Someone with more road racing experience than I have once told me, “If you can’t see the road, use the tree line to see where it goes.” For a few minutes there, the remote Canadian highway felt like the Canückburgring, and we were driving it as if it were. It was a symphony of dips, crests, blind corners, and on- and off-camber corners, some with uneven pavement, and the 2017 Honda Civic Type R was absolutely annihilating it. The speed and unflappable control of this production car was an absolute revelation. It felt like a factory-backed homologation-special race car, of which the absolute minimum number will be built and pre-sold. Minus the curbs and graffiti, Route 364, just south of Mont Tremblant en route to “Le Snack Shack,” would seem a good analogy for Germany’s so-called Green Hell, where the new Type R has officially snatched the infamous Nordschleife circuit’s fastest lap (7:43.80) for a front-drive car away from a limited-edition Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S by over 3 seconds.
But back to our drive. To make it even more interesting, our Type R’s speedometer was set to register mph, but the signs were posted in km/h. Rather than doing the math for each blurry number in the side glass (e.g. 90 km/h x 0.62 = 55.8 mph), it was easier (and offered a measure of plausible deniability) to simply pretend those signs read “mph suggestions.” The Civic Type R easily maintained or even surpassed those speeds. Unimpeachable body control of this type and the ease and effortless urgency with which its 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four piles on the speed revealed to us the thorough engineering the Swindon, England-built Civic Type R saw before it ever reached our shores.
Based on the 2017 Civic hatchback, one might imagine putting the fifth-generation (but our first) Civic Type R’s 306 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque through its front wheels would be a prelude to wresting the steering wheel from the driver’s hands, possibly pointing the car off the road. Instead, the combination of the Type R’s bespoke mechanical (helical) limited-slip front differential and a model-exclusive dual-axis front strut suspension with adaptive dampers effectively eliminates torque steer. With aluminum knuckles, the new setup separates the steering axis from the damping stroke, and it’s unbelievable how well the car charges in a straight line, even at wide-open throttle. The multilink rear suspension also has parts unique to the Type R and has been optimized with a firmer anti-roll bar, springs, and bushings to aid in this mission for stability and control. Like the Civic Si we recently drove, the Civic Type R’s solenoid-valve adaptive dampers control the body motions in a wide variety of conditions. However, the Type R’s smarter three-mode (rather than the Si’s two) dampers further rely on information from damper-stroke and g-load sensors to provide even better adaptability and minute control. In Comfort mode, all the sharp-edged bumps are polished off to deliver a firm but smooth ride. At the same time, the suspension geometry and hardware still provide excellent fundamental primary control. In the firmest +R mode, those bumps are acknowledged, felt, and dispatched, but the tires always maintain contact with the road. In between, Sport mode would be acceptable for most enthusiast drivers to use most of the time. The Type R also gets a beefed up version of the dual-pinion variable-ratio electric-assist power steering system. We love that the ratio changes with the steering wheel angle (quicker at the ends), but each driving mode ramps up steering effort. We wish we could select Comfort steering in +R mode because the added heaviness simply muddies what feel there is for the front tires. In combination with the new front suspension, however, the steering is very direct and responsive, and it offers authoritative turn-in. And because the chassis is so buttoned down, there’s hardly a need to make mid-corner steering inputs, though if a driver does, he or she is again met with uncommonly precise and intuitive response from both the front and back of the car.
