Honda will blitz the 2014 Geneva motor show with this insane-looking hot hatch concept, which previews the styling of the new Civic Type R. Honda’s design team are talking bullishly about this bewinged, wide-track monster, wheeling out the old ‘a racing car for the road’ cliché.
That’s just marketing guff though, surely?
We already know plenty about the new Civic Type R’s specs, and it really is set to be a wolf in wolf’s clothing. Power will come from a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-pot, making this the first forced-induction Type R ever.
While that’s good news for fuel economy, it’s even better for power freaks – 280bhp is promised, and engineers are hinting the showroom-ready Civic Type R will sport more than 300bhp. And all of it is being sent to the front wheels, via a six-speed manual gearbox!
CAR’s Gavin Green has been to Japan ahead of the Civic Type R’s official reveal to drive an undisguised prototype of the hot hatch that Honda claims will become the fastest front-driver to lap the Nurburgring.
From CAR’s gallery, you can clearly see that though the concept’s phat arches will be narrowed for production, the road car will carry a massive rear wing, quad tailpipes, and a diffuser that could double as a farmyard plough.
Over to Gavin Green with a preview of what the 2015 Honda Civic Type R will be like to drive…
Stealth matt black paintjob, Boeing rear wing, Tarmac-scraper front spoiler, bulging wheelarches: the 2015 Type R proves Honda’s sporting intentions, never mind its current range of sensible-shoe cars. This is more like it. After a decade of temerity, Honda is rediscovering its Samurai spirit.
We’re at Tochigi, Honda’s main proving ground and technical centre, three hours’ drive north of Tokyo, where the first glorious NSX was created and made. The new Civic Type R is still 18 months from production – expect sales to start sometime in 2015 – but there’s a prototype on hand right now to drive.
Tech details are light. ‘We’re still developing it and improving it,’ notes Suehiro Hasshi, the chief engineer. He promises ‘at least 280bhp’ and – more ambitiously – the fastest ever lap time for a front-drive vehicle at the Nürburgring (‘sub eight minutes,’ he reckons). That’ll put the new Type R in the same ’Ring league as the Type R NSX and Ferrari 360 Stradale. It’s quicker than a Walter Röhrl-piloted (last generation) Cayman S.
That’s seriously fast.
We know it has a 2.0-litre turbocharged direct-injection petrol VTEC engine, and Hasshi-san says it will have a six-speed conventional stick-and-clutch manual rather than a double-clutch paddle-shift transmission. ‘It’s more fun,’ says the man who owns a previous-version Civic Type R.
This new one has a lot to live up to. Civic Type Rs have typically been hardcore hot hatches, the Alpha Males of the genre. The previous iteration was Honda’s R&D department’s last sporting hurrah before the company’s decision to abandon Hard Rock and go all Easy Listening. Type Rs rev like racing cars, ride rock-solid, and are among the fastest of all hatches – 0-60, point-to-point or lap times, you name it. The last Civic Type R was Honda’s sporting swansong. When it died in 2010, so (temporarily) did Honda’s sports car lineage.
The big rear wing, cow-catcher spoiler and side skirts suit the wedge-shaped-spaceship style of the latest Civic. So does the stealth black. It looks edgy, ready to entertain. Drop into the deep bucket seats, bum slotting neatly between the high side supports, like a laptop slipping into a computer case. The padding is firm. Dammit, the whole seat is rock hard. That’s a sign of what’s to come.
A little bit of seat adjustment and the driving position is excellent. The pedals are straight ahead, not offset as they are on too many German cars, originally designed for left-hand drive.
Push the red starter button and the turbo four kick-starts, all growly and snarly, sounding more Silverstone than Sainsbury’s. There’s the usual multi-layered, over-complicated Civic dash in front of you, three big alloy rimmed instruments directly ahead, tacho (redlined at 7000rpm) nestling in the middle. The digital speedo is up at the top of the facia in its own slimline housing, totally obscured by the top of the thickly padded steering wheel.
Check the pedal heights. The brake and throttle are close to each other, and when you depress the brake the throttle pedal is right alongside, same level. It’s been developed by someone who knows that heel-and-toe isn’t a funny way of walking. This gives me a warm glow. Someone who knows about driving has designed this car. A lot of car makers get that wrong.
The gearknob is a lovely little ball of alloy – the six-speed H-pattern etched on top, in fetching red – and it slots into first with a wrist flick and tiny movement. It’s a delightful change, as we soon discover out on the Tochigi circuit.
Light clutch, nicely weighted throttle pedal. The engine growls and snarls at low revs, all racer for the road, as we head out of the pit area. It sounds like a BTCC machine making its way onto the track. As the revs build, so the sweet four-cylinder motor smoothens, and we’re soon zinging along the main straight, revving to just below the maximum of 7000 between those precise little snick-snick shifts.
It’s fast. For a hatch, very fast. We’re soon up to 120mph but alas no more. These test cars are top-speed restricted. Spoilsports, you think.
Hasshi-san says it has ‘at least’ 280bhp’ but another more free-talking engineer says this car has ‘300bhp, and the target is 340’. That’s just a smidge behind the mighty Merc A45 AMG and well north of Focus STs and the fastest Golfs. Accelerate hard, and this Type R erupts forward. Torque is also impressive: 295lb ft between 2000 and 5500rpm.
