MIRABEL, Quebec, Canada — Accelerating toward the late, late apex of a sphincter-tightening right-hand sweeper at the 16-turn International Center of Advanced Racing (Circuit ICAR) just north of Montreal, I squeeze down on the throttle. This unleashes the full fury of 306 turbocharged horses, and I then do what I always do when cornering at max lat in a potent front-drive car: I brace for torque steer. But the new 2017 Honda Civic Type R I’m wringing out does not try to yank the steering wheel from my fingertips. It does not dart off line. It does not scream “yeeeeehaaawww!” or use its 22.8 psi of turbo boost to burn the 20-inch front tires into acrid black jelly.
Instead, with absolutely zero fuss, the Type R blasts me out of the turn and into the next corner so fiercely I have to stand on the ventilated, cross-drilled, four-piston Brembo front brakes just to keep from launching straight into the nearby village of Saint-Antoine. (It would be especially embarrassing to admit that you crashed into a city with your own name on it.)
The headline is this: The new Type R is the fastest production front-driver ever to circle the Nürburgring Nordschleife, accomplishing the feat in just 7 minutes, 43.8 seconds. That’s 7 seconds quicker than the previous, fourth-gen car I tested in Slovakia in 2015 (but which we Americans never got a chance to buy). If the new, gen-five Type R’s time doesn’t mean anything to you, join me down on Memory Lane for a moment. Back in 2005, a Pagani Zonda S lapped the same circuit in 7:44 flat. That car cost $500,000, seats just two with no cargo, and looks like a cross between a Ferrari Enzo and a Hercules missile. The Type R costs $34,775, seats four, delivers more than 46 cubic feet of cargo room with the rear seat folded down, and gets 28 mpg on the highway. It looks like a cross between a Hercules missile and a Honda.
What the headline does not reveal is how the Type R got so damn fast. The answer mirrors Ernest Hemingway’s description of going bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
At a glance, the new Type R doesn’t seem dramatically different from its 2015 predecessor. The Ohio-built engine is essentially unchanged: same displacement, same VTEC variable valve-timing and direct-injection hardware, same power and torque, same 7,000-rpm redline. The one and only shifter remains a six-speed manual feeding, again, a front helical limited slip differential. As before, huge 13.8-inch Brembos sit forward with 12-inch solid discs at the rear. The suspension boasts three-chamber adaptive dampers and variable-ratio electronic power steering. The sport seats are worthy of a race car. The rear wing could lift a B-52.
Yet there are differences. Mostly small ones, admittedly, but in sum they produce a vastly changed automobile. The final drive ratio, for instance, is lowered by 7 percent, improving acceleration. Front track is widened by nearly half an inch, while the rear track swells by 2.5 inches. Front/rear weight distribution is improved. Torsional rigidity is up 38 percent, yet weight is down thanks to lightweight structural materials. The car’s center of gravity is almost half an inch lower. The reshaped bodywork and ducting improve engine cooling, reduce drag and lift, and add rear downforce at speed. It’s subtle stuff — you might not notice any of it right away — but it creates a more impressive vehicle.
Other revisions and upgrades stand out. The alloy wheels have grown from 19 inches to 20; they’re finished in a striking black design wearing 245/30R-20 summer performance tires. New is Honda’s first-ever rev-match system. Instead of the driver blipping the throttle while braking (heel-and-toe downshifting), simply brake with your right foot and, as you move the gear lever to a lower ratio, the system automatically does the engine blipping for you. Out back is a new three-pipe exhaust system that sports two outside main pipes with a central resonator. At lower throttle the resonator adds increased sound; all three pipes are open. At higher engine speeds, however, the resonator’s pressure goes negative, ducting the exhaust to the outside pipes to minimize booming. It’s a passive system that requires no butterfly valves to function. And it looks cool.
The cockpit remains clean and sporty, with lots of red accents (a Type R signature), faux carbon-fiber trim that doesn’t look cheap, those great front buckets, and a central display that changes depending on which driving mode you’re in or what particulars — tach, boost gauge, etc. — you’d like to see. Front and center is a terrific three-spoke leather wheel, with a handsome aluminum shift knob nicely positioned for your right hand. Above the center column is a 7-inch color touchscreen display also operable via voice commands. There’s nothing fancy here, and there shouldn’t be. Honda has put the money where it counts—not on flash, but on great seats, premium materials, and hardware you’ll really use and appreciate.
