Price: £17,627 (£18,627 for the higher-spec GT model)
Engine: 1,998cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 201bhp at 7,800rpm, 142lb ft at 5,600rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 146mph, 0-62mph in 6.6 seconds, 31mpg official average
You just know the Honda Civic Type-R is going to be fun to drive. Look at it. See the almost continuous curve from front bumper over roof to rear valance; see how the lower extremities flare out as if sucking the Honda on to the road. The wheels are pushed out to the edges, the lights are sci-fi thin, the exhaust outlets are triangular, for heaven's sake. It's a hot little spacecraft with a new road-magnet system. You'd expect something like that from the company that creates the Asimo robots.
Add to the mix an engine that revs to 8,250rpm and idles with the rock-steady whirr of a Formula One car at its pit stop, and if you have an ounce of affinity with the driving process, you could get quite excited. But this Honda has been around for a few months now, and there has been no word of it from me in this newspaper. How could I have passed it up?
It's like this. I like the current-generation Civic and its space-age style indulgences, and I enjoyed the previous Type-R, with which I had one of the most surreal car-launch experiences of my life. The drive took place on the Isle of Man, and the mountain section of the TT circuit had been closed so we could have a high-speed thrash in relative safety, following a keenly driven Honda Accord police car. But it was foggy, very foggy.
I knew the road was clear, and the police driver (who knew it too) was going at his usual high speed, but I found not being able to see a distinct psychological disadvantage. However, I latched on to the police car as best I could and had the bizarre experience of driving almost blind at 80mph with full police approval. I'm still here, so it must have been all right.
So I looked forward to driving the new Type-R. Then I drove it – to discover that it had possibly the worst ride of any new car I've driven. It thumped and banged over bumps, it jittered and fidgeted, it bounced-and-checked over motorway undulations other cars don't even notice. I could not believe Honda was going to put the Type-R on sale like this, and decided to revisit it once the suspension was sorted out. Which it is now.
It turned out that the very early cars had several sets of suspension settings between them, and that some had even worse suspension than the car I tried. There were redeeming features, such as almost unbelievably responsive steering that still managed not to be twitchy or anaesthetised. But if the suspension doesn't compress when you're cornering, the steering is bound to be keen.
So here I am with a definitive production-spec Type-R – a launch car with the correct parts – and wondering if it will still steer as eagerly if it is now calibrated not to compact my vertebrae. Open door: the handle creaks in plasticky, un-Honda-like fashion, as before. Sit down; the seat's upper shoulder supports are so intrusive that I must look like a hunchback, and fighting past them to find the seatbelt is not a pleasure. Good thing I did this before turning on the ignition, otherwise I would have been subjected to idiot chimes even if we weren't moving. No car I ever buy will be allowed to have such chimes.
Mood not great so far, then. Press the red start-button, hear that distant race-car idle. Into gear – it's a very short lever – and off up the road. The Type-R's engine loves to rev, as we know, but the price paid for the power (201bhp at 7,800rpm, from 2.0 litres and no turbocharger) is that the engine feels lifeless at low speeds. That's why the Honda's six-speed gearbox has short-legged gearing, making the engine spin more speedily than usual at a given speed in a given gear.
This lifelessness is felt up to 5,400rpm, at which the engine note hardens, an "i-VTEC" light comes on and suddenly the Honda takes off. The camshafts have just altered their timing and increased the amount they open the valves, and the effect is to create an entirely different engine. It emits a hard-edged howl and is as responsive as you could reasonably wish for, with 62mph passed 6.6 seconds after blast-off and a 146mph maximum (should you find a suitable venue). The trouble is, though, that you can't really drive around at over 5,400rpm all the time or people will think you're a hooligan.
You have a grandstand view of the engine's rev-hungry antics because there's a fine rev-counter ahead of you. Its scale is like the red corona of the eclipsed sun of another, older solar system, and the celestial body doing the eclipsing is a digital information panel. And the speedometer? This is digital, too, and set in the dashboard's upper deck. It means you have to set the steering wheel low or you can't read it, the steering wheel's rim otherwise being in the way.
And now, the part that caused the delay of this test. I'm on a favourite piece of twisty, intermittently pock-marked road, the ill-maintained sort common in the affluent Home Counties, and I'm having a very good time. The Honda has an easy clutch, a precise and easy feel to all its controls, and it is effortlessly flickable with just a flex of the wrists and forearms.
That's good. The terrific steering response is intact: ultra-precise, alert, naturally weighted (despite being an electrically assisted system) and the gateway to possibly the most agile handling currently on offer in a hot hatchback this size. The Civic turns into a corner as if its life depends on it. Once there it stays flat, taut and ready to alter its line precisely in tune with the acceleration the engine sends to the front wheels.
This is joyful. Even better, it's now achieved with an acceptable ride. It's still firm, but it yields when it has to and has lost its tiresomely choppy after-bounce. By conceding that it's better if the wheels are allowed to move over undulations, that the suspension has to "breathe" a bit, the Honda engineers have made the Type-R not only more comfortable, but also much easier to drive on real roads, with better traction out of slippery corners. And it still has that steering. Excellent.
Thus is the Honda Civic Type-R redeemed. It's not perfect: the engine's need for constant stoking-up is annoying; the way the rear spoiler blots out part of the view aft similarly so; ditto the lack of a rear wiper. And reverse parking is a trauma, because you can't see past those high "wings" in the front seats.
But it's a heck of a lot of fun, it's built in the UK and it's good value. It's also one of the few modern cars you'll drive with the window down just so you can hear the sound it makes. For that, I can forgive it a lot.
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This hardest-edged version of the 2.0-litre turbo Mégane has 230bhp, cleverly-honed suspension and steering and is huge fun. Probably the best super-hot hatch of all.
Vauxhall Astra VXR £19,185
It's very powerful, with 240 turbocharged bhp from 2.0 litres, and its coupé-like looks are striking, but all that energy makes for an unruly car at times. Try before you buy.
Ford Focus ST from £18,010
With five cylinders, 2.5 litres, a turbo and 225bhp, this Focus is effortlessly rapid but feels too nose-heavy for a really sporty drive. Looks great in metallic orange, though.Reuse content