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Honda Civic Type R

Niche package

by Julian Edgar, pics by Honda

Click on pics to view larger images

At a glance...

  • Way less performance than the opposition
  • Very stiffly sprung
  • Excellent steering and throttle response
  • Stability control doesn't allow throttle steering
  • Good interior space
  • Plenty of features
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Imagine a world where performance cars are required to use engines of no more than 2 litres. A world where no turbos or superchargers are allowed.

There, the Civic Type R would be a genuinely awesome car.

Its 2 litre engine screams to 8000 rpm and develops 148kW. It’s an engine with wonderful throttle response, a silky smooth idle and a torque curve that’s as flat as a ruler. The chassis is well behaved – if rather unresponsive to throttle inputs when the stability control is left switched on – and the steering razor-sharp.

But in this world, performance cars don’t have to be 2 litres in capacity – and they don’t have to be naturally aspirated. Look at the overall picture and the Honda is outclassed by so many cars it’s hard to keep count.

Perhaps we’d be more impressed if Honda didn’t try to make a highlight of the car’s inadequacies. Says Honda:

The Type R is powered by the naturally-aspirated, high-revving 2.0-litre DOHC i-VTEC engine, mated to a 6-speed manual. It produces 148kW at 7,800rpm. So why didn’t we put a bigger, more powerful, turbocharged lump in there?

That question is answered in part by the Type R philosophy, a mantra followed in the approach to developing any new Type R. The philosophy says that all Type Rs must be pure, balanced and offer a smooth power delivery. For this reason, all Type R cars are supplied with normally-aspirated engines. The second part of the answer is just as simple: it’s not all about big power figures .While mighty kW claims might make the headlines, Honda is more concerned about creating a performance car with balance. There’s absolutely no doubt that our engineers could strap a huge blower on to the i-VTEC engine and get monster results at the flywheel – but it would likely be at the cost of its smooth power delivery or stable cornering under acceleration.

We’re not ashamed of our ‘lowly’ power claims compared to the competition. Quite the opposite: we’re proud to stay true to our engineering beliefs, and proud to stick closely to the Type R philosophy.

And so on goes the PR hype...

If Honda isn’t ashamed of this car’s performance, it bloody well should be.

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Basically, the Type R makes a lot of noise and revs to the stars – but it just doesn’t go hard. The Honda claimed 0-100 km/h time is 6.6 seconds. We’d suggest that in the sort of getaway you might perform at a set of traffic lights, the real time is closer to 8 seconds. In fact, launch gently with the air on before mashing your foot to the floor and it’s not hard to stretch that even further. Basically, that means the local cooking sedans that leap from the line with torque – Aurion, Falcon, Commodore, 380 - will easily wipe you to the urban limit if you’re so foolhardy as to line them up.

And the embarrassment isn’t confined to just traffic light drags. Up a steep, windy and bumpy country road, a Mitsubishi 380 that we’ve driven was able to set faster times than the Type R screaming at 7000 – 8000 rpm.

And if you think it’s unfair to compare the Type R to local sedans, try comparing it with its direct competition – Golf GTi, Mazda 3 MPS, Focus XR5 and so on. There the Honda looks simply ridiculous in the paucity of its performance. At 1345kg it’s in the same weight ballpark as its opposition but has far less power. For example, the Mazda 3 has a flywheel figure of 190kW, well in excess of the Honda’s 148kW. But the vital point to realise is that the peak torque of the Mazda is 97 per cent greater. That’s right, there’s almost twice the torque – and it occurs at 3000 rpm, not the Honda’s 5600 rpm. To put this another way, at 80 km/h in fourth gear in the Honda you have 62kW available at the wheels. In the Mazda you’ve got 115kW available! (See the dyno graph at the end of this story for more.)

And so hell, it’s no surprise that the Mazda 3 goes like a cut snake and the Honda Type R leisurely winds its way to stratospheric revs...

