Honda Civic Type R review
by David Finlay (10 February 2007)
Point a loaded gun at my head and threaten to pull the trigger, and I still won't admit to being a fan of the old Honda Civic Type-R, which three years ago I described as "a car which can't keep up with its own engine". Its successor is still not the best hot hatch on the market, but it's certainly a major improvement.
Due for launch in March this year, the Type R (no hyphen this time) shares the older model's two-litre i-VTEC engine, whose most impressive party trick is the way it switches from a relatively soft camshaft profile to one which increases valve lift and duration further up the rev range.
If that doesn't make sense to you, never mind - the important bit is that when the changeover takes place, the engine lets out a manic roar and becomes effectively a race unit, easily capable of storming up to 8000rpm (and probably quite lot more, if the revlimiter wasn't in the way).
This was what happened with the old Type-R, whose on-paper performance was very similar to that of the new car. Maximum power has gone up from 197bhp to . . . er, 198bhp, while the top speed and 0-62mph time remain the same as before at 146mph and 6.6 seconds. Fuel economy has deteriorated slightly, since the new Type R is 60kg heavier than the car it replaces.
It might seem that not much has changed, but in fact the i-VTEC engine has been altered quite significantly. In particular, the point at which one cam profile gives way to another has been brought down from 6000rpm to 5400rpm. This is part of what Honda describes as the "richer content" of the engine in its revised form, but 5400rpm is still pretty high. And maximum power isn't produced until 7800rpm, or 400rpm more than in the old days. In other words, it's still a screamer.
Oddly enough, Honda is quite happy these days to criticise the previous Type-R. "You had to really be pushing the car to make the engine work," says a press statement, "and while that was fun on an open road with plenty of space - it wasn't ideal for everyday driving. How many times would the engine reach peak rpm on a trip to the supermarket, for example?" Well, quite. But that still applies now.
When the old Type-R first appeared, a hot hatch which produced nearly 200bhp was a very big deal. Nowadays it's worthy of comment, but by no means exceptional. Honda says it could, of course, have put a larger, possibly turbocharged, engine under the bonnet for more power, but didn't want to spoil the "pure, balanced" effect it strives for in its Type R models.
There is another way of reading this. The old Civic Type-R had far more power than it knew how to deal with. It was great run in a straight line, mostly because of the noise it made, but on corners the front end was all over the place. Honda seems to be acknowledging that the priority this time round was to make sure that the new car could cope with the available power rather than ask it to accept any more.
It's claimed that handling stability is one of the biggest improvements between one hot Civic and the next, and the claim is perfectly true. There is still too much rolling and pitching for the Type R to be the best-handling car in its class, but at least it doesn't feel like it wants to leap into an adjacent field.
One thing that has remained constant during the switch from one generation to another is Honda's price advantage. The new Type R is more expensive than its predecessor, but in entry-level form it's still the cheapest of the 170bhp-plus hot hatches on the market at £17,600.
Not many people will spend £17,600, though. Around 60% of UK buyers are expected to go for the GT, which costs £1000 more. The GT has no performance advantage - it simply has more kit, including dual curtain airbags, an alarm system, power folding door mirrors, automatic headlights, front foglights, dual-zone climate control, a driver's vanity mirror and rain-sensing windscreen wipers.
A further 20% of customers will go the extra step and order the integrated Bluetooth hands-free phone system and voice-recognition DVD satellite navigation with Traffic Message Channel, which bring the price up to a round £20,000. Group 17 insurance applies on all models, and you can specify any of them with 19" wheels if you don't consider the standard 18s sufficient.
And there's yet another possibility: a lightweight Type R with no parcel shelf, stereo system or speakers, which weighs 40kg less than the standard car. But it available only by special order, delivery times are likely to be in the region of 20 weeks, and Honda says that "we anticipate take-up to be very low".
Even at its most expensive, the Type R seems a bargain against most of the opposition. But what exactly is that opposition? Honda reckons it consists of the Ford Focus ST, SEAT León Cupra, Volkswagen Golf GTI and Volvo C30 T5 Sport, to which we might add the Mazda3 MPS, Megane Renaultsport 225, MINI Cooper S, Vauxhall Astra SRi and VXR and Volkswagen Golf R32. All except the Golf R32 (which has a much bigger engine) are turbocharged, and therefore have much better mid-range performance; if you imposed a rev limit of, say, 5000rpm, every one of them would leave the Type R standing.
All except the Golf GTI and Astra SRi are significantly more powerful, too, but none of them has the manic, free-revving quality that makes the Civic more appealing than the turbo cars to people who like this sort of thing. Perhaps the fractionally slower but much cheaper Clio Renaultsport 197 - a car which, significantly, Honda does not quote as a rival - comes closest to the Type R ideology. The Clio represents the real threat, but at least Honda now has a car which can properly respond to it.