What exactly makes Honda’s feistiest Civic the best hot hatch in the world?
When it came to Hondas, Type R used to mean screaming highly-strung motors, super tight shocks to keep the car flat (and chiropractors in business), and a raw lightness more redolent of a tin-top racer for the track than a sportscar for B-roads. Type R also meant the most exciting, capable and engaging versions of ordinary cars ever offered for sale.
Type R turned the little remembered mid-90s Integra (DC2) into a cult classic coupe widely acclaimed as the best handling front-wheel drive car ever at the time. Type R took the 1998 Euro Accord, just as it was entering its less sleek and dumpy phase, and created one of the sharpest saloons ever. I remember the hilarity of harrying a Mercedes C43 of the same era down some twisty roads where the German’s 100bhp plus power advantage was no advantage at all.
Then there’s the Type R constant – the Civic Type R starting with the 1997 Civic EK9. It was followed by the more focussed 2001 EP3 – driving on the Isle of Man TT circuit in one at its UK launch remains one of the highlights of my career. The 2007 FN2 Euro Civic Type R, to my eyes the best-looking version ever – is to me still achingly desirable. 2015’s EK2 was a break from tradition thanks to a turbocharger delivering torque at far lower revs than the typical redlining antics of Type Rs past. But what was up with those heavy-looking child-bearing rear flanks? They gave you pregnant pause for thought!
Here then is the FK8 edition launched in 2017 – the 5th generation Civic Type-R based on the 10th generation Civic. There will be a very slightly facelifted mid-life update arriving this Summer, but for now this is the Type R, and the impending arrival of an updated version, just means you should be able to negotiate a better deal on any existing stock. Any changes will be minor, so it’s still well worth asking the question – is this car the ultimate evolution of Type R? More than that, is this the best hot hatchback in the world?
At first acquaintance this appears to be a Civic Type R that’s learned from its past errant ways but relinquished none of its inherent delinquency. It’s potentially a grown-up version except that, apart from a newfound appreciation and embracing of some level of comfort and practicality, it hasn’t really grown up at all.
Lift up the large tailgate and there is a massively usable and useful amount of load space and that’s before you put the seats down. And as for that back row, there’s so much room in there – even for tall lanky body types like mine – that you can justify it as very spacious family car. Up front it’s Honda-level beautifully-finished and logically laid out, with the only wrinkle being that maybe the digital infotainment interface could be better, oh and the speakers could do with an upgrade.
And yet despite all this agreeableness, under the bonnet is a mental 2.0-litre VTEC Turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing about 320bhp and 400Nm or 295lb ft of torque – that’ll give it a 0-62-mph time of 5.8 seconds on paper (it subjectively feels a lot quicker) and it has an outrageous 170mph top speed, managing to stay pinned to terra firma at speed thanks to the aerodynamics corralled by that vast rear wing and the rest of that outlandish bodywork.
Ah yes, unlike its predecessors, this Civic Type R, sitting proud on its delicate 20-inch alloys, makes no excuses for its street-fighter status. Its looks shout louder than its engine does this time, and the heavily accentuated and appendaged design can be polarising. There are even triple exhausts popping out the back!
It’s aggressive and in-yer-face, but at the same time arresting, unmistakable from its lesser siblings (plus its 8cm wider), and impossible to ignore. Spend time with it, understand it, notice how the various design elements work together and you realise that it’s actually far more masterful in its functional and compelling aesthetics than you first thought.
Sitting in those perfectly sculpted red bucket racing seats, the traditional aluminium shift knob, a natural hand-drop from the steering wheel (word of advice keep some gloves in the car for when it’s too cold, and too hot), with carbon fibre and red accented trim on the dashboard, and there’s instantly a growing sense of anticipation. Particularly when you notice the switch that selects Comfort mode, and hard-core +R mode – the car actually starts in Sports mode as a default!
The differences in the modes are minor but discernible – in comfort the suspension is the most compliant and if you’re carrying passengers around town, I’d recommend switching down into that. There’s not much loss in performance – the relentless surge of pull from 2500rpm is always available. However there’s not much to be gained from sending the revs soaring far past 4500rpm.
Just change up at that point, you’ve got six speeds to play with – use them. Honda makes some of the finest manual transmissions out there, and this slick shifter is better than ever, snapping in and out of ratios with ease, and heel-and-toe downshifts are possible.
320bhp may sound like a lot of power to put through the front wheels, and if you’re brutal it will fight to apply it cleanly and you can provoke torque steer. Yet whilst corner carving, somehow the front just digs in and pulls you through a corner even if you keep your foot in, which is just uncanny. Drive smoothly and there’s barely any understeer to speak of, drive like a nutter and it gets a little unruly, which for me is part of the appeal of a proper hot hatch.
The car feels low particularly as the aero seems to suck it to the tarmac. It is also one of the most solid and rigid small sports cars I’ve ever driven. There doesn’t appear to be any give or flex in its construction. Combined with – in Sports and +R modes – a suspension that keeps the car composed and flat through harsh cornering (whilst still managing to cope with road bumps and undulations astonishingly well), there’s a reassurance that’s transmitted to the driver of this Civic of truly grounded, dependable composure and surefootedness.
This makes up for another old Type R foible, the less than entirely feelsome steering, particularly in the electric power steering guise. The steering is light around town, but gains heft on the go. It’s also precise, responsive and accurate, so the modicum of feedback you do get is sufficient to instil unstinting confidence in the car’s loyalty to your commands. At the wheel it’s so easy to plug in mentally and physically and feel very confident very quickly, particularly as for regular drivers like me, there’s more competence in the car than my skills have the ability to extract. Solid, linear brakes add to that overall reassurance.
Engagement is a key characteristic of this car. Despite its highly technical nature and extremely clever engineering and set-up, there is still a mechanical and visceral quality to any interaction with this machine, bringing back some of that old-skool joy in driving it hard. It’s just so much fun.
Criticisms then? I have to get very picky, but I would say that given the visually outlandish presence of this car, and the three exhaust outlets, I would like more aural extravagance. The old Type R motors were screaming engines, this one is more boomy, but I’d like a more sportier roar and how about a menacing bark on start up? Interestingly one of the changes for the facelift is said to be improved engine noise in the cabin. I also wish it had a manual handbrake.
Look past its extraordinary styling for a moment and here is a Civic Type R that appears to provide the usability of that Accord Type R, combined with the prowess of the Integra Type R and perfecting the new-found performance accessibility of the previous EK2 Civic Type R – all wrapped in a convincing pretence of comfort and practicality. The screams have been quietened, the ride has been refined and the quality has been improved beyond reproach. It is the ultimate evolution of Type R.
At £31,000 or £33,000 for this GT spec with the dual-zone climate control, sat nav, better stereo and other bits and pieces which you’ll all want, it makes an incredible value argument. Is it the world’s best hot hatch? Right now, yes it is. And dammit, I really want one!