Long-term test review: Honda Civic Type R

6 Jul, 2016 3:45pm Jonathan Burn Mat Watson

Third report: extrovert styling of the Honda Civic Type R has polarised the office

Verdict

4
The Civic Type R is one of the most thrilling hot hatchbacks on the market, but it does require some patience to live with on a daily basis. However, if you’re prepared to make some sacrifices, the rewards are worth it – just be prepared for plenty of attention.

We're going to have to talk about it at some point – it’s unavoidable. Having lived with the Honda Civic Type R for five months, I have no doubts about its ability as a hot hatch – it’s fast, feisty and frantic. However, one thing that is proving controversial is the way the Type R looks.

Divisive would be a fair description; calling it an eyesore is perhaps a little too harsh, although several Auto Express staff members don’t think so. It’s a car that’s been designed with one thing in mind: speed.

Everything on the Civic is there for a reason: the massive wing generates downforce to keep it stable at high speeds, the blistering wheelarches house chunky alloys wrapped in sticky rubber, while the maze of slashes and vents feed air to the wild 306bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged engine.

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I can see what Honda has tried to do. The hot hatch market is bubbling over with talent and choice, so manufacturers are being forced to do something that will make them stand out.

Mercedes and Audi are lodged in a power struggle, while Renault and Ford are battling to make their respective hot hatch as affordable as possible. Honda has gone for visual impact, and lots of it. It attracts plenty of attention – if people aren’t standing open-mouthed gawping at it, they have their smartphones out snapping pictures.

But the longer I spend with it, the more it grows on me and the less offensive it appears. It’s an exciting car to look at – every surface has some sort of crease, kink or detail you hadn’t previously noticed.

There are some drawbacks to the design, though. Firstly, that huge rear wing and brake light perfectly obstruct your view out the rear view mirror. Those intricate alloy wheels protrude beyond the tyres’ sidewalls, so kerbing the rims is irritatingly easy.

The Civic isn’t exactly in its natural habitat around London, where our office is based, so I grab any opportunity I get to head outside the confines of the M25. When it has the space to stretch its legs, it really comes alive; it’s one of the most exciting hot hatches around. It’s easy to get frustrated with the firm ride, eager engine and feisty character, but out on the right road, it’s fantastic. The snappy six-speed manual gearbox is one of the slickest I’ve ever sampled, and the front end has a huge amount of bite.

In terms of practicality, the Civic also scores well. The boot is a decent size and can swallow plenty of luggage, and while there is no middle seat, I haven’t had any complaints from passengers back there on my 270-mile trips back home to Newcastle.

Honda Civic Type R: second report

Mileage: 6,054
MPG: 32.2mpg

The Civic Type R is the fastest front-wheel-drive car ever produced, and Honda is quite proud of this achievement.

It lapped the fearsome 12.9-mile Nurburgring in Germany in seven minutes, 50 seconds, breaking a record previously held by the Renault Megane RS 275 Trophy-R. Now, to you or I, this isn't hugely relevant, but it is helpful to know you'll make it down to the shops in good time.

However, having spent the past few months driving the Civic, its link with the Nurbugring and its race car DNA is becoming ever more prevalent. So much so that the only place smooth, but and empty enough to safely and legally use all of its performance is the race track - so that's where I headed.

You don't even need to get behind the wheel of the Civic to see it means business. That huge rear wing, angry rear diffuser and bulging bodywork wouldn't look out of place on a BTCC car - in fact, remove the number plates, and you're almost there. It's a similar story inside, with the red bucket seats and digital readout providing that race car feel.

A wet and windy Castle Combe in Wiltshire played host, but even in the biblical conditions, the Type R ploughed on unfazed. The first thing you notice about the Honda is just how much traction it manages to find - even when it looked like a canal boat would have a better chance of setting a lap time in the conditions we faced.

Initially, the front wheels bite and claw at the tarmac as they attempt to harness the 306bhp on tap, but once they hook up, they simply don't let go. Being on the track also let me finally test the R+ mode, which tenses the car up and adds a whole lot more aggression to the driving experience.

Use it on the road, and the car fidgets and hops about like an impatient toddler - the ride is so stiff it's almost unbearable. Yet on the track, it makes a difference. The engine responds more eagerly and the steering weights up nicely in such slippery conditions. It certainly didn't have any trouble keeping up with the lightweight track day specials you can see either side of it.

