Probably the most capable front-wheel-drive car in production today, with only limited edition specials getting close
What is it?
Officially it's a concept – the Honda Civic Type R Mugen Concept, to be precise. It's a brand-building exercise for both the Civic Type R and Mugen Euro, the semi-official tuning arm of Honda, which has only had a presence in Europe for the past two years.
Unofficially it's also a working prototype, built to gauge how well received this car might be if put into limited-scale production. That would further boost the image and awareness of Mugen, and could herald the launch of more Mugen-branded tuning products and upgrades - perhaps even sold through Honda dealers.
For now, though, it's a one-off. And it's a thorough job. Mugen Euro (based in Northampton) has taken a Swindon-built Civic Type R and, first, got to work on the engine. Traditionally that's Mugen's speciality and a lot of its motorsport expertise has gone into this. There's a new airbox, intake manifold and stainless steel exhaust on the outside, with new pistons, throttle body, camshaft and valve springs on the inside.
New mapping has increased the engine's rev limit to 8500rpm, with peak power of 237bhp at 8300. The VTEC cam timing change is left at 5500rpm and is still a big old kick; maximum torque (only 157lb ft of it) doesn't come in until 6250rpm. Below 5500 it only has around 135lb ft and barely more than 140bhp. The power curve is as steep as they come.
However, you don't need loads of torque in a light car, so Mugen has thrown 105kg out, by using composite body panels at the front, ditching the rear seats, fitting new front seats and using lighter, forged wheels which alone save around 20kg. The power-to-weight ratio is better even than the Japan-only Mugen Civic Type RR saloon, of which Mugen made 300 in 2007.
Unlike the Japanese Mugen Civic, the British-built Mugen Civic retains a torsion beam rear axle. Mugen – and Honda – want to make this car work as a driver's tool without cutting the torsion beam and fitting fully independent rear suspension; otherwise, the thinking is, it's not a proper European Civic Type R any more. It's a commendable attitude. Springs and dampers are new, the geometry is altered slightly and Mugen is still trialling different kinds of tyres. Other changes include the body styling bits, a short-shift kit for the gear lever and uprated brakes with four-pot front calipers.
What's it like?
Loud. And not just when you're going for it. Tuned naturally aspirated engines, and particularly four-pot Hondas, make a really pleasing, hollow sound at low revs. They sound expensive, refined, somehow thoroughly engineered. Well, the Mugen Concept does this with the added backbeat of excessive exhaust parp. Perhaps a bit too much; Mugen knows there's a resonance at around 4000rpm and is going to dampen it out.
Nevertheless it's a smooth, free-revving engine with none of the hunt and lumpiness that a 120bhp/litre car would have had a few years ago. It's very tractable, and the shorter-shifting six-speed 'box is really slick.
Trundling around town reveals a ride that's unsettled, but no more so than the standard Civic Type R. The Mugen is not noticeably harsher, even if it is firmer; perhaps the lighter unsprung weight comes into play, because it feels a mite more composed. The steering is more positive, too, though still quite light.
Up the speeds and the ride's still on the lumpy side. On a motorway you can detect a constant patter from the back end, while on A and B-roads it lacks the fluidity of damping that you'd find in, say, a Renault Megane R26 or a Ford Focus RS. Don't get me wrong: the Civic is better than the standard car, and its front and rear ends feel better connected. But it's as if there's too much rebound damping: it springs back too harshly over bumps and lumps in the road, it fidgets too much and you feel a bit tossed from side to side.
Still, it is good fun. That engine is thoroughly peachy when worked hard, the Recaro front seats are brilliant, the driving position is up to scratch and there's even a little steering feel – although it's mostly when the front wheels, under power, give a little tug here and there. The new brakes are superb, too.
Ultimately, though, the Focus and Megane cover ground just as quickly and tell you just as much about what's going on, while subjecting the car's body – and yours – to less kickback.
Should I buy one?
The question should really be: should Mugen make one (or 20)?
I'd say yes (who wouldn't want them to make a car that revs to 8500rpm?) but I think there's more work to be done on the chassis yet. Some prices have been mooted elsewhere – £30k here, £35k there – none of which have come from Mugen. Renault had trouble shifting all of its R26Rs, don't forget.
But at under £25,000, on a limited production run, I reckon it could be a success – and crucially, pave the way for more Mugen-inspired products in future.