Hasshi-san and his engineering boffins chose front-drive rather than A45 AMG-style all-wheel drive, and I think they made the right call. The big potential problem, with so much power being parcelled through the front wheels, is torque steer. But, as we blast out onto the circuit, all 300 horses being unleashed up front, there is little steering fidget or histrionics. The car tracks straight and true. This is a welcome surprise. As we later discover, it is also a much crisper and more interactive companion than the leaden A45 AMG. Four-wheel drive so often mutes a car’s responsiveness, and the Type R is much the better for being two-wheel drive only. It is a delightfully responsive little car.
Now the previous Type R, like all great sporting Hondas, was naturally aspirated. The upside of normal induction is greater throttle linearity and no lag. The downside of the old Type R Civic was that, although it revved like a motorcycle, it was equally weedy at low revs. Below 5000rpm it felt like you were driving a 1.2-litre Jazz. Rev harder and you suddenly unleashed the magic.
Honda is now converting to turbo power for its non-hybrid performance cars. It’s inevitable, if sad, given the turbo engine’s greater power-per-mpg. So we now have the first turbo Type R Civic. There is noticeable turbo lag from lower revs – you can feel the torque welling, before it is finally unleashed. When it comes on stream, gushing with real force, the Type R cascades forward with more power and speed than any Type R that’s gone before, and faster than just about any other hot hatch in living memory.
In mid-to-high revs, the throttle response is sharper. You don’t have the same delicious throttle delicacy you got from an old Type R at high revs – you never do with turbos – but this is still a pleasingly sharp and agile car, with fine throttle sensitivity in the mid-range. And once that turbo hypercharges the engine, you’re pulling in the horizon almost 911 fast.
An ‘R’ button rests on the opposite side of the facia to the start button. Engage it and the Type R shifts into Track mode. Steering gets sharper – it is now really responsive. The traction and stability systems are de-nannied, although they still provide electronic protection in extremis. Throttle response is sharpened. The ride is noticeably firmer.
Civic Type Rs were renowned for their firm rides, and the latest is no different, especially in R mode. There are few bumps on the fast Tochigi bowl, yet on a slightly uneven section before entering the pit straight this Civic was amplifying the track’s unevenness. In R mode especially, its ride will be very unyielding: it may well turn pimples into potholes. This is not a lukewarm hatch, all warpaint but no warrior. It’s hard-edged, aimed at the very keenest of drivers. Those who fancy a bit more civility, and want a quieter and more comfortable drive, are advised to buy a Golf GTI instead. The ride quality is not helped by Honda’s decision to stick with a cruder torsion-beam rear axle, as opposed to the superior wishbones fitted front and rear to early Type Rs and older Civics. The funds clearly weren’t quite deep enough to engineer a whole new rear suspension.
I hope this oversight won’t damage the man/machine interactivity on challenging, undulating, off-camber British roads. At Tochigi it is impossible to tell. Lots of power and firm suspension are all very well, but delicacy is also needed on our chassis-stretching secondaries. The British B-road will indeed be a favoured haunt of the Type R, for our small island will be the car’s biggest single market. This is a Europe-only vehicle, to be built in Swindon. More than most hot hatches, the UK car enthusiast is the target market.
We know it will come as a five-door only (they don’t make three-door Civics in Swindon anymore), we know it will have a strengthened body to improve torsional rigidity and thus boost handing and agility; we know it rides on 19-inch wheels front and rear, to the same design as the car you see here. Some aluminium body panels will be used, although Hasshi-san won’t confirm where. Target weight is ‘a bit more than the base Civic’ – so expect a touch over 1300kg. The bigger engine, gearbox and stiffened body all add up.
A handful of laps of Tochigi hardly constitute a thorough test. And this is, of course, Honda’s own test circuit. If it can’t make it here, it won’t make it anywhere. But the early signs are propitious. It’s high-end-sports-car fast, it handles with agility and precision, it looks the part; its brakes (ventilated and cross-drilled and with garish red calipers) feel strong. It’s every bit as hardcore as a new Type R should be. There’s still more low-end turbo lag than I’d like, but Hasshi-san assures me the engine is still ‘work in progress’. ‘The final car will be lighter and more powerful, and with less turbo lag,’ he tells me, as an underling takes copious notes of my feedback. ‘We still have 18 months to go, after all. And lots of European testing still to do, to improve the car.’
Its small size is also a huge boon. Many top-end supercars are now just too big, too powerful, too unwieldy to enjoy on a British B-road. This car’s size, weight and power all feel just right. Most satisfying of all is the thought that Honda will at last make a really good sporting car again. This is the Japanese car company I loved as a kid. They’re the people who have won in F1, as constructors and engine suppliers. Senna was a Honda advocate (I once interviewed him on the Honda stand at a Tokyo show). My mate at school had a wonderful Honda S600 roadster. I’ve owned and loved Honda motorcycles. I used to race a beautifully agile CR-X; I’ve raced Hondas in 24-hour races at Spa and Snetterton.
They belong. Finally, after far too long, they’re back.