► New FL5 Type R driven at last
► Tested on road and track
► Fast, fun, utterly involving
The new Honda Civic Type R is a born communicator. Something that’s made emphatically clear by the uniquely mind-focusing combination of roadside furniture and spectacular rain in Portugal.
Were this wild hillside road in Scotland or Wales, there’d be nothing to it but tarmac, wild moorland and the elements. But Portugal evidently harbours a profound love of roadside clutter. Railings, posts, telegraph poles, markers, lumps of concrete you counterbalance a tower crane… there’s something every 15ft. And, pushing harder than might be entirely prudent in the filthy-wet conditions, running wide will not go unpunished.
Yet snug in the Honda’s (now 8mm lower) bright red bucket seat, I couldn’t be less worried. Dry tarmac would be nice. But so direct and clear are the channels of information exchange this car can establish with your brain that even with the deluge flooding the road, streaming off the new Type R’s screen and boiling in great plumes from its diffuser the sense of connection – and reassurance – is profound.
So the new Honda Civic is good to drive, then?
Despite unfashionably small 19-inch wheels (a development of the lightweight rims Honda fitted to the outgoing car’s end-of-the-line the Limited Edition), Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres (wider than before, for a more generous footprint) are doing a superb job of cutting through the water and finding grip where my eyes tell me it’s likely hard to come by.
But it’s in the feel through the brake pedal, the wheel and the seat of my (thankfully still dry) pants that delivers the magic. Without conscious effort you’re able to brake hard and cleanly right up to the point of lock-up, modulating the pressure for standing water and as you start to feed in some steering.
Brake hard with a little lock on and you feel the otherwise super-stable new Civic’s longer wheelbase become ready to rotate, the front/rear balance yours to control with the right pedal. A steady foot preserves the status quo. Lifting tightens your line. And getting back on the power is an entirely transparent process, the front only washing wide if you’d been greedy and missed a whole Portuguese hill road’s-worth of crystal-clear warning signs.
How does it compare with the previous Type R?
Motoring journalists, like politicians and tired toddlers, don’t agree on much. But on the last Honda Civic Type R they were, almost to a soul, unanimous. By the time the car went off sale, I’d personally run low on praise, so generously had I sprayed it in the Civic Type R’s general direction over the years.
I chased an NSX up Mount Fuji in one, spellbound by how effortlessly the £35k hot hatch clung to the back of the six-figure supercar. I found myself in the Type R again, revised now with such niceties as noise-cancelling cabin tech, when the Mk8 GTI launched, spellbound at VW’s faith in an iconic badge and tartan seats, for in every regard that actually mattered, from gearbox to handling balance to driving position to brake feel to power, the then middle-aged Civic was leagues ahead of the brand-new Golf.
Hugely rapid, spine-tinglingly tactile and infinitely rewarding, that Honda was to hot hatches what the Cayman GT4 and GTS are to two-seat sports cars – an abject lesson in How To Do It.
It was only slightly shy of perfection, and could be improved only by a fresh interior, ideally with an on-the-pace infotainment system, the option to cluster your favourite settings under some kind of Individual drive mode and, some argued, a less cluttered/immature design aesthetic.
(Personally, I didn’t mind it, but then I’m prone to both clutter and immaturity.)
The new Civic Type R is both new and not so new. And if I’ve let the cat out of the bag with regard its dazzling class, that’s deliberate. Because no one should face its equally dazzling £47k list price unprepared.
Blimey, that is… not cheap
No, it is not. £47k (or £499 a month with £11k down on a PCP) is base-model Cayman money.
Soaring costs manufacturing costs, unhelpful exchange rates and, fundamentally, a more expensive car? The huge price increase is caused by all of the above, though that last point is key.
This is not a like-for-like replacement for a load more money. It’s billed as a hang-the-expense evolution of an already stunning machine, and Honda isn’t worried. It’s watched sales of more affordable C-segment hot hatches fall while the RS3, Golf R and A45 S AMG have all pushed pricing ever higher while maintaining sales.
Given the FK8 Civic Type R was a better car than all of them, Honda naturally fancies a slice of that pie. What’s more, CAFE emissions rules mean Honda simply isn’t be able to sell many Civic Type Rs, despite rabid demand.
