By Jonathan Crouch
Hot hatchbacks have a tougher balancing act to pull off than most performance cars. They've obviously got to be quick and they need to be seen to be quick - image and reputation being vital in this market - but they must also appeal to a wide audience. Honda Type-R enthusiasts were appalled when the fastest version of the eighth generation Civic was unveiled and the manufacturer freely admitted it was more refined, easier to use and not much faster than the previous model. Was Honda selling out, chasing mass appeal at the expense of the hardcore Type-R customer base? They needn't have worried.
Honda's Type-R sporting brand has a short but illustrious history. In 1992 Honda boffins teamed up with F1 great Ayrton Senna to improve the fortunes of the NSX supercar in competition. The NSX-R was born and the Type-R brand with it. Type-R versions of the Honda Integra, Accord and Civic followed, all following the formula of a more focused suspension set-up, lightweight components and a high-revving Honda VTEC engine.
In 2006, the eighth generation Civic went on sale in the UK and by September of that year, the production version of the hot hatch Civic Type-R had been unveiled at the Paris Motor Show. The car was launched in the UK in January 2007.
Both Type-R and Type-R GT models were offered from launch and Honda was immediately criticised for the poor specification of the standard version. For well over £17,000, you still didn't get hot hatch basics like front fog lights or air-conditioning, so most buyers stumped up the extra £1,000 for the GT which also, rather curiously on a car like this, threw in cruise control. In 2009, the Championship White version was launched into a range that had previously only included red, silver and black paint jobs. The car also featured a limited slip differential but at another £1,000 over the GT, it wasn't cheap.
What You Get
When Honda launched the eighth generation Civic in 2006, it was hard to work out what the inevitable Type-R version would ultimately look like. The Japanese marque had everyone taken aback with the car's futuristic looks and intricate detailing. All models had the same dramatic wedge-shaped profile, a rear spoiler and those triangular exhaust pipes, so there didn't seem anywhere much for a sportier Type-R version to go styling-wise. When the car appeared, it did at least fill out its wheelarches more effectively with 18-inch alloys, but other than the badges and lots of detail tweaks, there isn't a huge amount of difference between this raciest Civic and its standard shopping three-door counterparts.
Under the skin it's a different story. The Type-R retained the 2.0-litre i-VTEC petrol engine from the previous generation model, albeit with a small power upgrade from 197 to 198bhp. Further changes to the engine brought more useable torque to a lower point in the rev range. The sports suspension, lowered by 15mm, also upgraded performance on the road as did an enhanced braking system with 300mm ventilated discs on the front. Unlike the seventh generation Civic and leading rivals like the Golf GTI and Focus ST, this Type-R doesn't have independent rear suspension. Instead, it inherits the basic torsen beam set-up from the standard MK8 Civic.
The interior design of the eighth generation Honda Civic was just as extrovert as the outside and the Type-R version inherits it. The Dual Zone, two tier dash presents you with a plethora of displays with red illuminated dials set off by gun-metal effect switch panels on either side of the central display. The driver grips a black, leather-covered steering wheel with red stitching and central 'H' logo, while the gear shift knob with aluminium-finish has a black boot with red stitching. And, to make each Type R even more exclusive, a plaque engraved with the car's unique serial number is placed just ahead of the gear lever. Practicality is better than you might think with acceptable rear legroom and a massive boot.
What to Look For
The Civic has proven to be a sturdy thing and the eighth generation car is no exception. Some owners have groused about plastics quality in the car and silver painted fascia panels can look tatty surprisingly quickly. There has also been an issue with broken driver's door handles. The Type-R model requires a good inspection as the alloys are very prone to kerbing. With traction control and ESP fitted, this generation of Type-R is no longer quite so susceptible to frazzled front tyres and has less of a propensity to fall off the road when the going gets wet.
(Based on a 2008 Type-R - ex VAT): A radiator will be around £200. You'll pay £80 for a front headlight unit and £16 for a spark plug. A full exhaust system will be close to £400.
On the Road
The Type-R is quite a different proposition from the other hot hatchbacks of its era and that all stems from its engine. The peak power output of 198bhp is delivered at a screaming 7,800rpm, by which point the driver's senses are being assaulted by the scenery rushing at the windscreen and a sound like main hall at an electric power tool convention.
Where the vast majority of the main rivals for the Type-R use turbocharging to bring the performance sweet spot to the mid-point of the rev-range, Honda's offering requires you to drive it like a racing car to get the most from it, holding each gear until the full set of orange rev-counter lights illuminate in your peripheral vision. The reward is that the car sounds and feels more like a racing car than any other hot hatch of its generation.
The manual gearbox is fantastic, with a positive short-throw action and the electric power steering has a good degree of heft to it. The driver's seat doesn't drop very low but a wide range of adjustment in the steering column compensates for this. There's tenacious grip at the front wheels and corners are taken without a hint of body roll. It always feels a highly focused car.
Is the Type-R's approach the right way to go for a hot hatch that's going to be driven on British roads? There's no torque steer under hard acceleration because the power is piled on so progressively but the super-firm suspension sees the car skip over bumps and will give your teeth a thorough workout at low speeds. In everyday driving, a good slug of instant turbocharged power and more of a comfort compromise in the dampers would be preferable to most buyers but the Type-R has an infectious character and on smooth, open roads or the racetrack, it will take some beating. The 0-60mph sprint takes 6.6s and the top speed is 146mph, so on paper it's well up in the top echelon of hot hatch performers.
The Civic Type-R is a unique proposition in the hot hatch market. True to form, Honda went its own way with this car, producing something special and quite different in character from most of its rivals.
As a result, the fire-breathing Civic will divide opinion. Its high-revving engine requires a different driving style but the intoxicating scream at full chat, the slick action of the gearbox and the sharp handling provide ample reward. The suspension is probably too firm for the typical British B-road and it lacks the point and squirt accessibility of a turbocharged car. In the end, some people won't get the Type-R and others will be smitten the first time they tickle the rev-limiter.