What's the new Civic Type R like on Japan's best roads?
UK built, but a product of its homeland. Time to make sense of the Type R
It’s absolutely relentless. I’ve barely scratched my fishy tofu broth and gelatin dumpling filled with unidentified pork-based product and already she’s back, carrying yet another tray of steaming oddness. No good asking questions, either – my Japanese is limited to a series of grunts and awkward head nods. On the plus side, our waitress, who insists on leaving the room backwards on her knees while bowing profusely, doesn’t seem at all fazed that I’m wearing nothing but a loose-fitting dress.
Peculiar evening, but entirely necessary as part of our Ultimate Japanese Roadtrip. The idea being to immerse ourselves in the culture, car and otherwise, while seeking out some of the greatest driving roads Japan has to offer. It’s all part of an attempt to better understand the new Honda Civic Type R, a car that has, to a man, blown us away dynamically, but baffled us with its shouty styling and market positioning. Chris Harris suggested recently that it was “designed by a witless seven-year-old,” and I’m inclined to agree, but so often the way a car looks and the emotions it provokes are linked to the location you find it in.
Words: Jack Rix
Photos: Rowan Horncastle
If not, then why do I always leave the US with plans to import a pre-runner or some Seventies muscle, before returning to the UK and realising it’s a ridiculous idea and I was clearly high on sugar and saturated fats? Later in the story, we’ll park the Civic up next to a row of RX-7 drift specials, meet the locals on the Hakone turnpike and end up in Akihabara electric town. It’ll quickly become clear that what we, from a land of tradition and restraint and Cotswold villages, perceive as design chaos isn’t nearly as wantonly aggressive in its homeland.
We begin in Tokyo. Stress level: high. In-built satnav long since abandoned, because trying to switch the language from Japanese to English when the menus are in Japanese is, quite frankly, a mug’s game. No matter – I have a smartphone for this sort of thing, except Tokyo’s lasagne-like layered road system is confusing the hell out of it so we’re going in circles, in biblical rain. Breathe. Relax. It’s all part of the story. Ahead of us is a three-hour drive north to our first destination, and when we finally break free from Tokyo’s tentacles... the tension evaporates.
It’s a defining characteristic of the new Type R, that it’s gone from a ball-breaker to breezy long-distance transport. There’s so much more bandwidth in the damping from Comfort to R+, the exhaust less boomy, the seats cupped to hold you in place but luxuriously squishy at the same time. Sixth gear, cruise control on, it does soothing things I never expected.
The Irohazaka winding roads form a one-way loop connecting the lower slopes of Mount Nyoho near Nikko to the higher climbs in Okunikko, and back again. There are 48 hairpins in total each corresponding to, and labelled with, a letter from the ancient Japanese alphabet, presumably to help the emergency services find you when you heroically drift your 600bhp RX-7 of the edge.
It’s most definitely a game of two halves. On the way up, we have two lanes of one-way driving perfection. Being able to use the full width of the road safe in the knowledge there’s nothing coming towards you feels both liberating and highly illegal, and the Type R is all over it. The rain has stopped but the ground is still wet, and flickers of low honey-toned sunlight poke through the cloud, cranking up the colour saturation. Mostly tight, slippery switchbacks, the corners are a test of traction for anything, let alone 316bhp and front-wheel drive, but the Civic sticks tenaciously to the job.
You just lean on the front diff, feel the point where it’s about to push wide and hold the throttle there. Then, when the front wheels are straight, squeeze in some more torque, snick from second to third and position the car for the next one. It’s all addictively rhythmic and, given the conditions, devastatingly rapid.
At the top is a small town, then back down the other side. Except here roadworks are bunching up the traffic, coaches included, so the steeper gradient and more acute hairpins are taken in single file, at walking pace. Still, plenty of time to admire the extraordinary colour palette rolling down the valley. We’re a couple of seasons too early for cherry blossom, but the fiery reds and browns are a fair exchange. Then nothing. Total blackout. Time for another two-hour drive to our authentically Japanese lodgings, putting us in prime position for our second location in the morning.
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It’s a night drive that should have been a box tick, more miles under the wheels, time for quiet contemplation. Turns out Japan’s Gunma prefecture doesn’t do ordinary, so we find ourselves tearing down route 120 – another stonking bit of tarmac that yo-yos between bunches of hairpins and faster, flowing sections – blind to our surroundings and existing in the 50 feet of illumination in front of our nose. One corner, well, one type of corner, sums up the way a Type R dominates the road. An off-camber, downhill, moist, leaf-strewn, tightening hairpin is a recipe for catastrophic understeer, yet the front end always finds traction from somewhere and stays locked on its arc. Doesn’t get more confidence-inspiring than that.
At the traditional Japanese hotel, traditional Japanese dinner is followed by traditional Japanese bed (mattress on the floor), traditional Japanese shower (like traditional British shower but with the head mounted near your armpits and a plastic stool if it all gets a bit much), traditional Japanese breakfast (don’t ask) and brief conversation with traditional Japanese robot in reception.
We’re at the base of Mount Haruna, a road made famous by the popular manga series, Initial D. If you’re unaware, it’s a comic that has also spawned TV shows, movies and an arcade game, based around drifting culture and set on several real mountain roads in this area. The main protagonist, Takumi Fujiwara, works as a petrol station attendant, but hones his driving skills by delivering tofu from his father’s shop to the top of Haruna in his Toyota Sprinter Trueno (AE86 to you and me). As you do. It’s made the road into a tourist as well as a driving destination, but in the perfect morning sunlight, besides a Hakosuka GT-R and an R32 we chase around like deranged paparazzi for a while, we’ve got the place to ourselves.
