NSX-R’s 3.0 V6 makes at least 276bhp
Civic covers ground quickly and Comfort mode allows pliancy
Civic Type R is memorable; NSX-R is unforgettable
Civic Type R’s gearshift is sweet but…
…it is not as addictive as the NSX-R’s
Civic’s four-cylinder turbo 2.0 has 316bhp
No shortage of pace in the NSX-R, either, but its ride is firm
Bright red, a Type R telltale, punctuates the hot Civic’s cabin
Civic Type R’s enormous 19in wheels make the NSX-R’s 16in rims look like skateboard wheels
With crystal-clear dials, perfect visibility, a Momo steering wheel and bucket seats, the NSX- R’s cabin is strictly business
You’ll have seen the video. The brown leather loafers; the unfortunate, bright white socks.
When Ayrton Senna tested the Honda NSX-R at Suzuka in the early 1990s, it was, to him, just a day of promotional activity.
He could never have known anoraks like me would still be wittering on about that day a quarter of a century later. But it’s just too good to forget, isn’t it? One of the great Formula 1 drivers at the height of his powers, whipping chunks out of a very special supercar – on one of the few truly iconic motor racing circuits, no less – as though a championship was on the line. Then there are the surgical heel-and-toe downchanges, the kerb-hopping four-wheel drifts...
Not even the questionable footwear could dull the occasion.
Fast-forward 25 years to the middle of July 2017, around the time of the British Grand Prix, and the moment is being recreated with modern-day participants. The stand-in Formula 1 great is Fernando Alonso – who else? – and the car is the spanking new Civic Type R. After posing for photographs – sober trainers, dark socks – the two-time world champion drives the Type R to another of motor racing’s most famous venues, Silverstone. Rather than hammer the thing through Maggots and Becketts as though there’s a spot in Q3 to be had, however, Alonso merely shoves it in the car park labelled ‘F1 Personnel’.
Oh, well. Maybe that Suzuka moment will never be bettered. With a new Civic Type R and a stunning first-generation NSX-R (this one Pearl Yellow rather than the Championship White of Senna’s car) sat before me, their keys stuffed into my pocket, I reckon this might just be a moment that’ll be worth retelling 25 years hence.
Between them, the fifth-generation Civic Type R and the hardcore NSX-R, which sits so low you could trip over it, bookend the Type R story. I suppose it’s fitting that Honda’s fastest hot hatch yet should arrive in the same year that its performance brand reaches the quarter century. The Type R dynasty began with the pop-up headlight NSX-R in 1992, the first car to wear the now famous red ‘H’ badge. Honda would have you believe the NSX-R’s normally aspirated 3.0-litre V6 develops 276bhp, but if that high-revving, motorsport- derived unit isn’t actually churning out more than 100bhp per litre, I’ll be amazed. Nonetheless, it’s unlikely to develop more power than the Civic’s turbocharged four-pot, which is rated at 316bhp. Such is progress.
Talking of progress, the new Type R is such a big improvement on the previous model that it’s hard to believe they were separated by just two short years. It has independent rear suspension now, of course, and a Comfort mode that allows the car to ride with remarkable fluidity and control across a bumpy road. It also has very direct steering, a brilliantly effective limited-slip differential, excellent brakes and a playful, adjustable chassis. The engine is mightily strong too, if somewhat laggy, and the seating position is close to being perfect.
It is frustrating that you can’t couple the slack dampers with a more aggressive powertrain setting and the showy, try-hard styling does take some of the shine off (the NSX-R’s uncluttered, authentic treatment makes the Civic look a bit daft, I reckon), but overall this is truly one of today’s hot hatch greats. Honda’s Type R brand is in a very good place indeed. But what a spectacular place it was back in 1992, before any of us really knew what Type R stood for. The mid-engined NSX had been around for a couple of years already, its engineers having worked extremely hard to make it both more rewarding to drive than the equivalent Ferrari – the unloved 348 – and more usable every day, Porsche 911 style.
There was, therefore, an awful lot of motorsport precision and agility to be dialled back in. Honda’s engineers started by stripping out as much weight as they could get away with, tearing out sound deadening and the spare wheel, and replacing the standard chairs with carbon-kevlar Recaro buckets. Lightweight Enkei wheels, meanwhile, helped to reduce unsprung mass. The total weight loss was more than 100kg so the NSX-R sat at the kerb at a flyweight 1230kg.
The chassis was stiffened with a couple of additional braces and the spring and damper rates went up. Not just by a bit: the front springs were more than twice as stiff as the standard car’s, the rears almost half as firm again. (Contemporary reviewers reckoned the NSX-R was actually too stiff, which, you might imagine, says more about the era than the car itself.)
