Honda has another go at the Civic Type R, bringing us the fourth iteration of its hot hatch (yes, fourth; we never got the original EK9 of 1997, more's the pity) - and it comes just two years after its predecessor was launched. It shares much of the drivetrain hardware of the older machine but has the more advanced rear suspension of the current Honda Civic, while various other upgrades and developments are drafted in. And the net result is an astonishingly capable performance car, which might possibly be the best hot hatch of the moment...
In the metal
The most controversial aspect of the 2017 Honda Civic Type R is its appearance. If you don't like the current, regular Civic's looks, and you were put off by the abrasive bodywork of the old Type R, then this outlandish creation is not going to float your metaphorical boat. However, to these eyes, it looks fantastic and futuristic - and unlike any other hot hatch. It's also so clearly Japanese, which gives the Honda a distinct identity among a sea of smoother, less daring competitors from Europe.
There's a lot of detailing to drink in. Such as the vortex generators on the trailing edge of the Civic's roofline, a device that was once employed by the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo. Or the triple (uh-huh, triple) exhaust, which has two larger exit pipes to either side and then one smaller item in the middle, a feature that is said to improve low-speed sound, but reduce high-speed resonance. Or there's the fully aero-optimised body addenda, culminating in that colossal rear wing, which Honda says gives the car true negative lift (i.e. downforce) when the Civic is travelling at great speed.
We could go on, citing the vent in the bonnet for cooling, the larger-than-the-old-car's 20-inch alloys at all corners (wearing a bespoke compound of rubber specifically made for the Type R, in the form of Continental SportContact 6 tyres), or its idiosyncratic fastback form, but the fact is you'll have decided already whether you think it's a confusing mishmash of shapes or a really bold piece of car design. We're happy to admit we're in the latter camp, although we appreciate the Civic Type R will not appeal to everyone.
The interior is largely excellent, bereft of cheap-feeling plastics and feeling special enough overall - thanks to the copious use of Alcantara and red highlights - to make it a hit. Better still is the seating position, which is absolutely spot on when you lower the driver's chair all the way to the floor. There's a beautiful round, anodised metal gear knob for the transmission and a perfectly-sized, circular steering wheel of just the right rim diameter, both of which feel natural in your hands. Visibility out of the car seems fine, even with that towering construct perched on the boot lid limiting the rear-view, and broadly speaking it is ergonomically superb and visually arresting - especially those lovely Type R bucket seats. They're not just figure-hugging, but comfy too, which is a major bonus.
Inspecting more of the minutiae of the Honda's spec reveals some gems that promise for a considerably improved drive, compared to its immediate predecessor. As it's a tenth-gen Civic, it has multilink rear suspension now, instead of a less-advanced torsion beam. The body is stiffer, by 37 per cent, and lighter, by 16kg, than the old Type R's. It has a wider track and revised geometry and bigger brakes and a 10mm lower centre-of-gravity, with a 25mm lower hip point for the driving position. In short, everything on this car is supposed to be better than it was on the old 310hp model.
Up front, the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine is retained and will only be paired to a six-speed manual gearbox for reasons of driving purity. Honda has worked on reducing back pressure in that triple exhaust and has also had a minor fiddle with the ECU, liberating another 10hp for a 320hp peak output, with the same 400Nm of torque as before. Performance is largely unchanged, on paper at least, as the 0-100km/h time remains pegged at 5.7 seconds and the top speed climbs 2km/h to 272km/h.
But, wow, it feels markedly more muscular than the preceding Civic Type R. Bereft of any infuriating torque-steer or even push-on understeer, the limited-slip differential equipped Honda just gets its power down and goes. And the flexibility of the car is immense; driving it in Germany, both on derestricted Autobahns and the EuroSpeedway Lausitz track, gave us a chance to fully extend the Type R and it will pull from about 60km/h in sixth, all the way out to 270km/h with little grumbling. Better still, snick through the pleasing manual gearbox and rev the motor right out to 7,000rpm and the 2.0-litre spins up cleanly and quickly, with little to report in the way of vibrations. Part of this silky nature of power delivery is the new single-mass flywheel, which allows the Civic Type R to better gain and shed revs, according to the position of the throttle pedal. It's a shame the car doesn't play a tune that's little bit more exciting than its rather gruff, boost-infused voice, although we should commend Honda for not over-synthesising the Civic's soundtrack.