Those VTEC loyalists who will bemoan the loss of Honda’s screaming naturally aspirated engines that made peak horsepower at close to 8,000 rpm and peak torque at something like 6,500 rpm will find solace in the fact that the new 2.0-liter turbo-four produces 306 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 295 lb-ft of torque from 2,500 to 4,500 rpm. This direct-injected marvel with its low-mass turbo spools out 9.3 psi of boost and is drivable in practically any gear at almost any rpm. At low rpm, VTEC opens the exhaust valves early to spin up the turbo more quickly, reducing lag. Unlike the Civic Si’s 1.5-liter turbo that merely has a strong midrange, the Type R’s engine maintains its power from about 3,000 rpm all the way to its 7,200-rpm rev limiter in a very linear fashion, so there’s no need to short-shift to find the meat of the power. It’s a heck of a motor, but unfortunately, it doesn’t sound all that special. The Type R features a high-flow exhaust system with three centrally located tips, the center one being a resonator that is said to enhance the sound. The speed of the exhaust rushing through the system determines whether the resonator pushes or pulls air through it. There’s no solenoid/butterfly valve and no faux sound piped into the cabin. Depending on the engine speed, you’ll hear a little exhaust snarl from the rear at low rpm, a bit of a cabin drone at 4,000 rpm, and quite a lot of intake from the firewall at high rpm. Highway cruising produces very little exhaust sound. It’s OK, just nothing like either the Golf R or Focus RS, which can become rather annoying for long stints.
Like the Civic Si, the only transmission is a six-speed manual, but unlike the Civic Si, this one’s case and internals are fortified for the extra 100 hp and 100 lb-ft of torque. Plus, the Type R’s clutch pedal has some welcome heft to it and an intuitive bite point for the clutch. Shift action is as slick as we’ve come to expect from Honda, and there’s even a Honda-first matched-rev downshift program (thankfully defeatable) tailored to each drive mode. The lightweight single-mass flywheel allows the engine to rev freely and smartly with the throttle application, and a numerically higher final drive gives the Type R much more snap in every gear than the Civic Si. To keep everything chill, there’s a charge-intercooler below the bumper, a large radiator above, a liquid-cooled oil cooler, and a hood scoop that bathes the entire engine bay in cool air (plus it helps with aerodynamics by lowering underhood pressure). At a claimed 3,117 pounds (about 200 more than the Civic hatchback we tested), doing a quick weight-to-horsepower calculation for the Type R produces an impressive 10.3 pounds/hp, or right in the range of an Alfa Romeo 4C, well under its natural rival, the Volkswagen Golf R (11.4 pounds/hp), but just over that of the Ford Focus RS (9.9 pounds/hp). We know the rear-drive Alfa and all-wheel-drive Focus RS/VW Golf R all have launch controls that enable sub-6-second 0–60 times. Despite what the press materials say, the Civic Type R does not have launch control. In first gear with the clutch pedal depressed, Type R merely limits engine speed to 3,500 rpm to protect the driveline shock its meaty tires would deliver. An optimal launch will be a clutch-intensive operation that will likely produce a 5.8- to 6.0-second 0–60 time—if the driver gets it just right—or about a full second quicker than the Civic Si and about a second slower than a Focus RS.
The brakes didn’t get much of a workout on the high-speed road drive, but we did have an opportunity to flog the Civic Type R on a 2.1-mile, 16-turn racetrack that put them to the test. The front brakes are internally vented and cross-drilled, measure 13.8 inches in diameter, and are squeezed by Brembo four-piston calipers. There’s a cooling duct built into the front splitter that feeds air to the brakes. Solid rear discs are 12.0 inches and use single-piston calipers. Without special pads or brake fluid, a large group of fellow auto scribes twice cycled through each car, four laps each, throughout the morning for a total of about 40 to 50 laps for each car. There wasn’t a whiff of brake odor or a hint of brake fade, meaning this car is trackable right out of the box. Speaking of trackworthiness, the standard tires at all four corners are 245/30R20 Continental SportContact 6 with a treadwear rating of 280. The grip is tenacious to say the least and will undoubtedly exceed the Civic Si’s impressive 0.97g lateral acceleration figure. The Type R will stop shorter than the Si’s 106-foot feat from 60 mph. It seems Honda got tired of reading, “Nice car. Too bad about the tires and brakes.” We’re also certain the Type R’s Nürburgring team had much to say with these choices.
