Monday 10th August 2009


HONDA CIVIC TYPE R MUGEN DRIVEN

PH gets a world-first spin behind the wheel of the Super-Civic

Poring over these pictures of the Honda Civic Type R Mugen Concept, it is possible to draw several conclusions, depending upon your preconceptions of Honda, and of hot hatches in general.

World-first: nobody outside Mugen had driven the Type R concept before PH
World-first: nobody outside Mugen had driven the Type R concept before PH

You might think that, however good Mugen's reputation as a tuner of Honda cars, the latest Euro-spec Honda Civic Type R, with its unyielding twist-beam rear suspension, is never going to be able to mix it with a properly sorted rival with independent rear suspension. You might also think that, despite the undoubted allure of Honda's high-revving VTEC engines, even a tuned version won't be able to compete with the turbocharged European hardcore hatch competition. If you're feeling particularly ungenerous, you might feel that a chap with some time on his hands and some spare parts from Halfords would have done a better job with the body kit.

Mugen-tweaked handling is surprisingly biddable
Mugen-tweaked handling is surprisingly biddable
All these things crossed my mind as myself and lucky PH competition winner Nick (check out the video of Nick's Japanese experience on PH soon) arrived at the Twin-Ring Motegi race track to try out the prototype of Mugen's super-Civic Type R - the first westerners to do so. The rather humble makeshift pit garage - actually nothing more than a couple of shabby-ish hospitality-style tents and awnings - made me still more nervous that this really would be a bit of a Heath Robinson project.

I needn't have worried. There are two things that strike you about the way the Japanese go about their business. The first is that they tend to be very modest about their achievements - hence the shabby gazebo and the generally unglamorous surroundings. The second is that, when they do a job, they do it properly - hence the very serious-looking machine sitting underneath the grubby awnings.

Honestly, that body kit looks better in the flesh
Honestly, that body kit looks better in the flesh
Okay, so some of the body panels are a slightly different shade of red, but that's because a) this is still a development hack and not a series production model and b) the front and rear bumpers and the front wings are all made of fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP). This is part of a weight-saving programme that shaves a significant 105kg off the Civic's kerb weight and also involves the removal of the rear seats.

The engine has also received a similarly extensive going-over. This version of Honda's K20A motor is essentially the same as the one used in the 2007 Mugen RR, a limited run of 300 very hardcore versions of the Japanese domestic market four-door Civic Type R. This means that power is up 39bhp, from 198bhp to 237bhp, while torque is up 14lb ft to a respectable (for a VTEC unit) 162lb ft, thanks to extensive internal changes to the cams, inlet and exhaust systems.

...although that wing does hamper visibility
...although that wing does hamper visibility
Tweaks to the chassis are pretty involved, too, with uprated springs and shocks, while nestling behind the lightweight alloys are 17-inch diameter brakes with bespoke four-piston monoblock callipers (standard CTRs get a single-piston set-up). Partly to accommodate the chunkier brake callipers, the Civic's track has been widened by 10mm. Like the latest Championship White UK-spec Civic Type R, the Mugen concept also has a limited-slip diff, which could prove a crucial point for track day fans.

But now to the truly important part - driving. Stepping into the Civic Type R Mugen, itís immediately clear that this is a car that means business. Despite the absence of a roll cage the empty space where the rear seats would be, the hip-crunching racing buckets and the extra stack of gauges to the right of the steering wheel telegraph a clear message: ďdrive me hardĒ this car is saying.

breathed-on VTEC produces 237bhp
breathed-on VTEC produces 237bhp
This car also has a data-logging device that monitors various pressures and temperatures within the car, into which you can pre-programme certain parameters. When your chosen indicator - oil temperature, say - reaches your pre-determined limit a buzzer will sound, telling you itís time to cool the car down. If you do a lot of track days, that has got to be one hell of a useful tool.

Once we thumb the starter motor, however, and head out onto the test track, weíre in for a bit of a surprise - several, actually. The first shock is how sophisticated the whole thing feels. Looking at the Civic Type R Mugen youíd expect it to feel edgy, raw, nervy and unyielding, but in reality it feels quite the opposite. This might be a Ďhardcoreí hot hatch, but its sophisticated damping and more linear power delivery (Mugen has designed this engine to deliver seamless torque and power, so thereís less of a trademark VTEC Ďkickí) make it feel more refined than the standard car.

Starship dashboard gets a few extra dials
Starship dashboard gets a few extra dials
Thatís not to say the Mugen Civic is dull, though. The K20A still wails like a touring car engine as you push it beyond 8000rpm, the (shorter-throw) gearchange is still one of the sweetest of any front-drive car Iíve driven and the new-found mid-range torque gives the motor the sort of punch that might - just might - see it keep up with turbocharged European hot-hatchery, as long as you work that engine hard enough.

Surprise number two arrives with the first few corners and the realisation that, on track at least, the torsion beam rear is no hindrance to the Mugen Type Rís handling. Mugen has kindly provided us with a Japanese-spec four-door Civic Type R equipped with a smattering of Mugen handling extras by way of comparison, and the difference between the two cars is startling.

Competition winner Nick gets comfy
Competition winner Nick gets comfy
Between you, me and this computer screen, I expected the UK-shape Civic, with its less sophisticated rear suspension and shorter wheelbase, to feel twitchy and snappish in its cornering behaviour, while the Japanese-spec carís longer wheelbase and independently sprung rear end would make it the more predictable and approachable of the two.

Driving the four-door Civic round an off-camber right-hander with a bump in the middle and a heavy braking zone just the other side, I realise just how wrong I am. In the Type R Mugen prototype this is a simple corner, where you simply hold on to the steering wheel a bit tighter as your front right wheel skips over the bump, and you brake for the next bend while still turning. It is a bend you think nothing of.

'Yes Mr Rigby, the seatbelt is perfectly secure...'
'Yes Mr Rigby, the seatbelt is perfectly secure...'
In the Type R saloon, things are a little different. I approach the same bend in exactly the same way, but as the four-door crests the bump things begin to go wrong. First, the front suspension is flustered, throwing the steering off kilter. Then I start to brake for the next corner and the back end steps wide on the damp tarmac. There follows a rather ungainly series of fishtails before I manage to gather the car together - fortunately before the tyre wall does it for me. Torsion beam 1, independent rear suspension, nil.

The third surprise is the brakes. Actually, with that clever - and powerful - calliper set-up the stopping ability of the Civic Type R Mugen should come as no surprise, but the carís ability to resist fade, even after half an hour of heavy use, is deeply impressive.

LSD helps wet-weather traction
LSD helps wet-weather traction
Itís clearly a car with promise, the Civic Type R Mugen. Itís quick, surprisingly sophisticated and something a bit different from your average super-hatch. Itís also coming to Britain for final development testing, so it just might cope with the scarred, rutted piece of tarmac that is the average British B-road.

Mugen is keen to point out that this car is still very much a concept - it doesnít even have a proper name yet. But if it does get the go ahead for a limited production run, rumour has it that it could cost more than £30k. And thatís about £5k too much, I reckon. So come on, Mugen, give us a fourth surprise and make it cheap enough to compete head-on with the likes of the Ford Focus RS.

Author: Riggers