Honda homies will notice it right away, but for the rest of us it’s important to understand the significance of the 2017 Civic Type R’s Honda badge. Red, it’s the first emblem of its color affixed to a U.S.-spec Honda, a detail previously reserved for Type R models sold in Europe and Japan.
Putting an exclamation point on the much improved and wildly diverse 10th generation Civic lineup, the winged and widened 306-horsepower Type R also represents a return to respectability among car aficionados. An icon for the entirety of Civic Nation, which has suffered through thrifted and decontented versions of its favorite sport compact car, the new Type R rehabilitates, rejuvenates and restores the Civic’s image as a performance leader in its segment.
There’s something very convincing about a double-digit-percentage power increase, in this case 49 percent, to drive home the performance message. With the Type R, the Civic has its groove back.
Forget for a moment that the Civic Type R’s engine is the most powerful one ever offered in the Civic or any production Honda automobile. Top speed is 170 mph. Aside from the near-exotic Acura NSX sports car, that makes the Type R the fastest vehicle Honda has ever offered in the U.S.
In U.S. tune, and when fed premium fuel, the turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine makes an enthusiastic 306 horsepower. European models slurping 95 octane gas can crank out 315 horsepower. Putting these numbers into perspective, the Type R delivers 153 horsepower/liter and generates 101 horsepower more than the next most powerful Civic, the Si.
Highlights include high-pressure direct fuel injection and i-VTEC intelligent variable valve lift and timing with variable intake and exhaust camshaft phasing. There’s an electric wastegate for flexible boost. The small-diameter, lightweight turbo spools faster to quickly build boost at lower speeds and at smaller throttle openings. It spins up a solid 22.8 psi of turbo boost, significantly more than the 16.5 psi generated in the Civic’s 1.5-liter turbocharged engine. A lightweight forged steel crankshaft and connecting rods and a single-mass flywheel allow the engine to rev with enthusiasm.
What’s so satisfying about the result is how accessible the power is. In stark contrast to a previous Honda performance car, the S2000 roadster, the Type R doesn’t require sky-high revs to deliver scintillating response. Additionally, the low-inertia drivetrain makes throttle response sharper and more predictable when tipping-in, and produces less overrun when lifting for a shift.
Though generous, the power is not head snapping. Rather, the 2.0-liter turbo feels like a larger-displacement engine, thanks to robust midrange response courtesy of 295 lb.-ft. of torque peaking from 2,500 to 4,500 rpm – speed ranges you’ll encounter in everyday driving. The result is a linear performance curve supplying satisfying acceleration even if you find yourself in too tall a gear.
The Type R sounds the part of a performance car, too. Take a gander at the rear end and you’ll count three center-mounted exhaust pipes. The novel arrangement includes high-flow, large-diameter end pipes while the smaller center pipe has a resonator to give some voice to the Civic R’s midrange. So it sounds powerful the minute the 2.0-liter fires up, but it doesn’t boom and didn’t become tiresome during a full day of test-driving.
According to the EPA, the Type R should return 25 mpg in combined driving. During roughly 150 miles of street driving west of the Puget Sound in Northwestern Washington State, the fat-tired, tall-winged Aegean Blue hot hatch delivered an indicated 24 mpg, reflecting my enjoyment of quick bursts of acceleration tempered by conservative posted speed limits and heavy law enforcement presence.
Honda has traditionally engineered slick shifting manual transmissions and the Type R continues the streak.
Exclusive to this version of the Civic, it’s a close-ratio 6-speed gearbox with a performance-ratio final drive, which gets the engine spinning up sooner. Using a solid-aluminum shifter ball, drivers snick through the short-throw gates with lubricious precision. This is the only gearbox available for the Type R, as an automatic or even a dual-clutch transmission would just seem sacrosanct here.
Honda does, however, equip the Type R with standard rev-matching downshift technology that eliminates the need to heel-and-toe the old-fashioned way. It’s Honda’s first such system and automatically switches on when you start the engine, but purists can turn it off in the vehicle settings menu.
There are three selectable drive modes chosen by using a console-mounted toggle switch. When the car is placed in Sport and Comfort driving modes, the rev-matching function is virtually undetectable except for increased revs and indicated changes on the tachometer. In +R driving mode, the transition is more aggressive for the fast pace of racing. The only hiccup is an occasional throttle blip if the shifter kisses a bit of the third-gear gate when upshifting from fourth to fifth.
Naturally, the big question is how does the Type R get all of its power to the ground? Key competitors such as the Ford Focus RS, Subaru WRX STI, and Volkswagen Golf R rely on standard all-wheel-drive traction and the ability to parse torque to all four wheels. The Civic Type R isn’t available with all-wheel drive.
Historically, the bugaboo of high-performance cars with front-wheel drive has been torque-steer, wherein an aggressive application of throttle, particularly in the lower gears, tugs the steering wheel to one side.
To eliminate this, engineers developed a dual-axis front strut design with a unique offset knuckle that centers the kingpin axis in the middle of the tire contact patch. This, along with increased front caster, helps take the sting out of torque steer. And without the driveshaft and rear drive axle to contend with, the Type R avoids a considerable weight penalty, which could dull performance.
Additionally, the Type R employs a helical limited-slip differential, which aids traction over uneven surfaces and helps prevent the spinning of an inside wheel when accelerating hard out of a tight turn.
Despite the stiffer suspension, the Type R takes the daily commute in stride. An active damper system uses shock sensors and g sensors to determine the appropriate damping rate in real time. The result is a suspension stiff enough to control body movement but compliant enough to take the edge off unpleasant impacts on rough roads.
For track work, the Type R’s significantly stiffer springs improve body control while bigger anti-roll bars help the hot hatch take corners flatter. A wider track, both front and rear, and meaty Continental Sport Contact 245/30ZR20 tires (the largest ever on a Honda product) help provide exceptional grip.
The Type R’s brakes are upsized considerably from standard Civic hatchback, too, including drilled front rotors and 4-piston Brembo calipers cooled by air ducts routed from the front fascia. Braking is short and sweet with good top of pedal response and reassuring stopping power from speed.
Steering is a tight 2.1 turns lock-to-lock, and employs a variable ratio that’s slower on-center for maximum stability and quicker as the driver turns into a corner.
Three selectable driving modes are available, and they adjust steering effort as well as throttle response, shock damping, and rev matching. Sport is the default setting, and drivers can choose Comfort and +R, which is the track mode. In +R, the car’s stability and traction control systems can be turned off.
About 5,000 Civic Type Rs are planned to sprinkle amongst Honda’s 1,250 U.S. dealers each year. The U.K.-built Type R retails for $33,900 plus a destination charge of $875, and in addition to extreme performance that price includes a navigation system, dual-zone automatic climate control, and a 540-watt 12-speaker stereo with satellite radio – not that you need it with the music emanating from the exhaust.
Honda loyalists will likely be the first buyers of this racecar for the road, and the only thing that’s autonomous about it is the driver. After all, you’re going to want to drive this performance halo for the entire Honda brand. But you’re going to need to know how to operate a clutch pedal, an increasingly difficult talent to find that will virtually ensure the Type R’s exclusivity.