Having bailed out of Formula One and fast cars when a bunch of banking morons tried to take the world back to the Stone Age in 2008, Honda has had a seriously lack-lustre half decade. Now, with the new NSX a year or so away and an F1 engine deal with old partner McLaren locked in from the 2015, that mislaid mojo has been well and truly located.
First drive: Honda Civic Type-R prototype
280+bhp, a proper manual gearbox, and targeting a sub-8 minute lap of the ‘Ring… Jason Barlow reports
And there’s good news in the real world, too. If you saw Honda’s brilliant Civic Type-R film a few months ago, you’ll have gathered at least two important things. Firstly, that after languishing in purgatory for a few years, there’s actually going to be a new Civic Type-R. And secondly, that it looks and sounds like a bit of an old-school turbo nutter b*****d.
Well now we know, because topgear.com has just done four laps of Honda’s Tochigi test track in a prototype, and if nothing else we’ve discovered a new cure for jet lag. This isn’t a car so much as a force of nature.
Although it’s no secret that the Japanese can sometimes be a little difficult to fathom, the new Civic Type-R’s mission is crystal clear: its creators won’t rest until this is the fastest hot hatch round the Nürburgring. In fact, they’re not going to go home until it turns in a sub-eight minute lap of the Nordschleife. WTCC driver Gabriele Tarquini is getting close to that, which is a hell of an achievement for a 2.0-litre front drive hatch.
We’ve got nothing like the ’Ring’s hellish variety of twists and turns to play with today, but the genius of the new Type-R is that it feels bang on the money the second you put your foot on the clutch pedal. Not least because it actually has a clutch pedal, rather than flappy paddles. Its action, and the weight of all the other primary controls, is also satisfyingly abrupt. Type-R fans will be similarly thrilled to see the return of the titanium gear-knob, and the seats are brilliantly supportive semi-race jobs. Simply put, it feels right.
The engine is an all-new direct injection 2.0-litre single turbo four with VTEC and variable timing control producing – and this is the important bit – at least 280bhp. Project team leader Suechiro Hasshi won’t budge when pushed on the exact figure. ‘How much power? It’s 280bhp. More than 280, actually. People say that this is the limit owing to current suspension technology and the performance. But more is… not impossible.’
That’s that not settled, then.
It takes just the right amount of finesse to get the Type-R off the line smoothly, another sign that this is a true driver’s car. The gearbox is wrist-flicky if not rifle-bolt mechanical, and there’s a bit of lag at low revs. But then it wakes up like a small animal with something spicy on its bum. Between 2000 and 5000rpm, there’s close to 300lb ft of torque, and the red line whooshes into view in an addictively turbo-thrusty fashion, signalled by a green to red strip light in the instrument display. There’s also little sign of any torque steer, so whatever they’ve done to the front suspension is effective. (Hasshi won’t give that up, either.) It’s seriously grunty and punchy.
The Type-R retains the standard car’s torsion beam rear, which is likely to deny it the ultimate poise of the multi-linked Focus ST or Golf GTI. Consequently, it feels super stiff, even on Tochigi’s smooth tarmac, so God knows how that’ll translate to a blistered British B-road. But it has a fabulously pointy front end, turns in brilliantly, and feels properly joined-up. Push the little ‘R’ button nestling beside the steering column, and you get weightier steering, sharper throttle response, a reduced traction control threshold, and even less compliance from the dampers. Suddenly, you can see how sub-eight seconds round the ’Ring might be doable.
The Type-R also looks the business, sharky, fighty and downright mean, especially in the development car’s matt black finish. Some serious aero work has clearly gone on, work that is ongoing, according to Hasshi-san, in the search for optimum balance and stability. The exact shape and form of the rear wing is still evolving, and while the test car is wearing 235/35 Continental rubber on 19in rims, new tyres are being developed for the production car. Here are a few other random nuggets: a hybrid powertrain was never considered, despite Honda’s expertise, the final car will contain some aluminium in an effort to reduce weight, and the Civic Type-R is targeting best-in-class CO2 numbers.
‘It will become even more aggressive,’ Hasshi adds with a smile.
There’s only one downside, as far we can tell. The damn thing’s not due on sale until mid-2015.
Pictures: Jamie Lipman