"What's the Honda Civic Type R like to drive?" American car enthusiasts used to ask in envy. "It's excellent," the rest of the world would answer. "One of the best front-wheel-drive cars ever." For decades, US gearheads dreamed of the day Honda would finally offer the Civic Type R here in the US. Back in 2017, Honda finally decided to bring its most hardcore model stateside in its 10th generation, now as a five-door hatchback with a turbocharger.
It may be arriving later than we'd hoped but the Civic Type R is coming at a time when few manufacturers are willing to offer a hard-edged hot hatchback with a manual transmission. The Focus RS has gone away, the Subaru WRX STI is only offered as a sedan, and the Volkswagen Golf R is taking a hiatus until a new generation arrives. Only the Hyundai Veloster N remotely competes with the Civic Type R, but it's smaller, less expensive, and less powerful. With a turbocharged VTEC engine producing 306 horsepower, the Civic Type R has outgunned and outlasted the competition and now exists as the ultimate hot hatchback on the market. Honda has made various improvements to the car for the 2020 model year and we recently had an opportunity to sample those changes.
The updates for 2020 are simple yet effective. Some of the more noticeable updates include a set of revised brake rotors that keep things cooler under hard braking and should incentivize more track day warriors to invest in the red H badge. Revisions to the front suspension and dampers also tighten things up for improved handling, and there's a larger front grille to further improve cooling, as well as a new Boost Blue color option. Interior updates include the addition of synthetic engine sounds for those who thought the last car didn't sound loud enough, and a new steering wheel wrapped in Alcantara. Speaking of the steering, a lower-friction ball joint helps it feel even sharper than before. Honda has promised a lightweight version of the Type R that is set to go on sale in 2021.
See trim levels and configurations:
2.0L Turbo Inline-4 Gas
The Civic Type R's most impressive party trick is the duality of its driving experience. Sport Mode is the default, as Honda knows its customers well, but a Comfort Mode is also on hand to soften up the ride and quiet down the engine for relaxed driving. The Type R's adaptive dampers soak up road imperfections better than its deceased competitor, the Focus RS, and its existing rival, the Veloster N. It's still stiffer than a Civic Si, but buyers who are purchasing this type of vehicle know what they are getting themselves into. The Type R is remarkably comfortable to drive every day, though the road noise from the 20-inch wheels can be a bit disturbing on the highway and the impressive racing seats might get tiresome on a long trip.
When the road gets twisty, +R mode sharpens up the car to exhilarating levels. It may not possess AWD, but the Type R still sticks to the road like super-glue when you toss it through corners. With how soft the ride is in comfort mode, you'd expect some body roll, but it just never comes. The car remains perfectly level, inspiring the driver to take turns at ballistic speeds with zero repercussions. The revised steering rack is telepathic, delivering an immediate response from the front end and providing feedback to the driver's hands. You'd also expect a FWD car to exhibit torquesteer, but even with 306 hp attempting to shred the front tires, the steering never pulls to the left or right as you'd expect. Credit the limited-slip differential here. The upgraded braking system delivers breathtaking stopping power, and independent testing has proven the Civic can stop from 70 mph to zero as fast as the Acura NSX supercar. We didn't have an opportunity to drive the car on a track, but Honda says it has taken care of the overheating issues found on last year's model.
It's hard to call a car "perfect," but there are few changes we could think of for the Civic Type R to make it any better. The car would have been excellent even if Honda focused only on making it stiff and uncomfortable for the track, but somehow, the Type R manages to be the most compliant vehicle in its class. More conservative buyers may object to the "I demand attention" styling, but we enjoy seeing Honda divert from its mostly low-key design philosophy for a brief moment of lunacy.
The engine sound is still a sore point, even with the Active Sound Control pumping in some synthesized noise through the speakers. A car that looks this outrageous should crack and pop like a rally car and the Type R, sadly, does not. Some aftermarket pipes might change this, but Hyundai has proved, with the Veloster N, that a 2.0-liter turbo four-banger can sound incredible from the factory. So long as the exhaust note isn't the only reason you buy a car, the Civic Type R excels in every other area. It grips to the road like an animal stalking its prey and delivers more feedback to the driver than most RWD sports cars. When it's time to drive home from the track, there's even adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist to ease the burden. The Type R truly is the best of both worlds and if you can get around the mediocre sound and flamboyant styling, we urge you to run out and buy one.
The WRX STI brand is better known in the United States and enjoys a cult-like following. These rally-inspired four-door sedans make use of turbocharged power and four-wheel drive to deliver an exhilarating driving experience that is difficult to find anywhere else in this price range. Power comes from a turbocharged 2.5-liter flat-four engine producing 310 hp and 290 lb-ft of torque. Power is sent to all four wheels via a six-speed manual transmission. That flat-four engine and AWD system allow the WRX STI to accelerate faster than most in its class, and emanates that beloved flat-four rumble. In the corners, there's tons of AWD grip, and steering is responsive. It also looks totally badass. On the other hand, the WRX STI offers a harsh ride with plenty of road and wind noise accompanying it. Fuel efficiency isn't spectacular, and we think the Civic Type R is the better all-rounder.
The VW Golf R is the more powerful evolution of the standard Golf GTI and adds some AWD action, more power, and superior refinement. Although the Golf R weighs more than the standard GTI, it makes up for this by throwing a bigger turbo in the mix. The 2.0-liter engine produces 288 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. We love how the Golf R combines excellent handling with a refined ride one step up from the Civic Type R. Acceleration is impressive as well. The interior is by far the more plush and polished in this class, but still remains practical. Standard features and driver assistance systems are also impressive. It does come at a price, however, and the Civic Type R is the more engaging car to drive. As an all-rounder, the Golf is better, but if you're looking for a track day weapon, then the Honda should be the go-to option.
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