It's not all about straight-line go, however. Dynamically, this is a much more resolved and cohesive machine than its forebear, which wasn't a bad thing to steer in the first place. The new Civic Type R defaults to mid-ranking Sport mode when it starts up, meaning you have to click it into Comfort each time if you're just driving around in a calmer fashion and want it to be at its most docile. That's not a problem, though, because although the ride is more pleasant in Comfort and the throttle response and steering keener in Sport, in neither setting does the car totally fall apart. It's still rapid enough in Comfort mode and more than bearable to ride in when it's in Sport. In fact, even in +R, the most focused setting for the steering, throttle and dampers, you could drive it on most roads with little hardship.
Yet, forget the fact this is one of the most refined hot hatchbacks you can get (the ride comfort, lack of tyre noise and muted engine all ensure it is a fine cruiser, unlike the former version) - what you want to do with the Civic is take it by the scruff of the neck and hurl it about. Because then you'll discover a sparkling jewel of a chassis. On track, the Honda moves around fluidly and precisely, responding instantly to minuscule adjustments of the throttle to provide a simply thrilling drive. It will carve into corners and hit each and every apex available as if they were going out of fashion, gobbling up bends in a fervour of magnificent steering and monumental front-end grip. Trail-brake into a corner and you can upset the rear if you wish, while a bigger lift of the throttle mid-bend, when the suspension is loaded up, will see the rear tweak into oversteer if you so desire, but in essence the Honda merely wants to get you through the corner in the fastest and most engaging, neutral-stance manner going.
And the brakes! Considering the way the old car would squirm alarmingly at the rear under heavy retardation at times, the stolid way this Type R slows down is remarkable. OK, it will still move about a bit if you're on track and performing a particularly big stop at the end of a long straight, yet it's a far more controllable shift of the back axle when it happens. Oh, and there's a rev-matching function on downshifts now, which you can switch off if you want to heel-and-toe yourself. Nevertheless, the Honda's broad and highly accomplished suite of dynamic skills meant we built an almost instant and deep rapport with the Civic Type R. What a monster Honda has served up here; front-drive only, and it's utterly bloody fabulous.
What you get for your money
Tricky to say here, as the Civic Type R is not going on sale in Ireland until spring 2018, so Honda won't release prices and specifications for our market yet. Suffice it to say, it hasn't thundered up in price considerably on its predecessor in other right-hand-drive countries and so it should still come in below the €50,000 marker. Not exactly cheap, of course, but it is at least comparable to the four-wheel-drive hyper-hatches like the Volkswagen Golf R and Ford Focus RS that it is targeting. Expect us to get a generously equipped, one-spec model that should include items like adaptive cruise control, dual-zone climate control, satnav, an 11-speaker audio system, Blind Spot Information with Cross-Traffic Monitor and more.
The new Honda Civic Type R has pulled off the seemingly impossible task of being both more comfortable and yet more fun than its predecessor. This is nothing short of miraculous work by the Japanese firm, because usually ramping up the refinement sacrifices some of the dynamic joy to be had from driving this sort of car. That's not the case here.
In fact, so wonderful was the Civic Type R on road and track that we thought long and hard about awarding it full marks. That we haven't boils down to a few nit-picky things and the subjective discussion about its unapologetic looks. It's not the finest-sounding hatchback we can think of, even among those with only four cylinders, and while the gearshift is excellent, it isn't quite one of Honda's very slickest, rifle-bolt operators. Despite such minor gripes, we have the feeling that, following this incredible first display in Germany, we might find that longer time with the Civic Type R will allow us to bump its rating up to the maximum. Because that's precisely how blindingly good this latest entrant to the hyper-hatch world is.