Ferraris are great. The latest Lamborghinis, also great. They also cost $250,000 or more, so they damn well better be great. To me, a car like the Honda Civic Type R arguably represents a greater achievement than a Ferrari or its ilk, because greatness is far harder to achieve in a car that costs closer to $30,000 than $300,000. This Civic hot hatch punches so far above its class weight that its price of $35,595 makes it a rare performance bargain, especially in light of hot hatches like the now-defunct Ford Focus RS or Volkswagen Golf R that wind up costing well over $40,000 out the door.
I’d already driven the super Civic at Lime Rock Raceway in Connecticut, where a handful of laps vouched for the veracity of the Honda’s record-setting time at Germany’s Nurburgring — and Silverstone, Spa-Francorchamps, Estoril, et cetera. But this was the first time I’d ever experienced the Honda’s Spider-Man stickiness on the street, including more than 1.0g of lateral grip via its ultra-fast-wearing, 20-inch Continental SportContact6 summer tires.
Unfortunately, the Civic seems to be wearing a Spider-Man costume, especially in my tester’s Marvel-bright Rallye Red paint. If it’s not Halloween, more-mature fans may hear accusations that they’re too old for trick-or-treating—or Devil’s Night drifting—in such a luridly dressed automobile. Sure, a Dodge Challenger may deliver its own version of adolescent, rebel attitude, but a Baby Boomer can still get away with driving a Detroit muscle car; a JDM special like the Type R seems as strictly youth-oriented as a Miyazake movie.
Regarding my own misspent youth: Buy me a mezcal, and I can get weepy-nostalgic over vintage Honda VTEC engines and their zany redlines that ranged as high as 9,000 rpm. But I’ll happily accept a turbocharged Honda engine when it’s as frisky and lag-free as this one. The 2.0-liter inline four spools up 306 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, making the Honda nearly as quick to 60 mph as the 350-hp Focus RS—4.9 seconds, vs. 4.8—and actually quicker than the Ford in a quarter-mile run. That’s despite the apparent traction handicap of front-wheel-drive, versus the all-wheel-drive Ford, VW, or Subaru WRX STI.
The torque steer that always seemed the downfall of powerful front-drive cars has been almost magically banished. Akin to Ford's RevoKnuckle arrangement, Honda has split the Type R’s front struts into dual components, separating their tasks of providing steering and also supporting the driven wheels. The steering axis is moved more vertically, closer to the centerline of the front wheels. That leaves the steering pure and potent, free of the squirrelly darting and steering-wheel-tugging that can upset a front-driver during heavy throttle applications. Dumping the clutch at rude engine levels did produce some squirm, but it’s never excessive, and the standard helical limited-slip differential helps keep the tires planted as well.
Now, plenty of cars can go fast, but certain cars live to go fast. The Honda is the latter, a car that begs its driver to go faster, even if you’re just going for a quart of milk. I went for my quart in upstate New York, where the Honda proved as fun-to-drive as some sports cars that cost double or triple its price. The steering is simply sensational, with that traditionally Honda-esque lightness that weights up beautifully in the curves and let me place the car with granular precision. And the aforementioned tire grip is downright freakish: I’ve never driven a front-drive car in my life that’s so damn hard to bust loose.
Credit the six-speed manual shifter—no automatic is available—with ratcheting up the fun further. The familiar, well-damped flow of the Civic’s shifter, along with its clutch weight and engagement, are engaging in their own right. Out in the countryside, I dialed up the Honda’s +R mode, which stiffened up the adaptive dampers and steering effort, and delivered sharper rev-matching throttle blips. That shifter’s active rev matching makes blown shifts virtually a thing of the past, though drivers can shut the feature off to practice the increasingly lost art of heel-and-toeing.
Comparing the Honda and Ford on track, you’re basically looking at six of one, half-dozen of the other. But where the stiffly sprung Ford often felt rocky on the street—with a heavy clutch pedal that became tiresome in traffic—the Honda is notably smoother, with a roomier, higher-grade cabin and better fuel economy. The Civic’s EPA rating of 22 mpg city / 28 mpg highway can be matched in real-world driving—should you want to drive like a normal person at some point—and it’s a nice change of pace from performance cars that guzzle like sailors during Fleet Week in New York.