The VTEC V6 was blueprinted, ensuring the finest tolerances possible, and the gear ratios were shortened. Between November 1992 and September 1995, just 483 NSX-Rs were built. The model never officially came to the UK and, even today, there are just a handful of them on our shores. This particular car is an immaculate example, despite its 60,000 miles.
It looks sensational out in the wild too, that long rear section reaching backwards like the deck of an aircraft carrier, the contrasting black roof mimicking the canopy of a fighter jet. This is a car with a military sense of purpose. The cabin is more single-minded still, the dashboard wrapped in suede and the steering wheel a gorgeous, non-airbag, thin-rimmed Momo item. You look beyond the rim to see the instrument binnacle, which houses the clearest dials I have encountered: black faces, crisp white markings, bright yellow needles.
It’s a wonderful cabin, made all the more inviting by incredible visibility. Arrow-thin A-pillars, an impossibly low scuttle and clear over-the- shoulder vision mean you see even more around you than you do in the Civic. On the move, you feel as though you can watch the tarmac rush directly beneath the front wheels, so good is forward visibility. It’s an extraordinary thing and it makes you realise why so many modern supercars feel so big on the road: you can’t see out of the bloody things.
Once the NSX-R is rolling, you become aware of just how stiff it is. And not just by 1992 standards, either, when most other high-performance cars had rangy, long-travel suspension, but by today’s jarring, big-wheeled standards. Those contemporary reviewers weren’t wrong: 25 years ago, the NSX-R’s tough ride must have felt like rattling down the Spanish Steps on a hospital stretcher.
Blessedly, the ride does improve with a little pace and there is enough damping quality to ensure the body remains relatively settled on bumpier sections. The car feels busy, but never like it wants to leap off the road surface. The trade-off is rock-solid body control on smoother sections and a flat-bodied stance in cornering.
The unassisted steering, meanwhile, is utterly brilliant. In low-speed bends, you need to use a little muscle to keep the lock on, but with the wheel fidgeting and nudging this way and that in your hands, you feel every tiny slip and scrub from the front tyres. At higher speeds, you simply hold the wheel in a fingertip grip and allow it to patter busily, then gently pour in a little lock to tip the car into a flowing bend. That sort of tactility is completely lost on modern supercars.
The brakes are plenty strong enough and there’s good traction too. It’s hard to say if it’s the steering that steals the show, or the drivetrain. The power and torque figures don’t promise an awful lot but, out on the road, the NSX-R feels every bit as quick as a focused supercar should. The V6 doesn’t do much at low engine speeds, but it switches over to the lumpier cam at around 6000rpm and really gets going. Rather than snap around to the limiter, it pulls forcefully and insistently through long ratios to the far side of 8000rpm, the car whipping along quicker and quicker as the gnashing from the valve train intensifies and the exhaust note rasps harder and harder.
Maybe it’s the lovely manual gearshift that steals the show. It’s remarkable. I’d like to have the entire mechanism installed in my office as a kind of stress-buster. The Civic has a sweet shift too, although it isn’t as addictive as the NSX-R’s. The hot hatch isn’t half as memorable as the supercar overall, of course, but it does demonstrate an important point: whatever spark it was that created the superb NSX-R 25 years ago, Honda has not yet let it go out.
HONDA TYPE R: FIVE USED HEROES AND WHAT TO PAY
INTEGRA (DC2) - Often called the best front- wheel-drive performance car ever, the DC2-series Integra Type R marries an intoxicating drivetrain with an agile, playful chassis and sweet steering. Expect to pay £6000 and don’t be put off by a six-figure mileage.
INTEGRA (DC5) - The later DC5-series Integra Type R is faster and more powerful than the DC2, but it has never been quite as brilliant to drive. It didn’t come to the UK officially, which makes it a rare spot here. Reckon on paying £8000 for one today.
ACCORD (CH1) - Honda applied the familiar Type R principles to its strait- laced saloon car to stunning effect. A high-revving engine and uprated chassis made it almost as entertaining as the DC2 Integra Type R, but more practical. They start at just £2000.
CIVIC (EK9) - The first Civic Type R was another hot Honda that never officially came to the UK, although plenty of enthusiasts have imported them since. Its buzzy 1.6-litre engine was good for 183bhp. You’ll need to pay £9000 for a tidy one.
CIVIC (FK2) - The previous-generation Civic (2015-2017) was arguably the most extreme hot hatch before the current one was revealed. It had 306bhp, a top speed of 168mph and a ride that could reduce bone to dust. Expect to pay about £24,000 to own one.