Probably the most capable front-wheel-drive car in production today, with only limited edition specials getting close
The most remarkable thing about the Honda Civic Type-R is the most remarkable thing about the new, sexed-up 2004 model. And, considering that we’re talking about a £16,000 hot hatch, it is remarkable.
Quite simply, this slightly gawky looking Japanese three-door possesses one of the most exhilarating and satisfying drivetrains of any car currently on sale, irrespective of price. With due allowance for size and power, its 197bhp 2.0-litre, four-cylinder VTEC engine is right up there with the power units of the Ferrari 360M, Porsche 911 GT3 and BMW M3 CSL.
Every time the induction howls. Every time the fabulously fast, short-throw, close-ratio six-speed ’box – arguably the best on the planet – slam-dunks the revs back into the heart of the powerband. It’s close to perfection and achieves a purity of purpose that makes anything with a paddle shift, even BMW’s SMG, seem clumsy and faintly ridiculous.
Yet to pitch the Civic Type-R as a bit special – rather than the hot hatch of the century – is about right. It’s because, until now, that sensational drivetrain has been balanced by less than inspirational styling and a chassis that has lacked the conviction and edge of the performance.
The good news is that, as a consequence of Honda’s 2004 Civic range makeover, timed to pre-empt the new Volkswagen Golf and Vauxhall Astra, the Type-R finds itself comprehensively tweaked: outside, inside and under the skin. It even includes a little honing of its best feature – a lighter flywheel and clutch assembly reducing inertia, improving throttle response and shaving 0.2sec from the 0-62mph time (now a claimed 6.6sec).
All three-door Civics get new front and rear styling, retuned suspension, damping and steering, brighter projector-style headlights with a wider beam spread and a space-saver spare wheel to liberate 55 litres more boot space. Visually, Honda has made a fair fist of injecting extra interest. At the front, the new headlights make the biggest splash, while round the back, new tail light clusters look smarter and provide equally clear-cut differentiation for the new model.
Routine stuff, all well conceived and executed. A tougher challenge for Honda’s engineers was to improve steering response, linearity and on-centre feel and, in particular, to sharpen the Type-R’s tautness and precision. In pursuit of these aims, all models get stiffer steering and suspension mounting points, a new variable-ratio steering rack, increased steering caster angle and recalibrated spring, damper and anti-roll bar settings.
On the road the differences between the new Civic Type-R and its predecessor are immediately apparent. It feels harder-edged, more precise and more physical than the rather nervous and tip-toey previous Type-R, with modest body roll and genuinely keen turn-in. Ride comfort is firm, occasionally bordering on agitated, but the Type-R clearly does a better job of inspiring confidence in its driver than its predecessor. Get the entry right, step on the gas and the outcome is much more rewarding: fine grip, no torquesteer, a mild tendency for the nose to run wide that can be trimmed with the throttle and, ultimately, stonking exit speed.
It’s all relayed through steering that’s more meatily weighted – albeit with a pervasive sense of damping that filters out some of the feel. But even if you shut down the power on the limit mid-bend, only the merest tweak of corrective lock is required – and thanks to the Honda’s quick rack it’s more of an instinctive nudge.
Which leaves one question: does the Type-R’s chassis now match the talent of its phenomenal drivetrain? Not a chance. For that, it would need to handle like a 911 Turbo. But at least the two elements are on speaking terms, and it makes all the difference.