We can’t tell you how the hotly anticipated new Civic Type R deals with Europe yet. But, thanks to the different pace that new cars are launched around the world, we can tell you what it feels like in America. Spoiler alert: it’s bloody good.
It might be fitting to experience the new FL5 generation abroad first, because it has lost its predecessor’s home team advantage. The EP3, FN2, FK2 and FK8 generations were all built in sunny Swindon, but the closure of that plant means that this one comes from Japan. It remains an international co-production, though, using the same turbocharged 2.0-litre VTEC engine as the last one, with this built in Ohio.
Beyond the motor much else remains familiar. The new Type R uses the same clever dual axis front suspension to help battle understeer, a slightly beefed-up version of its predecessor’s six-speed manual gearbox (with the rev-matching function to smooth downshifts) and delivers urge to its hard-working front tyres through a limited-slip differential.
The story is one of minor differences: a 35mm stretch in length, a 25kg increase in mass and a body structure claimed to be 15 percent stiffer. The American version has been given a small increase in power, with Honda now quoting a peak of 316hp from the K20C1 engine. But that’s just lifted it to the same figure that the FK8 made in Europe. We’ll have to see if we get to keep that output once the new car arrives in the UK given the increasing trend for emissions-enforced power reductions in Europe, although we might get lucky and have an increase to the Japanese market version’s 325hp.
That meagre list pretty much covers off the objective changes. The more important one is probably the subjective question of looks. The FL5 has been given a redesign that moves it on from the cartoonish detailing of the last two versions. Subtle it definitely ain’t - there is still a sizeable curved wing hung above the tailgate plus triple exhaust pipes exiting at the centre of the bumper. There are extra vents over the regular Civic, too - although in a welcome change over the last one none of these are fake. Channels under the headlights now direct more cooling air to the 350mm front brake discs to help fight fade, with the new vents at the back of the wings helping to pull high pressure air out of the wheel wells. The one on the bonnet helps improve airflow over the radiator.
The interior is similarly no-nonsense. The car I drove in the ‘States was rocking the very Type R combination of a white exterior with red seats and carpets, these contrasting nicely with the sensible dark plastics higher up the cabin. Most of the architecture is obviously shared with the regular Civic, although the R gets a redesigned digital dashboard once turned to its punchier dynamic modes, plus a revised centre console to put the spherical aluminium gearshifter in the optimum position for ticking off that ‘falls easily to hand’ cliché. Because it really does.
The driving experience runs with the narrative of incremental improvement. The engine fires into the same bass-heavy idle as the last Type R, and that gearlever moves with the same tactile precision, although the clutch bites relatively high. Steering is very direct with just 2.1 turns between locks. At lower speeds the power assistance feels a bit short on both weight and feedback, but it quickly improves as loadings increase. A lightened flywheel compared with the last Type R improves accelerator responses, and although there is a predictable pause as boost builds at lower revs, the engine pulls strongly and seamlessly by the time it gets to 3,500rpm - just halfway to the marked redline.
As before there are switchable dynamic modes, with a toggle switch on the centre console cycling between Comfort, Sport and an Individual function, and with a +R shortcut button above this turning everything up to full Hulk settings. Honda says the +R function is intended primarily for track use, which I’d normally put down as marketing hype, but Michigan backroads soon prove that it has turned the adaptive dampers too firm for this bit of the real world: I even experience what feels like Formula 1 style porpoising. Comfort might not seem like the most Type R appropriate choice of driving mode, but the softer shock absorber settings turn out to be almost perfect for imperfect surfaces, allowing enough vertical movement to avoid a pummelling, but still stopping unwanted secondary motions from developing.
You will be unsurprised to hear that, like its turbocharged predecessors, this Type R feels seriously quick. It loves to rev, the engine pulling with increasing urgency all the way to the red line. A set of change-up LEDs above the digital instruments illuminate progressively as this gets near, yet strangely Honda has also added a warning chime as the limiter approaches - reminiscent of the one in the Mazda RX-8 - which seems redundant given the lights and aural fury. The front end has to battle to find traction on lumpier surfaces, but while cambers and ridges are felt through the helm, the Type R hangs onto a chosen line with dogged determination. It’s exciting without suffering from significant torque steer. Oh, and the steering really comes alive with bigger chassis loadings, feeling properly dialled in as lateral G forces increase.
It is possible to engender understeer, but only with the sort of provocation in a tight corner that all but the most ham-footed will avoid. Most of the time the Type R’s front end feels pretty much nailed to a chosen line, with the smart LSD allowing what feels impossibly early throttle applications without overpowering the Pilot Sport 4S tyres. Even in Comfort mode there’s a fair amount of throttle adjustability, easing the accelerator pushing the rear axle outwards. Sport and +R reduce the intervention enough to allow slight oversteer, this with the stability control still switched on. But the most effective way to tackle a corner is by taking significant brake application to the apex to get the car turning, then getting hard on the gas when the optimum exit appears.
Fake vents aside, there was never much wrong with the last Type R, a car which lived its whole life at the sharp end of the hot hatch segment. This one doesn’t feel radically different, but it does feel subtly better in every key regard - to the extent I’m scratching around the nominate anything that didn’t feel like an improvement. The rev-matching gearshift function still feels a bit dull-witted and was soon turned off; it’s more fun to do it yourself. I even loved the bright red carpets, although they would be a pain to keep clean through a British winter.
We’ll have to wait to drive a European-spec Type R to confirm how well it handles the different challenges of life on this side of the Atlantic. But on the basis of this first taste in America, anticipation should be building to a fever pitch.
Specification | 2023 Honda Civic Type R
Engine: 1996cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 315 @ 6500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 310 @ 2600rpm
Top speed: TBC
Price: $43,990 (MSRP, U.S.)
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