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We’ve already paid our respects to the dearly departed high-revving Honda that we once knew—that bonkers, VTEC-kicked-in-yo, skinny-legged whippersnapper of old. The fog of nostalgia tends to make you forget that, in truth, he wasn’t always easy to live with, alternately mopey and hopped up on Adderall as he was.
We’ve begun to move on, in part because we have no choice. The NSX is a hybrid now. The Civic Si is turbocharged. And one or the other—maybe even both—of those approaches figure in to rumors that Honda may create a successor to the S2000.
This all brings us to the 2017 Honda Civic Type R. The casual car enthusiast in America will remember only that there was once an Acura Integra with that suffix, a loud, berserk, frenetic, and spectacular thing that lasted only a short time many years ago. But those peering at this story from beneath the flat brim of a Type R cap will know that there have been four generations of Civic Type Rs prior to the car for which we gather today. All of those screamers were kept from our shores.
But as Honda slowly comes out of its product malaise, the company decided that bringing over the Type R now—indeed, designing it from the outset with the U.S. market in mind—will help bolster its once unassailable reputation for producing precise little budget funmobiles.
Not What It Looks Like
The 2017 model is an entirely different car than what enthusiasts lusted for lo these many years. You wouldn’t know that from looking at it, though. On top of the already nutty Civic hatchback design, Honda adds all manner of wings and splitters and vortex generators and scoops until the exterior looks like a disheveled knife drawer. It looks hyper Japanese in that anime way. It looks more than a bit juvenile. It looks like it would be basically undrivable. But Honda says all of the body addenda are functional, reducing lift, smoothing air over the tires, generating—um—vortices, and, in the case of the hood scoop, cooling the engine.
Ah, the engine. This turbocharged, direct-injected 2.0-liter inline-four is at the core of the Type R’s break from the old-style Honda performance. Fed up to 23.2 psi of boost, this engine cranks out 306 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 295 lb-ft of torque from 2500 to 4500 rpm, and it revs to a mere 7000 rpm, measly by historical hot-Honda standards. This is the type of engine that is making us all lazy drivers. You don’t have to work for the power here. There’s no waiting for the VTEC to kick in (although the engine has variable valve timing and lift, unlike the Si’s that has only variable timing). Much of the time you needn’t bother downshifting, the engine pulling strongly at low revs where an earlier Honda performance engine would leave you hanging. Partisans and purists beware.
Now would be as good a time as any to explain the Type R’s odd center-exit exhaust, which is certain to become one of the car’s trademark details. It’s not just styling: Each of the three pipes does something. The fat outer two are the primary exhaust routing. The smaller center pipe connects to a resonator tucked just behind the bumper cover. This resonator also attaches to the outer pipes. At relatively low engine speeds, air flows through the outer pipes and the resonator/center pipe, which adds some raspiness to the engine’s note. At high engine speeds, exhaust air flows almost exclusively through the main pipes, bypassing the resonator and reducing, says Honda, any booming noises. This is done without butterfly valves in the exhaust. Exhaust pressure alone effects the change. The end result is somewhat less fascinating than the means by which it is achieved. At low rpm there is a decent little rasp, but in the engine’s upper reaches the whole thing goes quiet. That’s great for long highway trips. But we might have liked something a little more thrilling in this zestiest of Civics.
This is, however, a great performance engine. Honda claims it has only 3117 pounds to pull around, and we can confirm the 2.0-liter does so without hiccup or noticeable turbo lag. The engine is bolted exclusively to a six-speed manual transaxle that incorporates a helical limited-slip differential. Between the two is a lightweight, single-mass flywheel. And this transaxle features Honda’s first application of automatic rev-matching for downshifts. Drivers can shut off the rev-matching if they’d like to work on heel-and-toe technique. But the system works beautifully, and we were inclined to just leave it on. Shifter feel is precisely what we’ve come to expect of Honda: absolute precision.
Torquing ’Bout a Revolution
The chassis performance is just as much a pleasant change as the engine’s. With the Type R, Honda is going up against primarily all-wheel-drive competition in the Subaru WRX STI, the Ford Focus RS, and the Volkswagen Golf R. The Honda has to dump all of its substantial torque through only its front wheels. That should result in Dodge Caliber SRT4 levels of torque steer, but it doesn’t. Instead of limiting torque or deadening the steering to prevent or mask torque steer, Honda went for a mechanical solution. Out goes the conventional front-axle strut suspension of standard Civics. In its place Honda bolts a more complex (and no doubt more expensive) arrangement similar to Ford’s RevoKnuckle front suspension that was underneath the previous-generation front-wheel-drive Focus RS, which never made it to the States. The same basic idea is at work in Buick’s HiPer Strut arrangement. Yes, Buick. All of these variations on the strut do essentially the same thing: mechanically separate the steering and suspension functions while reducing spindle length and scrub radius (both dimensions are key factors of torque steer). It’s effective and doesn’t feel unnatural in operation like some other torque-steer-mitigation systems.
The rear suspension remains the same multilink arrangement as on all current Civics, but it uses beefier links for stiffness. This being a car with a capital R at the end of its name, the springs are stiffer than a standard Civic’s by a seemingly crazy 200 percent up front and 160 percent in the rear. The anti-roll bars are 170 percent stiffer up front and 240 percent in back. Add in stiffer bushings all around and you have a recipe for the worst ride quality this side of pretty much every tuner car we’ve ever driven. We winced preemptively before we even got into the driver’s seat.
But the ride quality is actually quite good. Now, we didn’t drive the car in Michigan, but Quebec—where we did drive it—has imperfect roads. And we must say that we could comfortably drive a Type R every day. The car never reminds you that it’s the most highly tuned version of a lesser car. Helping in this regard are electronically adjustable dampers that can be switched in combination with the three driving modes: Comfort, Sport, and +R. The vehicle defaults to Sport, which seems appropriate. There’s a subtle but meaningful difference among the three settings, but overall the ride-and-handling balance is kept within a pretty tight spectrum. It never goes floppy but also never goes into spouse-annoying stiffness.
Nothing Subtle About It
The Type R wears big, fat Continental SportContact 6 summer tires sized 245/30ZR-20 mounted on 8.5-by-20-inch cast-aluminum wheels front and rear. Thirty-series sidewalls were another reason we worried ourselves unnecessarily about ride quality. Impact harshness is less than it really has any right to be. But these big tires will cost more than $300 apiece to replace. The big, relatively heavy wheels accommodate the trick front suspension as well as the 13.8-inch cross-drilled brake rotors with four-piston Brembo calipers on the front axle. Single-piston sliding calipers grab the rear rotors. Thanks perhaps to brake-booster modifications for the Type R, the pedal feel is excellent, even if its travel is a bit farther than we might like.
The Type R comes with manually adjustable sport seats up front that are specific to the model. They carry thick bolsters and integrated headrests and are comfortable and secure whether you’re at the track or on the expressway. By our measurements they are one million times more comfortable than the Recaros that Ford bolts into its high-performance Focuses. Because visual subtlety is not really the Type R’s bag, these seats are available only covered in bright-red cloth, no matter the car’s paint color.