Chris Harris drives the new Honda Civic Type R | Top Gear
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Chris Harris drives the new Honda Civic Type R

It’s less ugly, certainly, but can the new Civic Type R actually improve on its predecessor? We dispatch Chris Harris to the TG test track for an answer

Published: 06 Feb 2023

Some of you will remember motoring journalist and beard enthusiast LJK Setright. He was a celebrity car writer long before anyone had made a television programme about the horseless carriage. His writing was hugely complicated and he held some controversial opinions. He advocated very fast driving on public roads, he preferred automatic gearboxes back when they were mostly crap – but he was rightly viewed as having very eclectic tastes that he backed up with insight and knowledge. Which is why people like me found it baffling that he liked Hondas.

Because for most people Honda just made rather boring cars for people who retired to Bournemouth. It took a crazy looking English dude to educate a geek like me about this Japanese company which appeared to be obsessed with over-complicating everything. Setright marvelled in the engineering quality of a company that was perfecting rear-wheel steering systems and variable valve timing when most European carmakers were wondering how to make central locking reliable – and failing. Most people still don’t know just how eccentric and unorthodox Honda has been, and there isn’t much latitude for raw innovation now, but Honda remains to geeks like me a cut above the ordinary.

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Only a company as engineering-driven and dogmatic as Honda would choose to launch a very hot, front-wheel-drive hatchback at the end of 2022. Carmakers have been abandoning this once-popular performance staple for the last few years – even Renault wants out. I can’t see the logic myself – the margins must be minute – but I’m so so glad that Honda does.

Photography: Mark Riccioni

This is the third ‘modern’ Civic Type R – and by that I mean relying on forced induction and sadly not some banzai 9,000rpm grenade with less torque than a child’s handshake. The first one was fast and visually OTT. The second one was sensational to drive – and I mean so good that sitting here writing this I’m not sure I’ve experienced a better expression of what a hot hatch should be – but had one slight issue. It looked ridiculous, like a horny peacock.

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The great news is that Honda has clearly decided to do something about this, so what it has given us is a tighter, faster version of the last car, wrapped in much more palatable clothing. If, like me, you love a hot hatch, you will grin when you see this in the raw. All of that tacked-on rubbish has been replaced by some swollen arches. There’s a lot of retro homage to the EP3 here, especially in the white with red seats spec I drove the car. The seats are a good place to start with this car actually. They are the best car seats I’ve sat in for, well, I think ever. They are so damn good I could almost recommend buying this car just for the sheer pleasure any bottom will enjoy from nestling into them.

Honda Civic Type R

Then there’s the engine. It’s a belter. Lighter internals for the turbocharger give a slight increase to 324bhp. Torque is 310lb ft but frankly, the previous car already flirted with what a front-wheel-drive chassis could actually handle, so these gains must mean that the chassis team has found some more traction. I mean seriously, there was a time when we thought 200bhp was crazy in a front-driven car. The fact that this thing has as much power as an E34 BMW M5 and deploys it using the same tyres that it does to steer makes me feel very, very old indeed. People couldn’t believe how much torque steer the first generation Focus RS had and its power output was 212bhp.

Like the engine, the chassis is more of the same – which bodes well because Honda was already at the very top of the tree with its interpretation of what a car of this type should be. Many people will disagree with me, but hot hatches shouldn’t be 4WD. Beyond comedy 0–30mph times, the weight it adds just isn’t worth it. Furthermore, and this is where many people will also disagree with me, I like a hatch to be a little bit unhinged: all-wheel security makes them feel so grown up and planted. It makes them seem like a bigger car – which for me completely undoes their very reason for existing. The Yaris GR is perhaps the only exception to this. The rest are just adults wearing children’s clothing.

Those seats. Those seats! It takes a while to jiggle the wheel and controls in this car before you set off simply because you want to gesture to people and tell them about the seat. If you go for the Nineties-inspired red cloth, be aware that the rear seats remain dull black. The exterior simplification continues inside – the now obligatory iPad of fake clock faces is in place, but the rest is pleasingly un-shouty. This car feels more Japanese than the last one in its design language.

Snick that little metal gearlever into first and pull away – nod in appreciation at the clean graphics in front of you and then build a little throttle. It’s wet when I drive the Type R and within minutes I found myself accelerating needlessly hard in first, because that’s what we all did back in the day to understand when the front wheels would spin. They really don’t spin in this car. The level of set-up knowledge and locking differential subtlety that goes into making a car like this have so much wet weather traction makes my brain hurt. Either that or the Michelin Pilot 4S has once again saved the day.

Honda Civic Type R

Exiting damp second gear bends you really can use all the torque, the car holds its line and it takes some serious crown/camber for the front axle to start hunting around. And boy does it shift – infants will compare its 0–62mph in 5.4secs (0.3secs faster than the last gen) with a Golf R (4.7secs since you asked), but the reality is we all knew it’d be a second or so slower, but once rolling, this is the faster car. It will also clear 170mph, which always makes me feel a little giddy in the context of a FWD hatch. And it would completely destroy that Golf on any circuit. The noise is good – there’s just enough motorsport induction hammer to keep us smiling and the shift quality is spot-on. The only thing I miss is a set of closely stacked gear ratios – but this engine is so flexible and has so much torque that it really doesn’t need them, but for me one of the joys of hot hatch thrashing has always been shifting up a gear and thinking “the revs have barely dropped!” But then I am a sad man with few interests outside of cars.

Wheel size is down an inch to 19s on this car. It helps the looks but there’s still room enough for some large brakes. I hammered this car around the Top Gear track for lap after lap and the pedal stayed resolutely short – even if the pads did get a little smoky at times. The thing I can’t tell you about is how it rides on a bumpy road because I wasn’t allowed to drive it on the public highway. Based on the way it rode the lumps and dips of Dunsfold aerodrome, I would say it will be on the stiffer side for UK roads, but not so lumpy you can’t use it properly. The locking diff is so good, traction really won’t be a problem.

Honda Civic Type R

And what happens when you switch off the stability control? Have a look at the photos. The rear is very mobile on a trailing throttle in the wet – you really can hang it out for big slides and then just use the old pin-the-throttle trick to bring it back into line. In the dry you have to use fairly drastic methods to make it misbehave – but that isn’t just road testing silliness, it confirms that on your favourite road, if you just back off the throttle, the nose will tighten. And therein lies the key to a great front-drive chassis.

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The next thorny issue is the price - £46,995. People will say it’s absurd to spend so much on a superheated shopping trolley – they’ll say you could have a VW or a Mercedes, but they’ll be wrong. This is a very special car – it is immense fun to drive, fast and competent. To my eyes it looks superb and is now sprinkled with some JDM sparkle that was missing in the previous version. This type of car might not be around much longer, which is a crying shame, and the excellence of the Type R confirms how much we’ll miss them. However, Honda’s ability to define the quirky mainstream appears to be in good fettle, which is why it wasn't just our 2022 Hot Hatch of the Year, it was our overall 2022 Car of the Year, too. Setright would approve.

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