It doesn’t understeer like a street car with front-wheel drive,” said racing driver and ATL Speedwerks team owner, Todd Lamb. “It’s set up to rotate, so it can get loose on cold tires.” Lamb’s not wrong. As I negotiate the tight hairpin at M1 Concourse in Detroit for the first time today, the back end of the Honda Civic Type R TCR factory race car steps out. It’s a progressive slide, and a quick grab of countersteer through the feelsome steering corrects my trajectory and combines with the weight transfer to allow me to power out of the corner quickly and smoothly. Front-wheel-drive performance of this caliber is a new experience for me, and it’s made immediately clear this factory Honda is a 100 percent, full-on race car.
The Civic TCR is a true global citizen. “The body-in-white is built in Swindon [England], the same factory where the road cars are built,” said Justin Chiodo, who serves as trackside support for Honda Performance Development (HPD). “The engines are built in Anna, Ohio. All is then shipped to Italy, where it’s put together at JAS Motorsport [outside Milan].” The turbocharged 2.0-liter is a stock Civic Type R engine internally, with a series of external engine changes for racing conditions. A custom, lightened flywheel is fitted, as is a larger exhaust turbine in the turbocharger. Intake and exhaust changes assist in bumping output to around 340 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque when burning 100-octane racing fuel. For comparison, the street car develops 306 horses and 295 lb-ft—and carries some 360 pounds of additional mass. Out goes the manual transmission, replaced by a trick Xtrac sequential gearbox with an adjustable limited-slip differential. Proper stuff.
As I inspect the Civic TCR in the paddock, it’s even clearer that this is no mildly modified street car. The composite widebody wheel arches give a proper touring-car profile, and a giant rear wing and aggressive front splitter amplify the theme. Large, 15-inch front brake rotors with JAS/AP Racing calipers beautifully fill the 18-inch JAS/OZ wheels shod with Michelin slicks. Bosch ABS with a 12-position adjustment knob is an optional extra fitted to the car I’m driving. The settings for the Öhlins two-way adjustable dampers and the anti-roll bars are close to ideal for M1 Concourse, only slightly dialed back to make the car a touch friendlier at the limit for a newbie.
Setup in the TCR class is critical. There’s tight competition in the IMSA and TC America events where the Civic TCR is campaigned in the U.S. “The big challenge is tire wear and grip,” noted Chiodo. “The teams are playing around with the rear wing angle, differential, and the chassis/suspension. On some tracks, it’s tough to get heat into the rear tires. We’re trying to get heat into the rear tires and not overheat the fronts. If you have that mismatch, it can make driving the car very difficult. Additionally, we can change the ramp angle of the differential, but we can also quickly alter the preload with that two-way external adjustment.” Lamb confirms the importance of that diff: “Getting the limited-slip diff right is 75 percent of the setup. We then fine-tune the chassis with spring and damper changes.”
Climbing into the cockpit emphasizes the fact that the TCR is much more than a tweaked street car. One of the front air jacks lives front and center, just to the left of the custom JAS/Tilton pedal box. Various control units, a fire extinguisher, and a helmet-cooling system occupy the area where the passenger seat resides in the roadgoing Type R. ATL Speedwerks shop manager Brian Zellner assists with adjusting the seat and steering column, as well as buckling me in. He then talks through the starting procedure and the stiffly mounted inline-four ignites with just the right amount of drama to let you know it’s serious. Zellner secures the window net and slams the door shut. I dip the clutch with my left foot, thumb the white steering wheel-mounted button for neutral and select first gear via a steering-wheel-mounted paddle. The long-travel throttle and grabby JAS twin-disc racing clutch means pulling away is a touch tricky, but I don’t stall the raspy engine. Thank God.
After my oversteer moment on the warm-up lap, I begin upping the pace. I first acclimated to the tight, new-to-me Michigan circuit behind the wheel of a regular Civic Type R earlier in the morning. The race car is far rowdier, with significant gear whine. There’s also quite a bit of turbo lag, which surprises me. Another surprise is how the powerplant is somewhat diesel-like. It doesn’t aurally rev out, so the shift lights are key informers of when to pull the right paddle for a rifle-like upshift. Braking is slightly tricky, as the pedal placement is very much set up for left-foot use—not my preferred method. And it’s a very heavy brake pedal. Luckily, the ABS tuning is spot-on. You can indeed “drive the car on the ABS,” as Lamb told me. There’s no traction or stability control but wheel spin is only a concern in that tight, first-gear hairpin. Thankfully, torque steer is minimal, and throttle modulation combined with a bang into second gear as the revs quickly rise easily sorts things out. That limited-slip diff works wonders. It’s not a wicked-fast car, but it loves to be thrown into a corner and grip is excellent as the slicks warm up. Sadly, my run is over far too quickly.
While talking further with both Lamb and Chiodo about their lives in the competitive world of TCR racing, I’m surprised to be offered a second stint. I rocket out of the pits and further explore the Honda’s handling limits. At a quicker pace, the turbo lag disappears, and I start to feel like my heroes from the iconic 1990s Super Touring era of BTCC (British Touring Car Championship). The TCR cares little as I jump curbs and brake deeper and deeper into corners. Straight-line pace isn’t remotely overwhelming, but the turbocharged engine has a wide powerband. I can’t imagine how insanely fun it would be to do battle with a load of other TCR cars buzzing around you on track. What a riot.
As I hand the Civic Type R TCR back to Lamb and the ATL Speedwerks team unscathed, I can’t stop grinning. I’ve driven many factory race cars over the years, most of which were noticeably faster than this Honda. But there’s something about the approachability of a properly set up front-wheel-drive race car combined with tight M1 Concourse track that makes this experience particularly memorable. Surprisingly, you don’t need to be a pro race-car driver or have a giant team behind you to experience the Civic Type R TCR. HPD is happy to sell you one. All you need is $172,238. You should also buy the set-up tools for $13,298. And the ABS premium upgrade is a must at $12,768. Oh, and the spares package is helpful, adding a further $21,402. Are we piling on the bucks? I told you this was a proper race car, and racing’s never cheap. It’s almost always worth it, however—just make sure to get your Type R TCR’s front diff set up correctly.