Now, some track-oriented seats end up feeling too hard or constricting for everyday use. But the Honda’s faux-suede, deep-shell seats proved amazingly comfortable, even on multi-hour drives. As with many interior details, those seats are redder than Lucifer in a Nevada bordello, and their thick bolsters held me in place like I’d been pitchforked. And let's not leave out braking: Car and Driver found that the Type R (including its four-piston Brembos up front), stopped from 70 mph in the same distance as a $200,000 Acura NSX supercar and one foot shorter than a Porsche 911; incidentally, the Honda pulled 1.03g of lateral acceleration, better than the Porsche's 1.0g. That’s nuts. And again, all for a measly 35 grand.
Viewed from behind, the Civic reminds me of an angry Dyson vacuum, in part because of its trio of center-mounted exhaust outlets. (Though if you want to get literal about it, the Honda’s front is what sucks the air, then the body progressively shapes it until it blows off and out the back.) Honda emphasizes that the Type R’s extroverted body bits are fully functional, including its hood-mounted heat extractor and pressure equalizer, a two-tiered front fascia that separates air for the intake and turbo intercooler, and an assortment of winglets, roof vortex generators and air curtains to either trim drag or assert downforce.
The Honda may deliver performance nirvana, but I did log a few complaints. The exhaust note is needlessly, ridiculously polite. It’s Kenny G in a car that’s otherwise all Ali G, flashy and boisterous and blissfully unconcerned with other people’s notions of good taste. The 2018 Type R I drove was saddled with Honda's older infotainment system, the annoying one with no audio knob or other physical controls except the ones on the steering wheel. But Honda has just announced specs for the 2019 model that goes on sale November 3, and like all Civic hatchbacks, the Type R adopts the improved “Display Audio” infotainment with a set of old-school analog switches. (There's also a new paint color, Sonic Gray Pearl, and a few interior upgrades, including larger console cupholders.) And it's a little thing, but the solid-aluminum shift knob gets palm-sizzling hot on sunny days, and icy cold in the winter. Time to invest in a pair of those silly driving gloves.
With the Focus RS gone, fans of the hottest hatches don’t have many choices, and they all cost more: There’s basically the $42,000 VW Golf R, a $37,000 Subaru WRX STI, or, if you can find one of just 500 copies, the $49,865 WRX STI Type RA—and neither Subaru is technically a hot hatch anymore, anyway. (Honda fans who act fast to track down an '18 model can save even more money, because the 2019 Type R sees a $1,000 price jump to $36,595).
The Subaru remains a charmer, but the Honda should beat even the $50K Type RA around a track, and the Honda brings a big edge in everyday ride quality, interior refinement, and practical cargo space. The VW has its own compelling points, especially for buyers of a certain age: Tasteful, low-key German styling, standard AWD, and interior fitments on par with an Audi. But take it from this longtime VW owner and fan: The Golf R is one fine, fast automobile, but it’s not intended as a track car, and the Honda’s aggressive grip and handling is in another league.
Which brings us back to the pressing, even-vexing questions for any hatchback lover: Would you be okay with being seen in the Type R? Would your significant other be okay being seen with you in the Type R? As a habanero-grade hot hatch, this Civic Type R is the definition of a niche-within-a-niche. Still, I suspect that Honda could sell more if they melded the VW’s classier design personality (or some of the Focus’s cleaner silhouette) with the Honda’s performance and refinement. Even a little toning down would help; I would personally rip off that Look-at-Me wing and repurpose it as a coffee table-slash-conversation piece in my man cave.
But there are people out there, God love ‘em, who really go in for this sort of thing. The Honda, one might argue, is all about function, be it on the road or setting records on the track—which renders its form not only secondary, but even irrelevant. And I’m serious: Driving the Honda is so great, so life-affirming, that I might consider joining that younger set, and just squinting when I climbed aboard. With just a little repurposing of my own— a backwards baseball hat, a hit of Botox—I could drive the Type R and be the Seth Rogen of my neighborhood. Hey, pathetic old man, the haters might say, where's your Affliction shirt? Whatever you say, bub: How about we go for a race?
Lawrence Ulrich,The Autance’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at [email protected]