Payne: Give thanks, the Honda Civic Type R hot hatch gets hotter
Sonoma, California — Cresting Turn 3’s blind hill at Sonoma Raceway, I pressed to keep up with IMSA Pirelli Pilot Challenge champion Ryan Eversley. In chilly conditions my 2023 Honda Civic Type R skittered across the apex in a controlled slide. Like a cat landing on its feet it found grip on its Michelin Pilot 4 tires, and I floored the throttle downhill into Turn 4, snatching fourth gear at 7,000 RPM.
It will also fetch groceries and take three of your six-foot pals to the movies.
Long live the hot hatch, long live the Honda Civic Type R. “I want one,” smiled a smitten Eversley after a week in the car on track and public roads.
In only its first generation on American shores, Honda’s performance halo established itself as a serious contender in what I believe is America’s most versatile segment. Hot hatches bring performance, utility, and sex appeal to the affordable compact car. A legend overseas for its blinding performance, Type R invaded America in 2018 like a samurai superhero. With styling straight out of Batman comic book (one wag compared its design to a “disheveled knife drawer”), the Civic was impossible to ignore with its huge gills, scoops, and scorpion-inspired rear wing.
It also cost a mere $37,000, making it competitive with segment icons like the VW Golf GTI and Ford Focus ST. My motorhead sons fell in love with it — though trying to find one to buy was tricky. On a 2020 spring weekend, we hunted for nearby Type Rs for under $35,000 but came up empty. Even used models were selling at — or above — sticker.
For its second act, Honda has rewarded its fan base with a Type R that is more mature in every way — from digital gauges to upscale interior to improved horsepower to a more timeless design. Ahem, now that we got your attention with the 2017 model, America, we’ve designed the second-gen with a pen, not a crayon.
Regrettably, it gets a lot more expensive — pushing the upper reaches of a segment that promises affordability.
Recognizing its coveted status and more upscale design (oh, and that Honda’s most cross-shopped competitor, the $38K Subaru WRX STI, is out of production), the $43,990 Type R’s price is in the same ZIP code as the King of Hot Hatch: the stylish all-wheel-drive VW Golf R.
Not only does front-wheel-drive Civic Type R nearly match Golf R’s sticker, it equals its lofty performance numbers by squeezing out 315 horses and 310 pound feet of torque from its blown 2.0-liter engine.
I’m a VW Golf partisan going back to my first car, the 1984 GTI, and — with $45K in hand — I would still opt for the AWD uber-Golf or front-wheel-drive $40K GTI. But with its flawless execution and terrific durability, Civic Type R will be coveted.
Start with its insane drivetrain.
I’ve rowed a variety of vehicles over the swells and swirls of Sonoma’s glorious 2.0-mile circuit, but the last small-displacement car I drove here was the 2014 Alfa Romeo 4C — one of my favorite sports cars. I wouldn’t trade the Alfa’ sensational carbon-fiber tub for anything — but the 1.8-liter turbo-5 was a struggle to flog. The car’s lack of torque made it temperamental around Sonoma.
By contrast, I was up to speed in the Type R within a lap. As the track dried from morning rains, I accessed the car’s stiffest setting — +R mode — and the car quivered like a dog about to be let off its leash. Pounding up Sonoma’s Turn 1 hill, the pavement goes off-caber at the peak (IndyCar fans will remember cars spinning there), robbing momentum. No matter.
With its prodigious torque, Type R instantly picked up the beat as I downshifted to second and got back on throttle. The +R mode also change the tachometer to a racecar-like horizontal readout so it’s easier to see the 7,000 RPM before the Civic smacks it.
This sharp performance defines a car that is an ergonomic joy from A-pillar to hatchback.
On my way to Sonoma in spitting rain, Type R was as predictable on-road as on track. I could spin the front tires in three gears in the wet, but the car’s sophisticated suspension and limited-slip differential meant I needn’t worry about torque-steer diverting me from my path.
The manual gearbox — the best this side of a Porsche — was never confused. Even the pedal placement is excellent for old-school double-clutch downshifts, but modern electronics enable new school rev-matching. The Type R also benefits from the 11th generation Civic’s thinner A-pillar and door-mounted mirrors, which gave me better visibility in the soggy Bay Area.
The new Civic’s honeycomb dash has received rave reviews — and has trickled down to Honda kin like HR-V and CR-V. But fashion doesn’t come at the expense of ergonomics. Climate and volume knobs are where they should be. In keeping with its digital instrument and infotainment displays, Type R comes standard with Adaptive Cruise Control (yes, in a manual), blind-spot assist and wireless Android Auto/Apple CarPlay. The only oversight was my huge Samsung S20 smartphone couldn’t fit the charger space. First-world problems.
Following on the last gen — and other performance cars — Type R retains its blood-red seats, but they are more comfortable than ever despite the necessary bolsters to keep you centered while, say, diving through Sonoma’s high-G downhill Carousel turn.
With an additional 1.4-inches of rear legroom, Civic is also — like Golf R — a comfortable place for six-footers. More affordable competitors like the Mazda 3 Turbo (also with cool red seats) and new-kid-on-the-block Toyota GR Corolla are rear-seat-room-challenged.
The attention to detail even extends to the hatchback, where Honda Type R has revolutionized the rear window shade with a simple blind (why doesn’t everyone do this?) that can be pulled across the rear opening. No struggling with awkward snap-ins, no throwing the blind into your garage where it will only be forgotten the next time you need it to protect groceries from the sun.
There wasn’t much sun during my test time in California, but there was enough daylight to appreciate Type R’s new design. It’s not as distinctive as Gen One, but it’s plenty muscular.
Roof and doors aside, Type R’s body panels are bespoke. The fenders bulge, contributing to the hatch’s 1.0-inch wider stance than last gen. The styling is more conservative, but body cuts are purposeful — a new hood scoop that pulls air through from the radiator for better cooling and downforce, for example. And below the more conservative wing is the Type R’s signature center-mounted tri-exhaust.
Access +R mode and the car barks — BLAT! — with more authority than last gen. That personality is key to a car that must compete with the visceral, clinical thrills of the Golf R, which has a few tricks up its sleeve like drift mode and rev matching.
Open the hatches of these twin hellions, stuff them with chairs, toolbox and Michelin Cup 2 tires, and go find a nearby track day.
Give thanks this Thanksgiving. The second-gen Type R is here.
Next week: Who needs a truck? Towing a boat with the Ford Explorer SUV
2023 Honda Civic Type R
Vehicle type: Front-wheel-drive, five-passenger hatchback
Price: $43,990, including $1,095 destination fee
Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 cylinder
Power: 315 horsepower, 310 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.3 seconds (Motor Trend est.)
Weight: 3,188 pounds
Fuel economy: est. 22 city/28 highway/24 combined
Report cardHighs: Joy to drive on and off track; precise manual box
Lows: Getting pricey
Overall: 4 stars
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.