A tiny central European country, one formerly imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain and renowned for cabbage soup, blood sausage, and sheep’s milk cheese, doesn’t exactly call to mind the words “new performance automobile.” But within an hour’s drive of this handsome capital city lie both the delicious winding roads of neighboring country Austria and, within Slovakia itself, the Slovakia Ring, a relatively new and impressively gnarly 3.7-mile race circuit composed of tortuous long-radius corners and straightaways that arrow far into the heat waves. Which is to say, this place actually makes an exemplary setting for feasting fully on the 2015 Honda Civic Type R -- the fastest front-drive hatch ever to circulate that other, legendary Ring, the Nürburgring Nordschleife.
Now for the bad news: This rip-snorting Honda isn’t coming to the U.S.; it goes on sale in the U.K. (where it’s built) first and will reach other European markets later this year.
Now for the good news: The Civic Type R is coming to the U.S. Eventually. The engine is built in Ohio, and we’re all but assured of seeing it appear in an updated Civic Type R within the next year or so. No, it’s not exactly the news Type R fans were hoping to hear, but at least this time around (unlike with the last-gen Civic Type R) Honda hasn’t decided to keep its most aggressive model out of the States entirely.
Forget subtlety. This is shamelessly outré machine. In fact, the Type R packs so much car porn you almost expect to find it parked way back in that room behind the beads. The sizzle starts with a direct-injection, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that, for the first time, combines Honda’s VTEC variable-valve timing and lift system with a turbocharger. Dual Variable Timing Control (VTC) helps reduce turbo lag, while VTEC maximizes exhaust pressure at low revs -- another boost to the boost. The engine also gets an electronic wastegate for especially fine control of blower pressure. The result: 306 hp at 6,500 rpm, the highest output ever for a Type R model (and that includes the 2002 Acura NSX-R).
I know what you’re thinking: torque steer. Fortunately, Honda was thinking that, too. The engine’s blazing output is routed to the front wheels through a helical, mechanical limited slip and carefully balanced half-shafts. Also helping to quench torque’s disruptive presence is what Honda calls a “Dual Axis Strut” front suspension. By separating the conventional knuckle and strut assembly into individual pieces, the design reduces offset and allows each wheel to steer in an arc closer to its centerline. Honda claims a 55 percent reduction in torque steer over the base Civic.
Each corner sports a magnetorheological adaptive shock (yep, just like the ones on the Corvette and Ferrari 458) and Agile Handling Assist, which applies very light braking to the inner wheels when cornering for improved responsiveness. The front wheels get extra-special treatment: four-piston ventilated and drilled Brembo brakes. Sporting 13.8-inch discs, they’re the largest binders ever seen on a Type R model. Specially developed 235/35R-19 Continental tires and an electronic power-steering unit based on the standard Civic’s system round out the suspension package.
The 2015 Honda Civic Type R looks like something that slipped out of a hangar at Edwards Air Force Base. And the airfoils and flares aren’t puffery, either. The front splitter and side skirts help reduce drag, while the rear wing, rear diffuser, and a nearly flat underbody create meaningful downforce at speed. (The even bigger wing previewed on the show car was dropped for creating too much drag.) Cutting drag further are air outlets behind and on top of the front wheel arches that reduce pressure in the engine compartment. Various scoops and cutouts help minimize turbulence and improve cooling, too (particularly for the front brakes). Plaster on some numbers and a bunch of sponsorship stickers, and the Type R could pass for the race version that competes in the World Touring Car Championship.
Bristling with swoops and switches and readouts, the dashboard at first comes across as busy. But it’s actually easy to navigate, and essential info is a breeze to find. A big digital speedo dominates your field of view, and as you approach the engine’s redline a series of LEDs progressively light up -- Formula 1-style -- to alert you to shift. (It works so well you never have to look down at the tach.) The steering wheel is a fabulous, meaty leather design with a red center stripe to aid in gauging wheel angle. The shift lever is topped with a beauteous machined-aluminum ball. The deep-pocketed racing buckets are simply outstanding -- and guess what? They probably won’t make the trip to America with the rest of the car. Honda, was it something we said?