But what's it like to live with in the real world, away from the track and among the traffic? Well, it appears Honda's efforts to make the Type R 'the fastest front-wheel-drive car in the world' have had an impact on how it deals with daily life. 

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It's not very comfortable and the 2.0-litre turbo is also rather loud - but not the sort of loud you relish hearing as you put your foot down. Quite the opposite, in fact. At motorway speeds, the engine note booms through the cabin - and when you have to drive 270 miles from London to Newcastle to see family, this is something you become very aware of. There's also the matter of the divisive styling, although that's a debate we'll save for another day.

But despite all this, when you peel back the bodywork, the Type R is still a usable five-door hatch. There's a big boot and room for three adults (just) in the back.

Better still, if you're after a true hot hatch - where practicality ultimately plays second fiddle to performance - few do it better than the Type R.

You can turn up at a track, embarrass some sports cars while you're there and then drive home again. Just be sure to take a cushion for the journey back.

Honda Civic Type R: first report

Mileage: 4,439
MPG: 33.2mpg

Race on Sunday, sell on Monday. That’s the mantra car manufacturers recite to justify the billions they invest in motorsport each year. However, the link between race cars and what normal motorists use every day of the week is normally tenuous.

Step forward the Honda Civic Type R, which definitely feels like it wouldn’t shy away from circuit duties. Of all the modern hot hatches, the Type R also looks the most like a race track refugee. It seems like you could throw a few stickers on to it and it would be quite at home chasing British Touring Car Champion Gordon Shedden around the tracks of the UK.

Of course, this means it’s not to everyone’s taste. When I rolled up in it to my mother’s recently, she said I looked ‘ridiculous’. This came from a woman who bought me Rudolf slippers for Christmas...

Certainly, the massive wing, widened vented wheelarches and snowplough-like chin spoiler are all largely pointless at road-legal speeds. At the same time there’s no doubt they let onlookers know this practical hatchback has more than 300bhp and can top 160mph.

There is a price to pay for some of the sporty trinkets, though. That wing impedes the view out of the rear window and means a rear wiper can’t be fitted, which is a real pain in winter because you can’t clean off the road grime while driving. Traverse a speed hump at more than walking pace, meanwhile, and that low nose will not only plough snow, but tarmac, too.

Then there’s the distinctive black alloys. They look ace, but I’m convinced that they actually leap out at kerbs. I’ve already lathed the red highlights off one while negotiating an underground car park. Badly. My fault, I know, but the rubber band-thick tyres provide little room for error while manoeuvring in tight spaces.

Finally, there’s the bucket seats. They’re a joy when you’re strapped in, but you have to lift yourself over their huge bolsters just to get in or out. Still, if you want a car that looks like a racer, I guess you have to accept some compromises in practicality.

You’d think the same would be true of the driving experience. A machine capable of lapping Germany’s Nürburgring race track in record-breaking time must surely ride with the delicacy of a shopping trolley?

Yes – and no. In R mode, the Civic is so firm that it fidgets like it’s just downed three cans of Red Bull. However, leave it in normal mode and the adjustable suspension is just compliant enough that you needn’t worry about returning from the supermarket with your eggs already scrambled.

Honda Civic Type R vs CBR1000RR Fireblate motorbike

That’s why I’ve only once driven the car in R mode (which also changes the throttle map and makes the dials glow red), and that was around Rockingham’s National Circuit. Here the Type R’s split personality really shone through. It may be based on a very sensible hatch, but it has one of the best manual gearboxes ever, a thumping turbocharged engine, superb brakes and a limited slip diff-enhanced front end that grips hard. And as you hurl it round a track, you feel like Gordon Shedden on one of his charges through the back markers.

For me, no other hot hatch so successfully mixes raw race car appeal with everyday usability.

*Insurance quote (below) provided by AA (0800 107 0680) for a 42-year-old living in Banbury, Oxon, with three points.

Key specs

  • Model: Honda Civic Type R GT
  • On fleet since: December 2015
  • Price new: £32,295
  • Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl tyrbo
  • Power: 306bhp
  • CO2/tax: 170g/km/£205
  • Options: None
  • Insurance*: Group: 33, Quote £558
  • Mileage: 4,439
  • Economy: 33.2mpg
  • Any problems?: None so far