On the track, we sampled each drive mode but mostly lapped in anger in the +R mode. Even though stability control can be fully defeated in this mode, our Helpful Honda People insisted that the algorithm in +R would allow a fair amount of play—and they were right. In some cases, there’s a useful amount of rotation under trail braking to point the car into the corner. In the quicker corners, we were happy to find the chassis inherently neutral and imminently adjustable. No doubt, part of the reason for this playfulness is the helical limited-slip differential doing what it was designed to do (distributing power/drag across the front of the car), but also some of it has to do with what Honda calls Agile Handling Assist. Similar systems that drag an inside brake to create yaw or minimize understeer are often overzealous and noticeable, but the Honda system is seamless and unobtrusive in +R mode. A driver committed to overreaching the tire-to-road interface can still overcook a corner and hear the reward deserved with that unmistakable sound of front tires pushing wide in protest. But what’s so amazing is how well the Type R puts the power down on corner exits. It almost felt like an all-wheel-drive car in this sense, where we found ourselves going earlier and earlier to the throttle the more laps we drove and the more we probed the car’s deep reserve of traction. It’s a trustworthy track-day companion that’s going to put many others to shame.
Loaded to the Gills
In terms of equipment, Honda says the Civic Type R mirrors what would be a hatchback Sport Touring trim minus Honda Sensing safety suite or LaneWatch. Substitutes that make sense for the Type R include the excellent deeply bolstered cloth seats instead of leather seating and the slick six-speed manual instead of the CVT. The Type R is offered with no options. Among other things, it comes with LED headlamps, taillamps, and foglamps; push-button start; cruise control; auto up/down front windows; a leather-wrapped steering wheel; an aluminum shift knob; voice-compatible navigation; a 7.0-inch high-resolution touchscreen; 12-speaker (including subwoofer) 540-watt audio system with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto/Bluetooth compatibility and SiriusXM; HD radio; 1.5- and 1.0-amp USB ports; and Honda Link with apps, Pandora, and SMS text compatibility. It’s literally loaded.
The $35,000 Question
It comes down to this: Would we choose the $34,775 306-hp FWD Honda Civic Type R over a $36,995 350-hp AWD Ford Focus RS or a $36,475 292-hp AWD Volkswagen Golf R? Yes, in a heartbeat, for the simple fact that the Ford’s ride is largely intolerable even in the “soft” setting. And although the VW’s supple ride and sophisticated dynamics are attractive, the price can easily approach $40,000 with just a few options, including the brilliant DSG double-clutch automated manual.
There’s an unbridled honesty to the Civic Type R absent in the others, but it maintains its European roots, driving character, and composure at the same time. The precision of its steering and chassis, the tractable turbocharged power, and the ludicrous-speed stability and control afforded by the aero package and adaptive dampers set this Honda apart from its American and German competitors. It won’t win a drag race against them, but as was certified with its Nordschleife lap record, clearly the Type R has the pace to put Ford and VW in its mirrors when it counts. All this and the fact that the Civic Type R is more involving to drive—it “needs” you more— make it more rewarding than the others. It will even make you feel like a better driver than you probably are. So if you can get past the anime exterior styling, it has all the attractiveness and thoughtfulness inherent to the 10th-generation Civic’s interior. The way the 2017 Honda Civic Type R pulls all of this together—pace, poise, features, and everyday liveability—make it the uniquely attractive high-performance hatchback we’ve always wanted. Go drive one as soon as you can. We watched the model years pass by (1997, 2001, 2007, 2009, 2015), but your patience for the 2017 U.S. debut of Type R (available in its trademark Championship White) will be rewarded within one city block. Hot hatches have never been this good and in so many ways at the same time.
|2017 Honda Civic Type R|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door hatchback|
|ENGINE||2.0L/306-hp/295-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,150 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||174.9 x 73.9 x 56.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.8-6.0 sec (MT est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||22/28/25 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||153/120 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.80 lb/mile|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Currently|