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First Drive: The New 2020 Honda Civic Type R Gets Even Better (Mostly)

Updates to Honda’s smoking-hot hatch improve an already great thing, except for one annoying feature.

Billy RehbockWriterManufacturerPhotographer

We're big fans of the Civic Type R here at Automobile. And when it comes to the 2020 Honda Civic Type R, it remains the kind of affordable performance car that epitomizes our "no boring cars" mantra. The formula: combine aggressive bodywork, a huge wing, a three-tip exhaust, adaptive independent suspension, powerful brakes, sticky tires, and a high-revving turbocharged engine. Oh, and a manual transmission seals the deal.

Our affection for the mega hatchback led us to give the 2018 Civic Type R an Automobile All-Stars award and to take delivery of a Championship White example as a long-term member of our Four-Seasons fleet. When we heard Honda was updating its high-performance offering, it was a natural defense mechanism to for us to worry, if only for a moment, that any attempts to fiddle with a close-to-perfect product would demean its excellence. As it turns out, that was a silly thought.

2020 Honda Civic Type R: What's Changed

After a week in the driver's seat, it seems the 2020 Honda Civic Type R has become a bit more refined but no less enjoyable. The changes start with a new front fascia that does away with the fake honeycomb side grilles in favor of black plastic pieces with color-matching trim elements. The alteration is more than cosmetic, however; the grille is 13-percent larger, allowing for improved engine cooling. Honda says this lowers engine coolant temps up to 18 degrees Fahrenheit during demanding driving. We never had cooling problems with our long-term test car, but we appreciate the reassurance—as will people who like to run the car on racetracks.

The car's rear received a similar treatment, with a color-matching piece of bumper trim, though the nonfunctional honeycomb plastic accent remained. Side mirrors are now also painted the same as the rest of the car. The front spoiler is reshaped to generate even more aerodynamic downforce since the altered grille actually generated a loss in downforce.

Small changes continue inside the cockpit as well. The shift knob, originally spherical, is now a more ovular shape and smaller overall, and it weighs 90 grams more. It's reminiscent of the somewhat cylindrical shift knob in the Integra Type R Acura lent us for Radwood. The older ball-shaped shifter fit the shape of my palm better, but this new knob's weighting offsets its slightly odd form.

Honda also fit the interior with more premium materials. To start, the shift boot is now made from a synthetic suede material. The steering wheel, on the other hand, receives real Alcantara cloth, in both black and red. The material feels soft, but in a road car I much prefer a leather-wrapped wheel because any type of microsuede gets gummed up with a little sweat if the driver isn't wearing gloves. That's exactly what happened after a couple of hours driving in the California sun.

Even the 2020 Honda Civic Type R's suspension receives updates. According to Honda, the front suspension has a "new lower ball joint with reduced friction and updated front compliance," and the rear suspension features "new bushings for the lower B-arm that are 8-percent stiffer in lateral loads for better toe-in when cornering." Honda also updated the adaptative damper system to take samples of road conditions 10-times quicker than before, which it says results in "more accurate damper reactions."

Sound engineers also made changes to the driving modes. Purists will be disappointed to hear that Honda's "Active Sound Control" is listed among the other updates to the Civic Type R. This means the cabin speakers pipe additional sound into the cockpit with volume and aggressiveness increasing depending on the drive setting. I'm not sure why this was necessary; now driving in +R mode just hurts my ears and irritates me for a greater period of time, even though the car is still super fun dynamically. There's no way to disable this system, which is frustrating because the piped-in sound becomes grating if you keep the car in its hottest setting for a long stint behind the wheel.

The 2020 Honda Civic Type R also gets upgraded brakes, including two-piece floating discs and new pads; the intent is to improve heat dissipation under high-stress conditions. Additionally, Honda shortened the pedal stroke before the brakes engage. Brake response is quick and effective but not violent, and the upgraded calipers and rotors easily rein-in the hot hatch from high speeds. During part of our evaluation in the Malibu canyons, some brake fade became apparent late in the run, but the stoppers recovered quickly after a short cooldown.

In a bid to democratize safety systems across the Honda lineup, the Civic Type R now also receives Honda Sensing as a standard feature. Techies will be thrilled that the manual-equipped hatchback now has adaptive cruise control in addition to the rest of the features that define Honda's driver assistance equipment. We didn't miss these in our long-term Type R, but their addition doesn't hinder the experience for enthusiast drivers, either.

2020 Honda Civic Type R: What's the Same

The piecemeal refinements make the 2020 Honda Civic Type R an even more livable choice for buyers, but they hardly interfere with what made us love this wildly styled hatch in the first place. As a compact, it's easy to wheel this car around town for errand running. Our test car wore Sonic Grey Metallic paint, which helps to tone down the angular bodywork and helps to camouflage the big wing within the rest of the car's design.