Honda UK expects a 2023 allocation of just a couple of hundred cars (deliveries begin in January), and perhaps a few more the year after. That compares with 800-1000 units per year when the FK8 debuted, and some 5000 per year when the ‘breadvan’ EP2 was at its peak. So if you must sell less, sell for more. The real enthusiasts will appreciate every gain, however marginal.
So what’s really new about the new Civic Type R?
That phrase – marginal gains – can be a dirty one, suggesting lazy incremental improvements. But the last Type R was still at the top of its game as it went off sale, so Honda had no real need to start over.
On top of that 35mm wheelbase increase, the track is wider and the car lower. Camber stiffness (essentially the front suspension’s ability to maintain geometry under duress, a Porsche obsession) is up 16%, and the dual-axis suspension remains hugely impressive for its ability to get down 325bhp without torque steer.
The shell’s 38% stiffer in torsion, thanks mostly to the use of more adhesive – there’s nearly four times as much of it in this car versus the FK8, working with the welds to eliminate flex). The aluminium bonnet’s nearly half the weight of the old car’s, and the tailgate 20% lighter.
Up front, stiffer tie-rod ends and honed bearings work with a 60% more rigid steering torsion bar to bring about the telepathic connection we already covered. And the engine and gearbox have been worked over too – a lighter flywheel here, a few deleted turbine blades there.
Does this means the new Type R will be awful to live with day-to-day?
It all sounds highly focused and deadly serious… and yet. Roaming the hills and coast roads near the Estoril circuit, our first miles are on battered blacktop so rough it’d make a Range Rover think twice. In an RS Renault or BMW 128ti this’d be purgatory.
But the Civic’s ride quality in Comfort mode is miraculous, as the FK8’s was, the adaptive dampers doing more work than might rightly be expected of anyone or anything this early on a foul November morning. It’s also no harder to drive in town that any other Civic, there’s the space for family duties and the dampers shrug off roadworks, cobbles and roadwork-scarred junctions.
The new interior is a handsome, neatly executed space, with vents hidden behind a broad horizontal band of mesh that elevates the ambience to something close to (if not actually at) the point of feeling £47k-appropriate. An AMG A35 or A45 still feels more expensive, if also busier and more glitzy and European, but the materials and execution in the Civic don’t let the side down.
And the important bits – seat, alcantara wheel, shift lever – are a tactile joy. Like a good Porsche, the driving position is perfect. As is the gearshift; lighter and even more accurate than before.
The engine, too, fails to put a foot wrong: tractable (it’ll pull sixth just off idle with the merest hint of a protest shudder), civilised but with an note that somehow echoes some of the great non-turbo Honda rev monsters of the past. And there’s that same clean, boosted potency as the FK8.
What was that about mix-and-match driving modes?
The FK8 offered no mix-and-match possibilities. It was by no means a dealbreaker, but driving the FK8 Limited Edition on rough, very wet UK tarmac had me yearning for more set-up options.
Honda’s listened, and the result is simple but effective Individual setting, allowing the driver to choose response calibration, steering weight, damping, engine noise, rev match ferocity and display set-up.I’ve perfected my preferences, opting for the lighter steering and pliant dampers together with the full-house powertrain wickedness.
And it’s not just about softening things off for bumpy roads. Later, on a streaming wet track, Comfort damping will put some much-needed movement into the car, for more weight transfer, more confidence and more speed.
What’s the new Type R like on track?
For me, Estoril is synonymous with epic performances in filthy weather – Senna winning his first F1 race, and thundering MotoGP bikes bucking and squirming around the endless right-hander at the end of the lap.
That weather’s here today, too, but where the track should be terrifying the Type R makes every lap a pleasure.
It doesn’t feel ballistically quick in a straight line, a combination no doubt of the way wide-open circuits make even fast road cars feel slow and this car’s weight increase, which just dulls the performance of the slightly fitter engine. But the precision, the poise, the braking power and the delicacy with which you can drive this Honda – it’s all very, very special. Yes, £47k special.
Honda Civic Type R: the initial verdict
Front-wheel drive and humbly Civic-based it may be, but this Type R is the most complete high-performance Honda in a long, long time. It has something of the focus and purity of the seminal NSX – and given the prices of those these days, £47k is a snip.