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
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.
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.
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.
But now to the truly important part - driving. Stepping into the Civic Type R Mugen, it’s 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: “drive me hard” this car is saying.
Once we thumb the starter motor, however, and head out onto the test track, we’re 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 you’d expect it to feel edgy, raw, nervy and unyielding, but in reality it feels quite the opposite. This might be a ‘hardcore’ hot hatch, but its sophisticated damping and more linear power delivery (Mugen has designed this engine to deliver seamless torque and power, so there’s less of a trademark VTEC ‘kick’) make it feel more refined than the standard car.
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 R’s 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.
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.
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 car’s ability to resist fade, even after half an hour of heavy use, is deeply impressive.
Mugen is keen to point out that this car is still very much a concept - it doesn’t 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 that’s 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.