A thing I’ve noticed about race cars: the steering is often quite light, by road car standards. It is here, too; city car light. The clutch has a typical road-going sports car weight, the brakes want a relatively firm shove and the throttle has a linear, lengthy travel. Because the motor is turbocharged, response isn’t as whizzy as that of some racers.
It is strong, though. But with less than 400bhp and a minimum race weight of 1280kg, it’s not the straight-line speed that blows you away.
Not that it doesn’t feel fast in a straight line, mind you. Of course, it does. More so than you’d think, given the relatively modest output. It feels more urgent, for example, than a Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG. That there are straight-cut gears, presumably very little driveline friction, quite a lot of traction once there’s a few degrees of heat in the tyres, and few energy losses given away to body movements mean that it always feels strong. I guess if you’d warmed everything up, it’d be a four-point-something car to 60mph.
Because it’s turbocharged, quite a lot of acceleration is available through the mid-range, and the firm rev limiter is set at a modest 7000rpm. Unlike some turbos, it pays to take it all the way there, at which point Neal recommends a firm, quick pull back on the lever to make an upshift, because the throttle gets cut at the same time and it’ll stutter if you dawdle.
There’s no auto blip on downshifts. Unless you’re in a dead straight line on a perfectly smooth piece of track – and sometimes even then – there is oodles of torque steer. More than in any road car I’ve driven, up to and including a Mk1 Ford Focus RS. Which is, at first, quite disconcerting, almost making the car quite hard to place. Retain a firmer grip on the wheel and it’s fine, but the Civic is not a car to drive with your fingertips.
Some people say that it’s the braking that underlines the performance of a race car. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that, probably because I’m not good enough at doing it. It’s the tyres that have the performance in them rather than the brakes, I think: a supercar on carbon-ceramics and with ABS gets so much efficiency out of its tyres that it’s quite remarkable. A race car, to me, just feels quite impressive until it locks up. Although, of course, if you’re a triple BTCC champion like Neal is, the Civic’s braking is remarkable, to the extent that he’ll adjust the brake bias mid-lap, perhaps a few times, to get it set up for slower or faster corners.
Corners are where I find the big road/race car difference is. Neal tells me that his Civic will go a bit light at the rear as you trail the brakes in, making the most of the rear tyres’ ability to add to the overall cornering force. I’ll be honest: during my laps, I feel the back end helping it turn only once or twice, because the amount of both tyre and aerodynamic grip takes a while to get your head around. Do it and the balance reduces the amount of lock you need to apply, which, in turn, helps put the power down again. And then it feels mega.
Finding that point a couple of times in a few laps feels like a win. Doing it every corner of every lap, when there are 29 other drivers around you and the top 10 are divided by less than half a second in lap time? No wonder Neal doesn’t think a few exploratory laps are a big deal.