Raw is a word that grows less and less applicable to new vehicles with every passing year. In the majority of the segments within the automotive marketplace this isn’t a big deal, but when it comes to performance variants, at any price point mind you, it’s of grave concern. Across the board vehicles have gotten faster and smarter, but they’ve also become more numb and less endearing. Many of the cars that I once considered to be the cars are now shells of their former selves as they’ve been dumbed down to make them more palatable to the masses. And I get it, after all this is big business we’re talking about here and at the end of the day moving units is the goal. However there’s that little piece of me that still holds onto a shred of belief in the idea that a not all automakers are simply looking to maximize profit. It certainly came as a surprise that of all the brands I’ve recently been fortunate enough to sample product from, that Honda would be the standout that reinforced that belief.
The Civic Type R is the rawest new car I drove this year, and among the rawest new cars I’ve driven in the past couple of years. The only other car I can think of that left me with this impression was the final iteration of the Viper ACR. Like the ACR, the Type R leaves you wanting more every single time you get out of it. It’s impossible not to look back at it as you walk away and wonder if you might be able to squeeze in just a bit more time behind the wheel before you get back to whatever mundane shit needs doing. Also like the ACR, the Type R features a comically oversized wing at the rear and although it’s not adjustable, it is attached to a rear hatch that gives way to a cavernous trunk, so all is forgiven. Yes, sometimes a dash of practicality is welcome in an angry machine such as this. The key is to not go too far in either direction, to maintain the delicate balance of daily usability and desirable performance and damn does the Type R pull it off.
It’s no secret how Honda managed to pull this off either, in fact it’s quite obvious from the moment you ease into the deeply bolstered, perfectly proportioned, carbon backed, red bucket seats emblazoned with the Type R logo. One look around the interior and you realize, it’s not all that different than a regular Civic save for a Type R number plate behind the gearbox, some alcantara panels with red accent stitching, and a toggle switch for selecting which mode you wish to drive in. Strip away all the Type R goodies you’re still left with a solid car that’s fun to drive, has benefitted from Honda’s extensive knowledge of ergonomics and is setup with one of the great 6 speed manual transmissions of the century. Yes, the cabin leaves much to be desired in terms of fit and finish, especially the stupid infotainment screen that doesn’t have a volume knob. Still it’s forgivable because after all, this is a hot hatch wearing a Honda badge, a particularly large red one I might add.
With all those goodies however the Type R isn’t just fun to drive, it’s an event. I usually reserve that turn of phrase for cars with six figure price tags and a German or English badge, but the Type R earns the distinction by offering a hilarious, addictive and enthralling driving experience. It easily surpasses its direct competitors, the Golf R, Focus RS and WRX STI, aiming higher instead for the likes of the RS3, M240i and GLA45 AMG. In terms of pure driving enjoyment, it’s not even close, the Type R got my blood going in a way none of those cars did. The power delivery from 5,000 rpm to redline at 7,500 rpm reminded me why I fell in love with turbocharged engines in the first place and why variable valve timing is a wonderful thing. Heaps of torque down low, plenty of power up high means lots of “oh shit, is that how fast I’m going?!” moments. It happens quick and because the exhaust isn’t quite loud enough, the speed sneaks up on you.
And then there is the distribution of that power. The front end grip is monumentally better than any other front wheel drive performance car I have ever driven. It may be years before we’re able to fully comprehend the formula that Honda’s engineers have used here. I have to assume it’s derived from some stolen alien technology because there is no way that this much power going solely to the front wheels should be so controllable. Torque steer is non-existent, it’s just not there and there were times when I expected to fight the steering wheel, and didn’t. Launches induced laughter from all parties present in the vehicle, corner exits caused ear to ear grins and repeated 4th gear pulls on open stretches of road yielded looks of astonishment.
Of course the good people at Honda were not going to be satisfied simply by giving the Type R severe outright speed. How you can play with that speed is as entertaining as quickly amassing it. I could always go for more brake, but the Brembo setup that’s found here is no slouch at scrubbing speed. Good as they are, the more enjoyable method of slowing down was downshifting the classically notchy Honda 6spd. This gearbox is worthy of being immortalized in stone or at the very least some kind of plaque in the enthusiast hall of fame. Again, the same quality feel is found in the base model Civic, but when paired with the power of the Type R and the dialed in chassis, the box offers another level of enjoyment. If only the Type R looked more like a regular Civic Sport. I know some people are into the over the top styling, but I’m firmly in the camp that thinks one of the best parts about being in the Type R is not having to look at it. Angles, edges and more angles. Too much for my taste.
For posterity I drove around town in Comfort mode a bit and with easy throws between gears, and the forgiving clutch, it is genuinely relaxing to drive. Still, I could tell the car was always itching to show me what it can do, so I found myself leaving it in Sport mode the majority of the time and running through more gears than were necessary. It’s a firm ride, certainly made firmer by low profile rubber on 20 inch wheels, but even in R mode it’s not going to rattle your teeth out of your damn head like the RS3. Honda’s engineers really deserve a round of applause for dialing in each setting to such a precise degree.
The Type R really feels like a car that was built to go racing and it just happens to be a utilitarian hatchback as well. That is what separates it from the Golf R, Focus RS, WRX STI and elevates it into the company of the Cayman GTS, Corvette Grand Sport, Mustang GT350 R and so on. It’s not so much that it is intended to compete with those cars, though I suspect it would have no problem keeping up with them in the right hands, but more that they share the same spirit. I have no doubt you could drive a Type R to a racetrack, run hard all day and then drive it home and the engine temp needle wouldn’t budge. Would probably be wise to change the brake fluid afterwards but apart from that, you’d be fine because the Type R welcomes hard use.
I know this to be true because I absolutely flogged the damn thing on my top secret test road in the mountains east of Los Angeles. Southern California auto journalists often talk about going “canyon carving” in the vehicles they’re loaned, which I imagine to be somewhat spirited driving in a responsible manner. I went out and lit the mountains up with a howitzer. The Type R brought out my juvenile side to the extent that I was just about ready to put on some NOFX and toss cherry bombs in trash cans. Only on this one particular road will I look for the limit of a car, for my safety and the safety of others. High visibility, non-existent traffic and a perfect mix of straights and various types of curves makes it the place to take performance cars. I know it intimately, especially since I started riding motorcycles on it. It is there that my high opinion of the Type R was formed, there that I realized just how wonderfully absurd a vehicle it is and there that I actually scared myself a little bit. Only the Viper ACR and a 1969 911 owned by a friend have raised the hair on my neck like the Type R did. That’s how I know a car is speaking to me, that’s how I know it’s something special. The next time I hear someone talking about the Type R being overpriced I’m going to sit them down and tell them about my many laps on my favorite stretch of asphalt. I’ll tell them about the ferocity with which the car charges forward and begs you keep on the throttle. The way the seats hug you just enough to keep you in place without squeezing the life out of you and how once your line is set it’ll hold it without issue provided you’re engaged. Complete attention is required for maximum enjoyment, the hallmark of a raw performance car. The thing is unlike most raw performance cars, the Type R starts at $35k, comes with a warranty and is a perfectly usable daily driver because it’s a freakin Honda. The only question that remains unanswered is, will U.S. buyers realize what a machine it is or will it go overlooked? Hopefully the former, the engineers deserve the recognition, still not sure if we deserve the Type R. Better be on our best behavior this coming year so it sticks around awhile.