Driving the latest Civic Type R to a fight with its rivals the fun, mischievous way
Top Gear cover stories bring to mind the famous quote from Fight Club. The first rule of a cover story is you get the car there in one piece. The second rule… well, you can guess. Basically, don’t crash it. Point a car into the scenery, and not only will you be on tea duties for the rest of your career, but the next issue of the magazine will hit the shops with 18 blank pages and a gaping hole on the front.
Problem is, cover cars are cool. And almost always brand new. You want to drive them hard to learn how everything that’s been drip-fed to you from the teaser videos and motor-show appearances feels on a real road. There’s willpower required to get them as safely and efficiently (read: boringly) to the photo shoot.
Words: Stephen Dobie/Images: Mark Riccioni
But the Honda Civic Type R – on its way to a big hot-hatch shoot-out – is not a car that knows willpower. It does not encourage good behaviour. With its angry fins and humongous spoiler, it actively condones ignoring the rules. All two of them. Just look at the thing.
It’s with unfortunate inevitability that as I pick up the UK’s first FK8 Type R from Honda’s Swindon factory, my slog to South Wales towards a trio of its rival hatches – west along the M4 for 70 miles, basically – does not stay on track long.
Some of you might think the Civic looks like it’s been in an accident already, and that none of this matters. Has there been a car as stylistically busy as this? Or as proudly aggressive? In the hatchback market, almost certainly not.
Its in-yer-face aero package is apparently all functional, too. Though the constant double takes from fellow hot hatch drivers prove one of those functions is surely attracting a particular demographic. It ends up looking like a cocktail of Nineties and Noughties rally specials – its silhouette matches the Impreza STI hatchback, while the row of vortex generators on the roof are pure Evo VIII FQ-400.
With 316bhp, the latest Civic is some way off that old Evo, as well as new AWD rivals like the Focus RS. But it stays FWD and continues to be a lightweight car for its class, so that ought to be enough power.
My short stint on the M4 does reveal one of the new Civic Type R’s biggest boasts: it’s more civil than before. That may seem completely at odds with the new, steroidal look, but Honda knows that as exciting as the outgoing FK2 was, it could be a pain in the arse at the normal stuff.
So you get a Comfort mode in the drive select, which now sits on a toggle by the gearknob. Previously there was just a +R button hidden away by the fuel gauge. The suspension itself is new, with a multi-link set-up at the rear that makes the whole car more cosseting whether in Comfort, Sport or +R. And more stable at speed. To further prove that every mad bit of styling serves a purpose, the middle of the Type R’s three exhaust pipes makes the car less boomy at a high-speed cruise.
It really does, too. This is a fine motorway car. There’s even lane-keep assist. Its interior still seems overdesigned and the infotainment system is almost impossible to use on the move – no glances away from the road here – but otherwise it’s closer to the several-dozen permutations of VW Group hot hatch than ever. Not in the same ballpark, but queuing outside for a ticket. The TFT dial, with widescreen rev-counter, is a particular success.
Anyway, you probably want to read about driving a hardcore hatch on the M4 as much as I want to actually do it. Which is my editorial justification to ignore the rules and give in to the Civic’s wanton aggression. I stick Cheddar Gorge into the sat nav (on my phone, not the car’s baffling screen) and head for our Welsh rendezvous the really long and challenging way.
It’s at this point I realise I’ve left the Civic in +R mode. That would have been impossible in the old car, but the sharper steering and throttle of the feistiest mode is no longer cancelled out by unbearably stiff ride quality. I mean, this is still no softie. But if you like a car to be purposefully firm, it might be the only mode you need.
The car defaults to Sport every time you start the engine, and that’s taut enough most of the time. But +R also sharpens up the throttle blips of the all-new rev-matching feature for the manual gearbox, which is another success to chalk up for the Civic.
The Type R’s 2.0-litre may be turbocharged, but like all VTECs it loves to rev. And Japanese performance engines have always felt more sensitively set up than others, more appreciative of a rev-matched downchange. The system is brilliant and rarely fluffs a change.
Turning it off is clearly something you’re not meant to do; it’s hidden away in a submenu that also requires you to pull over and put the handbrake on, whereas that lane keep assist is a button on the steering wheel. But I’m neither a big enough nerd nor a good enough heel-and-toer to be overly offended by that.
Everything about the gearbox deserves praise, in fact. Honda nailed the short, stubby lever and satisfying mechanical shift action yonks ago. But with much shorter gear ratios than the car it replaces, you get to change gear more often. On the tight and twisty lanes of the Mendips, it feels tremendous.
A new single-mass flywheel makes the clutch easier to use and completes the transformation over the FK2 Type R’s already great transmission. All the evidence that manuals belong in hot hatchbacks is here. It’s one of the very best on sale.
A satisfying gearbox and well set up suspension combine with a decent steering rack (surprisingly good for an electrical, variable-ratio system) to give you all the confidence you need to drive quickly. Its ginormous 20in wheels are wrapped in Continental tyres, and the bite they have is amazing for regular road rubber. The front end is astonishing, and the speed you can take into corners borderline baffling.
Once turned in, you can then get on the power good and early thanks to the proper diff up front, while lots of complex suspension gubbins help avoid torque steer. So you can power out of corners with little drama, save for the sheer accelerative force.
For while the stats have barely improved – 316bhp and 295lb ft are respectively 10bhp and zero lb ft better than the FK2 Civic – the old one was still quick. At 1,380kg, the Civic is an irrelevant 2kg lighter than before, so its 5.7-seconds 0–62mph time is unchanged and its 169mph top speed is marginally higher.
Yet while its figures are all best-in-class for FWD hatches, this absolutely isn’t a numbers car. It’s far too exciting for that. The combination of its mightily effective diff and supremely controlled suspension make it a car to ruthlessly and efficiently pick roads apart with. It doesn’t strike me as a hot hatch with flamboyantly adjustable balance, or one you’ll throw around at will. It’s far too focused for that, and it encourages similar focus from its driver.
But don’t think that makes it dull. Quite the opposite. The only FWD car that’s anywhere near as thrilling is the old Megane RS, a car I’m certain Honda benchmarked heavily when developing this Civic, right down to the aggressive whooooarrghh you hear as the turbo lobs fistfuls of air into the engine. I’ve ended up almost 100 miles from where I should be, in a car that needs to stay in one, undamaged piece. In something as fast and faithful as the new Type R, though, getting to Wales for that group test will be no chore at all.