For all of its race-car aspirations, the Type R is no bare-bones rig. Standard with the base price (about $30,000) are automatic climate control, pushbutton start, a six-speaker audio system, Honda Connect multimedia interface, and a rear parking camera. An optional GT Pack (about $3,000) adds navigation, an upgraded stereo, parking sensors front and rear, red exterior highlights, and a slew of driver-assist systems -- from lane-departure warning to blind-spot detection.
The most intriguing interior feature, though, is a big button on the left of the instrument cluster. Press it, and you engage +R mode. Now the steering weight increases. The adaptive shocks firm up 30 percent. Vehicle Stability Assist is remapped for livelier handling response. Throttle response sharpens. Oh, and the dashboard illumination goes from white to red. Ready for takeoff.
Even before I’d driven out of Slovakia and into Austria, I’d learned plenty about this newest Type R. First, it’s fast. Honda claims 0 to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. No way; the car is quicker than that. Honda also says the Type R will do 167 mph. That claim is, um … accurate (yeah, I risked a year of cabbage soup in Slovakian prison just to get you the straight dope). Second, in +R mode the suspension becomes laughably, absurdly hard. The thing could scratch a diamond. On anything but pavement so smooth you could bowl on it, the ride will leave your liver crying for mercy. That’s a shame, because deactivating +R mode also pulls the plug on the tighter steering and livelier throttle.
Speaking of the steering … it’s a disappointment. Not much in the way of cornering forces or road Braille reaches your fingertips. This is particularly surprising given that Honda has previously produced cars with such lively and vibrant steering. You expect a Type R to feel neat, flickable, alive in your hands. It isn’t. At least Honda has time to tweak the EPS system before it reaches our shores -- and will no doubt do so.
The engine redlines at 7,000 rpm, impressive for a turbo but low for a VTEC unit. The blower also muffles the exhaust note; it’s not the sizzling scream you’d like to hear. That said, the motor is conspicuously strong. Max torque (295 lb-ft) comes on tap at just 2,500 rpm, and turbo lag is minimal. It’ll bang along near redline all day without complaint, too.
It was at the Slovakia Ring that the Type R’s race-bred character really charged to the fore. Lap after lap after lap the big Brembos up front never faded, not even a little (and the track has lots of high-speed straights that dive into tight turns). These are some of stoutest binders available on any hot hatch. The circuit’s smooth asphalt also showed the +R suspension setting at its best; in the firmer mode, the Type R was noticeably crisper and flatter through the Ring’s long, arcing turns.
Other track observations: The seats are so good they qualify for a medal, the flat-bottom steering wheel is a joy to grab, the pedals are a bit too far apart for easy heel-and-toe work, steering turn-in is really quick (almost too much so), those LEDs at redline are a brilliant touch, and the short-throw shifter is light and quick and lovely. The Type R’s dash also features a cool g meter that continually displays cornering, braking, and acceleration forces as they move about the X and Y axes. (You’ve seen such readouts on TV motorsports coverage.) You can also clock quarter-mile runs.
Honda has long been a “non-numbers” carmaker. That is, its cars are engineered not to produce the biggest horsepower ratings or the quickest acceleration times or the most grip. Instead, the focus is on maximum driving finesse -- to delight the driver’s neural synapses through the sheer poise and purity and joy radiating from the machine. The new Civic Type R is something of a departure from that formula. It is a numbers car -- the class-conquering output, the eye-popping top speed. It’s more race car than sports car in character; feel and finesse take a back seat to outright performance.
Then again, no other front-drive hatchback has ever lapped the Nordschleife in 7 minutes, 50.63 seconds. Which is to say, when it eventually makes the trip across the pond, the new Honda Civic Type R is likely to fly out of showrooms just as fast.
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