Honda’s playing catch-up. And fast.
Those of us old enough to remember who was in charge (Charles), whom to call (Ghostbusters), and what KITT stood for (Google it, kiddo) are still having a hard time getting used to Honda not flat-out blowing us away every time it introduces something. Perhaps it’s not fair, but we always have high expectations from the company that Soichiro built. It used to be that every time Honda put its collective mind to a task, it came up with an acronym that changed the automotive world. CVCC, VTEC, SH-AWD, how we love you.
After a halfhearted attempt at forced induction in the Acura RDX, Honda is finally following the rest of the industry down the path of turbocharging and direct-injection. Our first chance to experience the company’s new turbocharged four-cylinder comes not in a tall mommy-mobile but in the over-the-top, juvenile-in-all-the-right-ways, but-don’t-get-too-excited-because-this-one’s-not-coming-to-the-U.S.A. Civic Type R.
The Euro-market Civic isn’t related to our U.S. Civic, but Honda thought it was a great idea to allow us behind the wheel of its first turbocharged performance car. We agree wholeheartedly — and that was before we realized that this 2.0-liter four-cylinder is built in Ohio. Now things are getting really interesting! This is the engine we’ll be seeing in our new 10th-generation Civic, due this autumn.
Mind you, no garden-variety Civic will be tuned to the same 306 hp, and it probably won’t be wearing a wing big enough to serve a five-course meal on. But the next Civic will be a global product, which means we’ll be getting a five-door, an Si version, and very likely a Civic Type R, too.
And that brings us back to this little monster.
The twin-cam VTEC and dual-VTC (variable exhaust-cam lift; phasing on both cams) direct-injected four is force-fed air via a single-scroll turbocharger. It produces a massive 306 hp at a lofty 6,500 rpm and 295 lb-ft between 2,500 and 4,500 rpm. Big numbers.
Power heads to the front wheels only (ruh-roh) via a six-speed manual gearbox (hallelujah) and helical limited-slip diff (praise be). Dual-axis struts are used up front, which, similar in theory to Ford’s RevoKnuckle and GM’s HiPer Strut, aim to reduce torque steer. Braking is accomplished by four-wheel discs. Up front are huge (13.8-inch) vented and cross-drilled rotors clamped by four-piston Brembo calipers. In the back? Well, they’re regular ol’ solid discs on a twist-beam suspension. Hey, this is a front-heavy subcompact. All the magic happens up front.
Adaptive dampers respond to reduce body motions from weight transfer (countering brake dive, acceleration squat, and body roll) and provide a taut but progressive and very well-controlled ride. Should you desire sudden retinal detachment, you can select a sport mode (called +R) that instantly fills the dampers with sand. The resulting pogo-like ride was allegedly used to obtain a scorching 7-minute, 50.63-second lap of the Nürburgring Nordschleife. I suspect the driver’s pancreas ruptured at some point during that lap, but I don’t question the front-drive record-breaking lap time for a second.
The Type R is seriously quick. Honda quotes a 0-62-mph time of 5.7 seconds, and that seems way conservative. Even the car’s built-in acceleration timer agreed — I saw times of 5.14, 5.29, and 5.38 seconds. That’s hardly scientific, but I bet we’ll see 0-60 times in the low to mid 5-second range if we ever get to test one. Top speed is a claimed 167 mph, and judging how hard our Civic was still pulling at an indicated 160 mph, there’s no question it’ll get there — and this with actual downforce, say the engineers.
Once you go for the brakes, things get a little squirrely. A lot squirrely, actually. The Civic’s rear end loves to walk around when it’s unloaded, resulting in unexpected Zumba moves from its spoilered butt. These are not particularly welcome when trying to scrub off speed in a hurry or when entering a corner down a steep hill.
The rear-end instability is probably a side effect of the R’s insanely quick turn-in. The steering is very quick off-center, and the Civic throws itself into corners like it’s going for the kill. Unfortunately, though that initial turn-in is reminiscent of a Ford Focus ST’s, the enthusiasm then fades in favor of resolute, unrelenting understeer.
None of which you feel through the steering wheel. On the bright side, there’s almost no torque steer, and that’s impressive considering the amount of twist the half-shafts are dealing with. Some torque steer would have been a worthwhile tradeoff for any information coming back through the wheel, though.
The helical diff performs absolute miracles, pulling the Type R out of corners with the kind of traction you’d expect from an all-wheel-drive sports car. Neurotic stability-control programming means the Brembos are constantly nipping at the inside wheels — leaving you no choice but to switch the system completely off — but under power, this Civic can put down ungodly amounts of power.
And the little four-cylinder makes ungodly amounts of it. With an output of more than 150 hp per liter with a single-scroll turbo, you’d expect massive lag. You’d be wrong. Sure, you have to plan your throttle applications in advance at low revs, but Honda’s computers are clearly playing tricks with valve timing to help keep the turbo spooled. Every once in a while, you can catch the computer out — mat the gas and get absolutely nothing for a good second or two.
In those cases, you can downshift to get a jump in revs and wake the engine up. Rowing through the gears is the best part of driving the Type R. The six-speed’s shifter is perfection, with fabulously short-throw shifts and the sort of weighting precision that only Honda can seem to master. The engine is vocal, though not particularly melodic, filling the cabin with exhaust boom between 3,500 and 4,000 rpm. The turbo is clearly audible inside and out with fun whooshes, but the exhaust gives none of the programmed-in exhaust farts that the Germans seem to love so much.
Boost begins to build in the 2,000-rpm range, and in higher gears, the digital gauge will show 1.3 bars (18.9 psi) by about 2,750 rpm. It peaks right at 4,000 rpm (1.4 bars, or 20.3 psi), and the turbo is big enough to still be pressuring the intake to 1.2 bars (17.4) until right before the 7,000-rpm limiter. Meaning? This is a turbocharged engine that pulls and pulls — at least by turbo engine standards.
And the chassis grips and grips (which is especially wonderful considering the supportive, comfortable seats). And the brakes are genuinely unfadeable. They’ll smell, and they’ll smoke, but the pedal never changes, and they never give up. The big downforce-producing spoiler isn’t even visible in the rear-view mirror, the driving position is great, and the cabin is quiet and well thought-out.
So what’s all this about Honda not blowing us away?
If this Civic Type R had come out a decade ago, it would have left us speechless. Today, it just seems like … everything else. There’s not much in the way of innovation here — the front-strut design is something we’ve seen before, active shocks are great but nothing new, and the engine, powerful though it is, doesn’t do anything that other turbo-fours haven’t. Although it’s a fun back-road blaster, the R fades into one-dimensional understeer machine on track.
The Ford Fiesta ST showed us that a front-drive car with a twist-beam rear suspension can handle like a neutral race car. The Mercedes GLA45 AMG showed us that it’s possible to get stupid power out of a little four-cylinder. The Volkswagen GTI has no torque steer but still manages communicative steering — with or without its locking differential. And the forthcoming Ford Focus RS, with its torque-vectoring front diff, is about to show the world that you can drift a front-wheel-drive car.
The Civic Type R doesn’t add to that list. It’s a collection of great pieces, but they’re all familiar. The car is very fun. It’s very fast. It looks the business. But it didn’t make us stand back and say “oh my” like the first time we experienced VTEC. Or SH-AWD. Or, for that matter, any time we’ve been behind the wheel of something with a Type R badge on it.
We think a detuned version of this engine will make a lot of Civic drivers very happy. We’re geeked about the return of a five-door Civic to America. And we could genuinely not be happier that Honda is promising to once again pay attention to its enthusiast fans. Now all that’s left is for Honda to wow us like it used to.