Three things interested me most regarding the latest Honda Civic Type R – the FL5. Now, I’m told there are many changes, but most seem to sit in a bracket that could be termed minutiae – small percentage gains here and there. The changes that pricked up my ears were all more substantial. First is the driving modes. The FL5 has an individual driving mode. Why is that so important? Because the last Type R (FK8) was, in my opinion, about as perfect as a high-powered, front-driven hot hatch could be, apart from the fixed modes. For example, the lightest steering setting was often the best for road use, but you couldn’t have that in the racier modes that added the required aggression elsewhere. It wasn't ruinous, it just sparked a rueful sigh.
The second thing is the new car’s looks. When I went on the launch of the FK8 in 2017, I said right from the off that it was the best hot hatch on sale. I think I was proved right, judging by the numerous test wins and awards it racked up in the following years. But in that time – try as I might and no matter how hard I squinted – the looks never grew on me. The FK8 is like the Elephant Man: beautiful on the inside, repulsive on the outside. I know some people say the FL5 is bland, and I can understand that point of view, but as far as I’m concerned, bland trumps beastly.
The third thing is the price. My, my, the FL5 is expensive, especially considering what’s underneath that slinkier skin. It isn’t exactly revolutionary. Sure, it has a new, stiffer chassis, but mechanically it’s fundamentally unchanged – so how can it cost £46,995? The FK8 was around £30,000 when it was launched. Now, I am not here to justify Honda’s pricing strategy, and I do think it’s a real shame that the Type R is now beyond the reach of many of its traditional buyers, but I will say this: the FL5 is roughly the same price as a Mercedes-AMG A35. I’ve driven the A35 and it’s as mediocre as mild cheddar. If the FL5 simply matches the FK8’s all-round performance, it would blow the A35 into the weeds. Coming from that point of view, then, maybe there’s some rationale for its pricing?
The lead-up to this UK drive has been so protracted that if you haven’t gleaned what’s new about the FL5 by now, either you don’t care or have been living under a rock. So, I’ll spare you an equally protracted technical deep-dive and simply run you through the highlights. The new, stiffer chassis is wider and longer – that's both overall and between the wheels. The tracks are broader, too, and because the car sits lower to the ground the centre of gravity has been improved. Also, with the FL5 being bigger, it won’t surprise you to learn that it’s heavier, too, but thanks to careful weight-saving, including a resin tailgate, only by 24kg over the previous GT. That's nothing really.
The aero has been tweaked, not just to reduce lift at speed but also to feed more air through the brakes so they stay with you longer on track. Stiffer mountings for the front suspension, more camber and improved steering response sharpen up the handling, and the drivetrain has been sharpened up, too. The carryover K20C1 VTEC engine breathes better on the induction and exhaust sides, has a more responsive turbo and retuned software. Peak power is up by 9hp and torque boosted by 15lb ft, with a flatter torque curve as well. Lastly, the six-speed gearbox (already one of the standout features of the FK8) has been tinkered with to make the shifts even slicker and more defined, with sharper rev-matching on all downshifts. That's including second to first, which didn't have rev-matching before.
So there you go, that’s the new FL5 in a nutshell. Do the incremental changes deliver monumental results on road and track? No, of course not. If the changes are incremental, the results are unlikely to be significantly different. This became obvious after a few laps in the FK8 around Thruxton before swapping to the FL5. Now, Thruxton isn’t a challenge you take lightly. It’s the fastest circuit in the UK, doesn’t have a lot of run off and it’s so flat and featureless that most of the time you can’t see what’s coming. And typically, it was wet and murky, and in the gloom I could see even less, apart from a colossal shunt in my mind’s eye if I got it wrong. Nevertheless, there are few cars I’d rather brave these conditions in than an FK8.
Despite having 320hp to shove through two front wheels on a very slippery surface, it was surprisingly easy to get the power down without too much drama. The engine pulls hard through all the gears, so it still feels properly rapid, and with tenacious grip, supreme body control and precise steering, which tells you all you need to know, there were no heart-in-mouth moments. It’s just a brilliant machine, the FK8. The only slightly alarming aspect was its twitchiness at the rear into slower corners. You want some rotation, but the line between some and a bundle was a fine one.
After a few laps, I swapped into the FL5. When you have these on-track experiences, they’re normally rushed and it’s hard to take in everything about a new car because you’re acquainting yourself – or, in this case reacquainting yourself – with the track. Horrendous conditions don’t help the situation, and I never like having an instructor in the car with me because, well, I always feel this overwhelming responsibility not to kill him. With all that in mind, I'd say the new car felt broadly similar.
That goes for most aspects: driving position, engine, even body control and outright grip. Yes, the FL5 has slightly larger tyres (265/30/R19 Michelin Pilot Sport 4S), but the low-grip surface negated much of their advantage and with broadly the same performance, the traction and cornering speeds were, I’d say, much the same. They so clearly share the same DNA, with the FL5 exhibiting the same traits that the FK8 had done, including that looseness at the rear on a trailing brake. But with a few more laps and a better understanding of the conditions, this time I remembered to play with the driving modes.
