Tuesday 30th January 2007


HONDA CIVIC TYPE R

James Mills accepts the onerous task of checking out the new hot hatch

Honda Civic Type R
Honda Civic Type R

Let’s start with the good news: Honda has not sold out and the Type-R philosophy – purity, not quantity, of performance – remains firmly intact in the new Civic Type-R.

And the bad news? Not much: it’s more expensive, with prices starting at £17,600 for the regular Type-R and rising to £18,600 for the ‘plush’ Type-R GT, but still undercuts the opposition. And with the space-age styling of the latest Civic, not all eyes will view it as a thing of beauty. But on the whole, the hugely popular, fast and furious Civic is set to broaden its fan base.

Old wine in new bottles?

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Not that the old Civic Type-R, launched back in 2001 and built at Swindon, was any great looker. It did the job, leaving few onlookers in any doubt as to its hot hatch credentials, but there was (dare I say it) a hint of bread van about its profile. The new car’s basic shape is more extrovert. Fussy to some, stimulating and bold to others, at least it’s a talking point in an age of focus-group conformity.

The dress-code is a little more smart casual these days, though. The Type-R logos have been banished from the side skirts and front grille, leaving a solitary tailgate warning to other hot hatch drivers about what they’ve lined up against at the traffic lights.

They’d be wise to heed close attention to it. Because although the Civic Type-R doesn’t win any horsepower wars, neither has it been off at Fat Camp during its development period. The larger physical dimensions and increase in features means a minor gain of 40kg, offset – Honda claims – by shorter gearing for the six-speed manual transmission.

With an ear to the ground and an open mind during the research phase, Honda approached existing Type-R enthusiasts and asked what changes they’d like to see next implemented. Day to day refinement, equipment and feel-good factor from the interior topped the list. No surprise there -- track days are a little outnumbered by M25 days in the real world.

Red-H moods

Swing open the long, wide-opening driver’s door, settle into the Type-R Alcantara-trimmed black and red bucket seat, flick the ignition and admire. The instruments are basked in Red-H red mood lighting, the rev counter now takes centre stage (that’s no different to the regular Civics, mind you) and a super-size Red-H logo stares back at you from the three-spoke steering wheel.

One addition existing Type-R owners have been making to their cars for some time is a set of gearchange lights. Honda’s R&D team loved the race-car inspired idea (again, it’s on the regular Civic too) so a series of amber shift-up lights have been placed up in the top tier of the instrument cluster. Meanwhile, the alloy-capped gear lever and alloy footbrace and drilled pedals hint at what’s to come. Time to hit the Start button…

It’s hard to know what to expect from the 2.0-litre K-Series i-VTEC engine. Honda’s engineers talk of making it more user-friendly and flexible, which is enough to put the fear of God into any existing fan. The key changes under the bonnet centre around making the acclaimed four-cylinder more responsive and free-revving than ever, lowering the cam’ changeover point through a reprogrammed ECU to 5,400rpm.

It now delivers 90 per cent of peak torque at 2,500rpm and serves up its full (if weedy) 142lb-ft at 5,600rpm, a handy 900rpm lower than before. Peak power – 198bhp - has climbed to a heady 7,800rpm, but overall the good news is that you have more ‘VTEC zone’ to play with.

Initially, it feels incredibly inertia-free. Even with under 2,000 miles on the clock, our test car’s engine revs with lightning fast reflexes. So sweet and willing is the engine that you’ll spend the first few exploratory high-speed runs getting to know the rev-limiter. The 8,000 rpm cut-out seems like a kill-joy, interrupting one of the greatest experiences of any sports car engine in production today.

The noise levels are more subdued, but thanks to tweaks to the air filter box, what VTEC howl does fill the cabin will still set off the endorphins.  With the slightly broader power band, rapid cross-country progress isn’t quite the chore it once was, and when you don’t want feel like Senna on a qualifier, driveability is much improved in day-to-day use. But it’s that hunger for revs, the 5,400rpm cam-change point and ultra-rapid-fire six-speed gearbox that makes a full-flight Type-R an utterly unique driving experience.

Underpinnings

It’s pleasing to find that the underpinnings are up to the job too. The ride height has been dropped by 15mm and the rear track widened by 20mm, while strengthening of the cross member ahead of the central fuel tank, front suspension mounts and lower cross member in the engine bay makes for a suitably rigid structure for the suspension to work from.

The end result is a car which delivers more pliancy and comfort. Not just that, but a safety net too, in the form of VSA stability control. I know what you’re thinking: all this means is that it’s gone soft. Well, to an extent, yes it has. The new Type-R isn’t front row-seat, surround-sound action anymore. It won’t blow your head off and leave your ears ringing for mercy. Instead, think of it as a little more civilised, like watching the performance from the front row of the circles.

But it’s all relative. Compared with a GTI or ST, it’s still the hardcore option. You still get that sense of precision and machined perfection. The Type-R has poise, balance, sharper steering and a flat, tied-down stance. It rides the bumps better, but still has that endearing habit of running out of suspension travel where the front wheels leave tarmac and the revs jump, then settle again once grip is restored. If anything, its front end feels a little less determined to hold its line powering out of corners, but drawing comparisons from cold, damp roads at this time of year is always tricky.

The brakes were always strong on the old car, and prove even better this time around, with a solid yet millimetre-precise pedal action. You can push the chassis and yourself right to the limits, confident that the ABS and EBD deliver unbeatable stopping power whatever the weather conditions.

Practicalities

More hardcore PHers may wish to order the new Lightweight version. By ditching the audio system, speakers and parcel shelf, it sheds 40kgs on the scales, and can be ordered from any Honda dealer.

Those concerned with more pragmatic aspects such as company car taxation will be pleased to learn the 31mpg Type-R puts out 215 g/km of CO2. As for insurance and servicing, you’re looking at a 16E rating for the entry model and 17E for the Type-R GT, plus 12,500 miles between visits to your friendly Honda dealer. Satnav and Bluetooth-compatible hands-free phone systems come as a £1,400 bundle pack, which seems pricey given the options available on the portable market these days.

Honda’s marketing types refer to the latest model as ‘RawFined’. Sure enough, some of the rawness and sheer bloody mindedness of the old car has gone. A certain hardcore contingent will lament the involvement of marketing and sales departments hell bent on selling more cars. Honda has chased after the company car driver community – why else would it predict 80 per cent of sales to be the plush GT version – and the end result is a more mature Type-R.

It doesn’t drill its way into your brain and stay imprinted on your synapses long after you’ve shut down the engine and walked away.

Instead, the new car delivers a filtered experience. Like putting your tap water through a filter, it’s the same taste and experience, but the hardness and bad bits – tiresome real-world usability - have been removed.

Others will recognise that back in the real world, this is change for the good. Decide for yourself which camp you fall into.

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