the location of the driver’s hip within the car) some 50mm lower.
Those improvements have been carried across to the Type R variant, which has a structure 38 per cent stiffer than that of the old car. This new monocoque should provide the suspension with a much better platform to work from, which brings us neatly to the inclusion of a multi-link rear axle. Typically, this form of rear suspension provides the best control over the rear wheels while allowing the engineers to incorporate enough compliance for a more sophisticated ride.
It’s especially relevant to large hot hatches of the current high-power and high-weight variety. The Type R uses more rigid rear suspension arms than the standard car, and the front MacPherson struts have been tuned to suit. Once again, a helical-type limited-slip differential assists in putting more than 300bhp down cleanly. And while Honda has moved to a 20-inch wheel diameter all-round (up from 19 inches), from talking with project engineer Hideki Kakinuma it’s clear that the company has had more than one eye on everyday useability.
That’s not without good reason: unlike the outgoing Type R, which has only been sold in Europe and Japan, the new car will be a global seller and will debut the Type R sub-brand in the USA. To this end, Honda has worked on the driving modes, responding to criticism that the old choice of normal and ‘+R’ didn’t cover enough bases. The core of the issue was that the +R setting for the variable damping was simply too firm, leaving the more energetic engine mapping in +R tantalisingly out of reach on a car with a surprising amount of turbo lag in the standard setting.
There are now three driving modes: Comfort, Sport and +R. Comfort is a more relaxed setting for the engine, steering and suspension than the old normal mode. Sport straddles the gap between that and +R, and Honda has taken the opportunity to make the new +R setting even more track-focused than before, feeling that even the old +R was still too much of a road-going compromise for modern, smooth racetracks. Kakinuma smiles wryly when he says that customer feedback told them many owners never used +R mode (we don’t blame them) and that the button was therefore little more than a decoration in the car.
One thing the driver still can’t do is mix and match the various settings in an individual’ mode, as can be done with the majority of the Type R’s competitors. ‘Honda believes in the typical performance of Type R,’ says Kakinuma when challenged on this point. Which sounds to us like another way of saying: ‘We know best.’ There is no option of a stickier tyre, either, just the standard Continental SportContact 6s, though Kakinuma says Honda will monitor the market and might offer something else. ‘We wanted this car to appeal to a wide market; it was a challenge to see what we could do with one tyre,’ he adds.
Intriguingly, a lighter, even more hardcore Type R is being considered, although there is no specific plan to build such a car just yet. What hasn’t changed? The engine (not very much, at least), the front brakes and the gearbox. The new car uses essentially the same 2-litre VTEC turbo engine as before, but with detail changes throughout and a revised ECU calibration. The official figures are 316bhp at 6500rpm and 295lb ft at 2500-4500rpm; in other words, an extra 10bhp and an identical torque output to the previous model.
Honda has clearly resisted being drawn into a power-led arms race with its rivals, and more power was well down the priority list with the old car in any case. Its front-wheel-drive configuration means it’s considerably lighter than, say, a Focus RS, and therefore it doesn’t need to match cars like the Ford on power, though a cynic might argue that there is a limit to what can be deployed through front wheels alone. Talking of weight, Honda won’t provide an official figure yet, but Kakinuma confirms it’s about the same as the outgoing car’s 1378kg.
The Type R retains a six-speed manual gearbox because Kakinuma believes shifting gears with three pedals and a stick is an essential part of the hot hatch experience, and we wholeheartedly approve of that. There is a new rev-match feature, but don’t worry, it can be switched off, and the shift quality of the ’box has supposedly improved.
Inside the Type R there’s now a much more European feel. The supportive and gorgeous red buckets do indeed feel notably lower than before, and the small titanium gearknob is barely more than a hand-span away from the wheel. The first new Type Rs should start arriving by the summer. By then we should already know if Honda’s evolution of its hot hatch has paid off.