Both cars were in R+ when I got in them, and I’d left the FK8 in that mode throughout. But by delving into the new, Individual mode, I configured the FL5 with aggression in most of its settings bar the suspension, which I put in Sport. That made a difference. Having that little bit more roll didn’t just settle the car through the slow stuff, but calmed it down through the quicker stuff, too. This meant I had even more confidence. I could push harder, carry more speed, but also hit my lines more consistently. Without doubt, then, the FL5 is an awesome track car, but had I remembered to soften the FK8 off, I am sure that the results would’ve been similar. On a dry track the new car’s star may have risen higher, but in the gloom of Thruxton both shone with much the same intensity.
It was on the road – still wet, but having more time to ponder things – where the differences became apparent. Admittedly, I didn’t drive the FK8 away from the circuit, but knowing it well, the first thing that struck me was the FL5’s improved cruising manners. It’s not uber refined, because over really rough surfaces there’s still plenty of roar from those wider tyres. Still, it’s a big improvement over its predecessor, and on smoother asphalt I doubt it’s much nosier than a Golf R. It feels better made than a Golf R, though, with this generation of Civic boating vastly better materials and a generally solid, classy feel. Just shutting the door elicits a well-damped thud rather than the FK8's tinny twang, and I love the art deco grille that stretches the width of the dashboard. Even the joysticks that sprout from it – to direct the airflow from the vents – have a substantial tactility that Mercedes would do well to replicate in its £147,000 SL 55.
The instruments are better and now configurable, too. The still-digital but standard-looking round dials in Comfort mode are simple to read, while the race-style layout of R+ delivers all the crucial information with even greater clarity. Also, the row of change-up lights across the top of the display are dead easy to pick out peripherally as you’re charging headlong through the gears. Which, by the way, are sublime. Here’s a challenge: is there a new car on sale with a better manual selector than this? I can’t think of one. The way the lever almost sucks itself into the next gear with the lightest of touches – without feeling imprecise or losing any mechanical sweetness that tells you exactly when the cogs have meshed – is just remarkable. Better than the old car's? Hmm, possibly, but after its facelift, the FK8's 'box was improved markedly so it's not far off.
Also remarkable is the supple ride, at least when you consider how this car works so sublimely on track. Yet that’s the point: compliance is key. Generally speaking, whether you’re hard-charging on a challenging B road or leaping across painted kerbs, you need some give, and that’s what the Type R’s Comfort setting gives you. At their softest, the dampers swallow the harshness of truly awful surfaces like a cartoon character swallowing a comedy bomb. When the surface allows, you have the capacity to ramp up the stiffness to clamp down on lean, but for your typical UK roads, the basic setting works brilliantly.
Again, this is the beauty of that Individual mode. It gives the FL5 a much wider bandwidth of ability because you can pick and choose every element. That said, having yearned for steering that can be run in a lighter setting, I ended up with Sport – the mid setting – as my preferred option for the road. It just gave me that extra degree of on-centre trustworthiness, without feeling laughably weighty as you add a more substantial lock on. Here’s noticeable big change, though. The FL5 turns in with such venom that it reminded me of the 992 GT3. It’s so direct that the steering inputs chime perfectly with the rate of turn. I mean, the old car was good in this respect, but not this good.
There’s one other area where the two generations differ noticeably, and that’s the engine. Not on ultimate pace, because while I am sure the FL5 will prove itself quicker against the stop watch, on a wet day there’s little to choose between them. It’s the delivery. The FL5 starts boosting at 2,000rpm, which is when the old car’s turbo switched on, but instead of building to a frenzy like the FK8, the FL5 is far more linear. It never explodes like the old car in the mid-range, but keeps pulling consistently. Technically, it’s better to have that flatter torque curve because it makes the delivery more predictable, but in terms of theatre, I did miss the crescendo.
But other than that one, debatable and definitely tiny glitch, the new Type R is an utter delight. Every time a new version comes along, I worry that Honda will have ruined it. Generally speaking, though, that’s not been the case. Over its 25-year history, the only fly in the Type R ointment was the maligned FN2. Yet even that’s starting to be considered more favourably as time passes – as Matt B discussed in his Type R Origins story last year. The FL5 is another seamless transition up the ladder of success.
We still need a dry day and a benchmark rival to truly appreciate what it has to offer, but I don’t think that's likely to be the Mercedes A35. Knowing what I know already, I can safely say that test would be a drubbing. And that brings me back to the price. There’s every chance that in the dry the FL5 will pull clear of its predecessor more obviously, but what this launch taught me – as much as anything about the new car – is how good the FK8 is. The simple fact that Honda hasn’t made a root and branch change with its replacement tells you something: either Honda’s engineers knew they didn’t need to 'go big' or perhaps that they just couldn’t. The last one’s brilliance left little headroom for improvement – well, other than interior quality and infotainment.
So here’s the thing. If you can afford the FL5 – and actually get allocated one – then buy it, because it’s almost certainly the best hot hatch on sale. And if you can’t stretch to it, don’t worry. Because the best hot hatch since 2017 is still superior to almost everything else today. They start from around £25,000 used, and that’s just about enough to balance out its awful looks, if you squint hard enough.
SPECIFICATION | HONDA CIVIC TYPE R GT (FL5)
Engine: 1,996cc, four-cylinder turbo
Transmission: six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 329 @ 6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 310 @ 2,200-4,000rpm
Top speed: 170mph
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