Drift pioneer Keiichi Tsuchiya was drafted in as an editorial consultant for Initial D, and my God did he pick the right place. More hairpins, but this time wider, faster, more open. There shall be no drifting from the Type R, but, armed with something powerful, rear-wheel drive (and the right driving skills), you can see how this road eggs you on. Often too far, as betrayed by the bent, scarred and taped-up sections of Armco everywhere.
Now I’m exploring another weapon in the Civic’s arsenal – its engine. No, it doesn’t have the rasp or pops of a Ford Focus RS or the zingy free-revving spirit of the Seat Leon Cupra. It’s a workmanlike power unit – almost diesel-like in the way it grumbles and surges, intent on hurtling you down the road as quickly as possible, not titillating your ears. That’s where the thrill comes from, though, the sheer single-mindedness of it, the unrelenting shove punctuated with the most fantastically precise, short-throw manual shift, and sharp but progressive brakes.
It’s proof that while a high-revving, operatic engine can hoist a car to greatness on its own, there are other ways to get there. Take the new Ford GT: its V6 is effective but unmemorable, but pair it with the styling, aero, trick suspension and a Le Mans-winning carbon chassis and it’s more than adequate. Or the Ferrari 488 GTB – the V8 lacks fizz next to the 458, but drive it for an hour and tell me that you care. Same thing here, because when a car is so broadly talented from the driver’s seat, so easy to exploit and explosively quick, it doesn’t matter why you’re feeling so good, you just are.
We make it to the top of Haruna, via a strip of grooved musical road that plays ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ through your tyres (this should be compulsory, everywhere, immediately), and hang out, as Takumi does, by the lake. Yep, a lake at the top of a mountain. If anyone can explain why gravity appears to be having a day off, we’re all ears. Next, we swing by D’z Garage – an Initial D-inspired cafe and workshop, complete with a replica of Takumi’s AE86 and Initial D tofu pudding, a serving of which I’m saving for a rainy day. But it’s the drift-spec RX-7s and 300ZXes that put the Civic’s styling in context.
This is a land where Bōsōzoku was born, where modification is rife, where car culture runs deep through the fabric of society. It’s easy to see why Honda chose to go so extreme with the styling. Whereas the twenty-somethings this car is likely to appeal to in the UK are unlikely to have the £30,000 entry ticket, here it just fits. Young or old, we get thumbs up, and waves, and papped wherever we go. One enthusiastic pedestrian simply stops in his tracks, points at me and shouts, “You the boss.” I thank him with a grunt and a head nod.
Our final road is one you’ve undoubtedly heard of. Cliche? Perhaps, but as a magnet for Japanese car enthusiasts, it’s impossible to ignore. Two hours south of Haruna, and just 90 minutes from Tokyo, is the Hakone Turnpike – a toll road immortalised in drifting culture and the place to come if you want to drive your car properly. We follow a new 911 GT3 up to the booth, pay our 750 yen (£5) and set off, wincing slightly at the very real possibility that it can’t live up to its billing. Except it can. There is, in fact, a 50kph limit, but judging by the speed at which the GT3 scarpers, it’s enforced with a light touch.
Straight away, the road feels made for the Civic, total hot-hatch heaven. The corners are much wider-radius than Haruna or Irohazaka, long sweepers, the camber always with you on the way up. They never tighten, either, so you just apply the lock, hold it there and then test the front end with your right foot, which plays perfectly into the Civic’s hands – it just digs in and begs for more. The way the steering weights up and tells you where you are is sublime, and my head starts to swim with the g-force before the grip runs out. The surface is immaculate, too, so for the first time on the trip we can deploy +R mode, giving us a fraction more body control and throttle response. I’d prefer the Sport setting for the steering, though, rather than more artificial weight, but the modes are the modes – annoyingly, there’s no individual configuring allowed.
We get chatting with a couple of young TopGear fans, one driving a fruity-sounding Nissan 370Z, the other an Impreza STI. Never noticed how similar the Type R and latest Impreza (a car that looks dated and out of touch in the UK, but somehow seems achingly cool here) are, but now it’s blindingly obvious. A Lotus 7 on throttle bodies pulls up.
A Suzuki Cappuccino with the world’s most antisocial dump valve jets past. I’ve found car heaven on Earth and it costs a fiver to get in.
On the cruise back into Tokyo, I use the time to digest two indelible days. We already knew how brilliant the Civic was to drive – it’d seduced everyone on Speed Week with its adjustable chassis, approachable nature and ruthless approach to speed. What we needed to know was who it was actually for. In Japan, the answer is anyone and everyone. The Stormtrooper-with-an-underbite front end, the vision-impairing rear wing, the slashes and vents and vortex fins – they’re all part of shouting about what you have under the bonnet. A badge of honour.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to like the way it looks, but it might help you appreciate where Honda is coming from. Just as a Corvette or a Hellcat is America at its tyre-shredding, belching best, this is Japan distilled into a practical five-door family hatch. The Civic Type R isn’t just the best hot hatch of the year, it’s the best car of the year, full stop. Love it, hate it. Who cares? Just drive it.