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Forget the hype – in a straight line the Civic Type R is simply not a fast car. But what of Honda’s point that the power is able to be developed smoothly, promoting “stable cornering under acceleration”? Yes, well, maybe. In fact, the Honda is set up so stiffly that at times the suspension and stability control can felt to be working against the engine, not with it. A smooth, constant radius corner taken faster and faster will cause the inside front wheel to be unloaded, with the stability control then shutting down power. It’s not intrusive in its action – but again you’re simply not going all that quickly. Back off sharply to try to get the tail moving and nothing much happens – again the stability control is in there. On bumpy roads the car rapidly gets out of its depth – and lots of country Australian roads are bumpy... well, bumpy to the Type R anyway.

In fact, to make the Type R feel worthwhile, you need to get onto smooth roads, switch off the stability control and keep the revs above the VTEC changeover point of 5400 rpm. It’s only then that the car starts to work: throttle and steering and handling coming together in a way completely unachievable on poorer surfaces or at lower revs or with the electronics still in the handling action. In those conditions – and only in those conditions – the Type R is impressive. And, really, we’d suggest that the number of people who will drive like this on public roads is so close to zero it ain’t funny.

In normal driving, the Type R is a very stiffly sprung, very highly revving car of average performance.

(Incidentally, on initial acquaintance, the Type R can feel quick. At full throttle there’re hugely loud induction and exhaust roars, and the speedo is optimistic - 7 per cent in the case of the test car. So beware the short dealer test drive!)

The engine may be way down in performance over its turbo competition, but by the same token, the engineers should be quite proud of their achievement. Feeling quite unburstable, the variable valve lift and variable valve timing gives the engine the tractability to potter around, short-changing at 2000 rpm, or, at the twitch of the ankle, scream right around to the redline. Honda says that at 2500 rpm there’s 90 per cent of peak torque available. (But even the peak torque isn’t much, is it? But we won’t go there again.)

Fuel requirement is 95 RON and economy 9.3 litres/100km in the combined government test – we got close to that in our drive.

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The gearbox and clutch are user-friendly – light and precise. Final drive ratio is a mind-boggling 5.062:1 (there, starting to get a feel for the revs yet?!) and the engine is turning busily at all highway speeds. The steering is excellent. It is an electric power-assist system but avoids the dead feeling that using an electric motor sometimes has. Just 2.29 turns will take you from lock to lock. But while fast, the steering avoids the nervousness around centre that you might have expected. There’s also a lack of kickback, even when cornering hard over patched bitumen.

Honda suggests that it got a bunch of UK Honda enthusiasts in and looked at their modified Civics to see what they should do with the this Type R. And obviously they listened – there’s a red engine ’start’ button, VTEC indication light, multi-stage shift light, a huge central analog tachometer and a multitude of digital displays. We think the ‘floating’ LED displays in the centre of the tacho work well but if you’re not into boy racer decorations, the overall effect can be a bit over the top. The same market research was obviously applied to the exterior – we won’t describe each blingy bit that you can see for yourself in the pics. In the metal, we think that from some angles (eg front three-quarters) the car looks fabulous; equally, from other angles (like the rear) it looks pretty weird. From a safety perspective the tail-lights work quite poorly– they’re hard to see.

Interior space is surprisingly good – the boot is huge and the rear seat accommodating. Equipment level is fine – there are six airbags, dual climate control, bear-hugging seats and rain-sensing wipers. However, the MP3-compatible CD is a single unit. The hatch is oddly hard to close – many times, two attempts are needed.

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So how do we summarise the Type R? If you’re one of the tiny number of people who has forty grand to spare and wants to turn off the stability control and then drive really hard on smooth roads in a high revving naturally aspirated car – perhaps with a track day a month thrown in – then the Type R is it. In fact, there isn’t really any competition for that sort of car in this price range.

But if you want a car that handles well, goes strongly, is comfortable and effective, forget the Type R – there’re now just too many cars that do so much more.

Click for larger image

We put the Honda on ChipTorque’s chassis dyno - the red lines show the Type R’s measured power and torque outputs.

Then we got the guys to overlay a standard Mazda 3 MPS they’d previously run-up, shown by the blue lines.

The power and torque differences between the two cars is simply phenomenal...

Note: dyno runs courtesy of ChipTorque.

The Civic Type R was made available for this story by Honda.

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