RIP the Hardcore Hot Hatch? – Civic Type-R review
It was back in 2002 that the world was introduced to the idea of a hardcore hot hatch. Ford released the Focus RS and though it had an impressive (for the time) 212bhp it was the Focus’ nature that impressed and surprised most people. It was an angry thing – suspension fighting and tugging at the steering wheel, tyres scrabbling, firm unforgiving suspension. All of which made the Focus RS quite unruly and unpleasant when driving normally, but allowed it to come alive and be utterly brilliant when driving at 9/10ths and above.
There have been many other hot hatches, blending usability and practicality with great handling and performance, but only a few have hit that ‘hardcore’ button – the limited run Renaultsport Megane 26.R/Trophy-R and VW Golf Clubsport S both ditched their rear seats in search of a more hardcore experience. But one car blended the hardcore nature of those limited specials with the usability of a regular hot hatch – the Honda Civic Type-R. And though this is a review of the latest model it also serves as somewhat of an obituary…
Though there were plenty of models before it, this is all about the latest model, the facelifted ‘FK8’ Type-R, not that there was much changed in the facelift – in fact, you could blink and miss the visual changes. But the visual is where we have to start because the Civic Type-R is about as in-your-face as hot hatches come. The CTR is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a pretty car. Aggressive? Yes. Purposeful? Yes. Like an issue of Max Power made real? Quite possibly. But stand back, look at it and you absolutely cannot help but be impressed by the sheer audacity of the design and the fact that it comes from the same company that makes the octogenarian’s favourite Jazz.
The “CTR” looks every bit the BTCC race car that took a wrong turn and somehow ended up at the local Wagamama’s car park. There are wider front and rear arches covering 20-inch alloys for a start, though they are tucked a little inboard for my liking (a set of 15mm spacers sorts that out a treat though).
The rear arches are of the stuck-on variety, while the front wings are all-new, including large vents behind the front wheels. They flow down into the front bumper which juts out and has brake cooling ducts, intakes and oddly, large fake intake areas with swathes of black plastic. Bit disappointing, those. That’s where the only noticeable facelift element comes in too, an extra ‘swoosh’ of body-coloured plastic added in for good measure. Below the bumper sits the large splitter which is in a faux carbon look with red pinstripe and even has mini side planes.
The gloss black grille above houses the Type-R and red ‘H’ badges and the very nice looking multi-section LED headlights on either side. To round off the front end, there’s a bonnet vent for good measure. There’s more faux carbon on the side skirts along with a little flic at the end, which is when we get to the rear.
This is arguably the most aggressive and impressive aspect of the CTR’s styling, the main part being the absolutely enormous rear wing. It’s an admirably complex thing, with side plates, uprights and a curved main wing. It really is quite something. The rear bumper is also very OTT, the main focus being the three exhaust pipes that sit in the middle. Ostensibly the outer two are for exhaust, the centre for the wastegate, just like on the Ferrari F40, but in reality, the centre is simply two smaller pipes joined to one. More on that particular part later.
The inside of the CTR is where it gets really impressive though as the two parts that really matter in a hot hatch – seats, and gear lever are all among the best to grace any car of any price point. The seats are high-backed, well-bolstered and eye-searingly bright red. No matter the exterior colour, they’re the brightest bright red and I absolutely adored them. Once sat in them you reach forward and grab the wheel, a nice feeling item covered in black and red alcantara and your hand just falls naturally down to the left and……. oh my.
You see your palm then rests upon what can only be described as the best gear lever ever. It’s smooth, fits perfectly in the hand and is made from titanium. A cursory flick through the gears is enough to tell you that this is something very very special – the relationship between wheel and the gear lever is absolutely spot on, it sits high in the centre console and is short of throw. And it gets better once moving. As for the rest of the interior, there’s a rudimentary infotainment system, but that’s irrelevant as there’s CarPlay and Android Auto, while the dash has some faux carbon, nice dials and there’s plenty of room in the back. But now, onto the important stuff.
Because that’s when you thumb the Start button and….. wait, is it on? Surely with those three pipes and styling, it should be emitting a deep, fearsome rumble? Nope, almost silent and incredibly disappointing. If ever a car was screaming out for an aftermarket titanium exhaust, the CTR is it – it’s my only major criticism. But anyway, press the pleasantly weighty clutch, snick that lever into first and away you go.
The good news is, the styling is writing cheques that the chassis can bankroll. It’s got all the talent to back that styling up. It’s good, is what I’m alluding to. Okay, within the first 100 metres you’ll realise that the suspension, even in normal ‘Sport’ mode is very firm. Like, park on a weird slope and one wheel won’t be on the ground. And be very wary of selecting ‘R+’ mode on anything other than a racetrack unless you want to visit a dentist and chiropractor in the same afternoon.
But stick to Sport, and floor the CTR and you will be amazed. Never has 316bhp felt so strong – that 2.0-litre turbocharged i4 surges forward, forcing you to grab another gear which is just a wonderful experience in itself with that gorgeous, short throw, positive gearbox. Before you know it you’ll be doing some very silly speeds and a corner has approached, thankfully there’s a wonderful rev-matching system installed which makes you look and feel like a rallying hero. Slow down, drop the clutch and snick from 4th to 3rd and the car matches your revs perfectly, ready for the next surge of acceleration out of the corner. Which is done so with ease thanks to the diff grabbing away at the corner and throwing you out the other side.
This car is addictive, you find yourself heading to twisty country roads for every journey just so you can enjoy it some more. It’s angry, fizzy, but rewards you with a driving experience that would make even the most die-hard RWD fan convert to the front-wheel-drive life. I’m going to go as far as to say that for me, the FK8 Civic Type-R has the best gearbox I’ve used, full stop. The brakes are also highly effective, never failing to provide ample stopping power and even on a 28-degree day and many miles of Essex countryside blasted through they never faded.
The looks may not be to everyone’s liking, but the CTR is a rarity in that it drives exactly as the looks suggest – outrageous, hardcore and wild.
This is why it’s so very sad that the Civic Type-R is dead. The FK8 stopped production recently thanks to the early closure of Honda’s Swindon plant (another victim of Brexit) and as the Megane Trophy-R is out of production too, we’re left with a far more anodyne hot hatch landscape. All manufacturers seem to be moving to AWD and dual-clutch gearboxes, with the new mega hatches having over 400bhp. Sure, they have a crushing cross-country pace, but to me at least there’s nothing like a powerful, angry FWD hot hatch on a British B-road to really ignite a fire in your belly. I think the Hyundai i30N is the closest thing to the CTR currently on sale, but it still lacks that last 5% of greatness. And the next Civic is tipped to be a hybrid and less hardcore to appeal to a greater audience.
So rest in peace, Civic Type-R. You were one of the greats.