I hardly got any attention driving around Los Angeles, a welcome perk given California Highway Patrol's more recent hypersensitivity to enthusiastic driving. Assailed neither by scorn nor bathed in the glowing admiration of onlookers, I took a couple of opportunities to escape from the west side of L.A. up to Malibu for some spirited runs through the twisting roads that connect the coast and the valley.

The 2020 Honda Civic Type R's engine remains unchanged. The powerplant still churns out a ferocious 306 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque through the front wheels. Power delivery is savage, even with the grippy Continental SportContact 6 tires. Torque steer remains nearly nonexistent, but the front rubber still can struggle to hook up fully most of the way through second gear. But once the power really connects with the pavement, the Civic rockets forward in a manner that honors the Type R badge's motorsports heritage.

The manual transmission is still a zen garden for shifting, but there is an odd trait that from time to time produces a grind when shifting into second gear, either up from first or down from third. This occurred three times during our test, with the clutch depressed fully, in both high-performance and relaxed-driving situations. Some of the Automobile staff also noted a similar phenomenon in previous Civic Type R test cars, and it has been mentioned by other outlets as well.

Usually, though, there's no issue in that department, and the 2020 Honda Civic Type R demonstrates just how much fun using three pedals can be. As mentioned, the shift knob's weighting is excellent; the oblong ingot provides just enough feedback to feel communicative without being so heavy that it resists an effortless gearchange. It's also a cool element that will provide future collectors with a neat differentiation between their car and those cars of earlier model years.

Second and third gear provide plenty of versatility in the canyons. With full torque available between 2,500 and 4,500 rpm, it's easy to keep the Type R in its powerband. The gearing makes this car ideal for canyon blasts, but it's not always so great for freeway driving, as it sounds pretty buzzy at highway speeds even in sixth gear—with the piped-in sound to blame for additional irritation. Still, most urban or suburban dwellers will appreciate this mega hatch's heightened refinement thanks to its damper and suspension updates.

Honda says the suspension changes improve handling, steering, and grip, and for sure the Civic Type R is every bit the bad-ass it was when we chose it as an All-Stars winner. The car changes direction with acute nimbleness; all its driver has to do is look at the next corner and let their hands and feet follow, and the Civic traces the intended path effortlessly. Yet, none of this happens in a detached and robotic way; the Type R has the tactility appropriate for a vehicle with underlying capability that's made its way into endurance racing.

One upshot of all of the changes is, the 2020 Honda Civic Type R seems much more compliant than before when set to Sport and Comfort modes, but the +R mode seems just as hardcore as ever. Around town, I typically drive in Sport, which made our long-term car feel like it was always "on" and super aggressive. Now, this super Civic is a bit more comfortable in normal driving conditions. The Civic Type R still does it all, and it does it all better than before.

2020 Honda Civic Type R: Is it Worth It?

The 2020 Honda Civic Type R has enormous performance capabilities without sacrificing any utility, a rare trait. As Honda continues to hone its mega hatch's identity, it hasn't pushed the car's pricing out of the realm of affordability. All Civic Type R models are available at one trim level and one price point, with its MSRP set at $37,950. That means it remains a strong value proposition even when its primary competitor, the Volkswagen Golf R, is out of production for 2020.

We do wish Honda would just accept that the car is good enough as is without adding silly, piped-in sound. Otherwise, Honda made some great improvements here without taking away from the hatch's sharp handling and unflappable poise. We certainly hope the Type R sticks around as long as the present-generation Civic is on sale, and that it makes a return when the next iteration of the compact car eventually makes its debut. All told, this updated version of our 2018 All-Stars pick continues to do Honda proud.

Fast Facts: What's New for the 2020 Honda Civic Type R

  • Active Sound Control
  • New bushings and ball Joints
  • 8-inch two-piece floating front-brake rotors
  • Revised active damper system
  • Restyled front and rear bumpers
  • Larger grille opening and high-flow radiator
  • Reshaped front spoiler
  • Body-colored side mirrors with turn signals
  • Honda Sensing safety system
  • Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel
  • Synthetic suede shift boot
  • New aluminum shift knob
2020 Honda Civic Type R Touring Specifications
ON SALE: Now
PRICE: $37,950/$37,950 (base/as tested)
ENGINE: 2.OL turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/306 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 2,500-4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
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
WHEELBASE: 106.3 in
WEIGHT 3,121 lb
0-60 MPH: 5.4 sec
TOP SPEED: 170 mph