An important note: Everything on the Type R is standard. You pick your preferred color (making a dramatic return is Honda’s renowned Championship White). That’s it. But that in no way implies you’ll be left wanting. The standard-equipment sheet is long: Honda-linked navigation with digital traffic info; 540-watt, 12-speaker audio system; support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto; keyless Smart Entry and push-button start; dual-zone climate control; LED headlights, fog lights, and daytime running lights; a multi-angle rear-view camera; and a lot more. Check out the pricing of the competition — Subaru STi, Ford Focus RS, Volkswagen Golf R — and you’ll find the Honda undercuts them all, even with its superior list of standard stuff.
Back to Circuit ICAR. The last Type R was impressively lacking in torque steer, but the gen-five model is even better. There’s almost none to speak of, even under full throttle in the tightest of turns. Credit revised dual-axis front struts — similar to the Focus RS’s RevoKnuckle setup — which reduce torque steer while also improving steering responsiveness. The new 20-inch meats and improved suspension tuning add a newfound stability to an already impressive layout. Yes, the Type R will step out, but in a calm, predictable, friendly manner. At the limit, a judicious lift of the throttle will bring just the right helpful hint of oversteer to lock you back on line. This suspension is both completely settled and remarkably grippy. Not once during my lapping sessions did the car make an unexpected move on me.
As before, the driver can choose from three driving modes: Comfort, Sport, and R+. Each adjusts chassis stiffness, steering effort, and drive-by-wire throttle response. One major criticism I raised about the 2015 Type R was its suspension harshness in R+ mode. I don’t recall the roads in Slovakia being awful, but on the street the car was nearly unbearable in R+. That’s not the case any more. Yes, R+ is still noticeably the stiffest of the three choices, but it feels far more compliant now. I had no complaints during my road drive, though Comfort did ride far better, and Sport seemed the best ride/handling compromise.
The dual-pinion, variable-ratio electronic power-steering system gets a larger motor for 2017 and needs just 2.1 turns lock to lock. It’s not great — as with other EPS systems, it lacks road feel — but it’s better than before, noticeably so. I found myself using Sport or R+ modes almost exclusively, though; in Comfort the steering takes on a power boost that’s somehow murky. In R+ the response is much more direct and satisfying.
On the track, the rev-match system worked brilliantly. Frankly, I’ve used such systems before and never liked them. After using manual transmissions for years and learning how to heel-and-toe, suddenly not blipping the throttle yourself feels counterintuitive. And most rev-match systems don’t seem to do the matching particularly well. Honda’s system is different. Within a few corners I was confidently planting my right foot on the brake and flipping the gear lever down while the engine automatically and smoothly revved up to accept the lower gear. Nicely done, and it sounds great, too.
Ah, the sound. Wish there was more of it. If I have a major criticism of this new and vastly improved Type R, it’s that I’d like a little more wickedness. The car is almost too buttoned-down, too predictable and safe and efficient. Especially given the variable exhaust, why isn’t there more scream from the engine at full throttle? Even at the redline the 2.0-liter turbo is more poised and polished than electrifying. I want a car with such laser-like race focus to feel as wild as it works. Yes, the performance is there—no doubt whatsoever. The Type R just needs a bit more sauce on the steak. (A lot of buyers, no doubt, are going to pour that sauce right on via the aftermarket.)
Honda plans to bring 2,700 Type Rs to our shores almost immediately (they’re built in the U.K.), and after that will likely settle at a rate of about 3,000 annually.
For sure, this new car is equipped to meet those lofty targets. Even without the four-wheel drive of its main rivals, the Civic Type R displays remarkable poise and an uncanny ability to put its power down. It’s utterly refined but unquestionably fast. It’s happy puttering around town but hungry to scorch any track any time and feels like it could do it all day.
The last time I reviewed a Civic Type R I had to tell you, “It’s cool all right, but it’s not coming here.” This time I’m happy to say, “This one was worth the wait.”
2017 Honda Civic Type R Specifications
|PRICE||$34,775/` (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||2.0 turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/306 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 2,500-4,000 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, FWD hatchback|
|EPA MILEAGE||22/28 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||179.4 x 73.9 x 56.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.4 sec|
|TOP SPEED||168 mph|