Farewell Review: Honda Civic Type R
Ever heard the saying, “Those who sport mohawks shouldn’t expect anonymity?” Unlikely, seeing as how I recently made it up. The adage occurred to me on I-75, somewhere north of Lexington, Kentucky. A guy and his girlfriend in a clapped-out Civic (circa 2001, faded, packed to the headliner with canvas bags of God knows what) pulled up next to me in the adjacent lane with a conspiratorial smile occupying the full width of his face. The nature of this non-verbal volley was clear enough, given the Honda Civic Type R and its shelf-sized wing are about as subtle as, well, a spiky purple mohawk. I dropped two gears, matted the throttle, and couldn’t help peeking in the rearview mirror just quick enough to see the man thumping the steering wheel in glee. Three miles down the freeway he caught up, this time twirling his finger around in the air. That universal signal. Fun. Again, please.
No Civic in America has ever warranted such a reaction. But the Type R is no ordinary Japanese compact, and with that crimson-colored badge comes inevitable associations with the last car on these shores to wear it—the 1997–01 Acura Integra Type R. The suffix is about all these two cars have in common. The Civic is bigger, heavier, turbocharged, has four doors, and makes so much power to the front wheels that Honda had to design a bespoke dual-axis front suspension to iron out torque steer. The Civic Type R commands so much grip and can carry such colossal speed through corners that it’s almost unusable outside the confines of a closed course—all of which renders this zenith Honda very far removed from Shigeru’s two-decade old machine.
It’s been five years since Civic Type R arrived for the 2017 model year, and the 2020 model we borrowed from Honda wears several improvements to the initial formula. (2021 will be the final model year for this potent offering before the next-gen successor, so our test vehicle was likely a final-run straggler in the Honda media fleet.) As with the rest of the Civic lineup, body-colored inserts now break up the vast field of black plastic on the front and rear bumpers. More important though are the concessions to customer complaints of overheating during track sessions—a 13-percent larger grille opening and updated radiator core that promises to lower coolant temperature by 18 degrees F. To account for the slight increase in front lift allowed by the new grille, Honda modified the spoiler underneath the front bumper for more downforce. The Type R’s standard adaptive dampers react 10 times faster to road conditions than before, and stiffer bushings combined with lower-friction ball joints are said to improve cornering and steering feel. Two-piece front brake rotors with more fade-resistant pads replace the prior single-piece units, shaving five pounds of unsprung weight. All in all modest updates, albeit thoughtful ones that genuine track rats will appreciate.
The Type R comes fully loaded in Touring trim, as before, for $37,950. Prices crept up a little more for 2021, and there is a yellow-only Limited Edition with slightly less weight, a bit of reduction in the sound insulation, forged BBS wheels, and Michelin Cup 2 tires.
New hotness Limited Edition aside, the ordinary Type R is not to be underestimated. Exceptional sports cars of this sort are not often gift-wrapped in a package so versatile and approachable. That said, getting this Civic to show off what it’s really made of requires diligent, deliberate whipping. The 306-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder isn’t the redline-hungry free-revver that fans of the naturally aspirated Integra might have craved, and the peak 295 lb-ft of torque from 2500–4500 rpm makes this hottest of hatches easy to manage in traffic. In fact, unless you frequently stomp on the gas and allow the four-banger stretch toward its 7000-rpm redline, the Type R feels—and sounds—somewhat ordinary in daily use. For a lot of Honda diehards expecting the fully unhinged wild child that the Type R’s Gundham styling and triple exhaust suggest, any docility is understandable disappointment. On the other hand, the people willing to drop $38,000 on a Honda aren’t 19 anymore, they’re 39, and hot hatches tend to pull double duty as both weekend warriors and daily drivers.
To that end, the Type R is a shockingly capable road-trip chariot. My drive from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to and from the Buick GS Nationals in Bowling Green, Kentucky, was easy. Relaxing, even. The trunk can swallow a week’s worth of luggage for two people, without having to drop the rear seats or retract the cargo cover. No other compact can claim this much legroom. Cubbies, door pockets, elbow-deep center console storage? Check, check, check. The generously bolstered seats are as welcome for long hauls as they are hairpin turns. Admittedly, though, the all-red fabric interior with fake carbon inserts feels more anime-Brougham than race-car-for-the-street. Purple mohawk, remember? If it doesn’t make your mom cringe, it isn’t working.
Certain Type R quirks, however, will make you cringe. The infotainment system, for starters, is woefully unsuited to a car that dealers are more than happy to mark up north of 40 grand. It works just fine, but a car this high-tech shouldn’t force its passionate driver to interact with a screen that was forcibly liberated from a 2011 Hewlett-Packard laser printer. Somehow, the 20-inch wheels and ultra-low-profile Continental tires don’t ruin the Civic’s civil ride quality, but the thought of replacing any of that rubber at $300+ per corner is a little nauseating. You might spend that much just on microfiber towels and detailing spray; road grime and pulverized insects have a nasty habit of finding their way into every little patch of negative space in the Type R’s plastic trim. Grille slats, textured foglight housings, little winglets, vents, and fins are traps for this detritus, and those 20-inch wheels will ensure you avoid the automatic car wash track. Want a clean car? Do it by hand, or pay someone else to.
Granted, these are trifles in light of the experience the Type R offers. Shifting is a lovely endeavor; the mid-grade Si’s artificially light clutch and irritating rev hang are nowhere to be found in the Type R. This is the best Honda stick in years—notchy, with nice, short throws and clearly-spaced gates. While my personal Fiesta ST is a lot more playful at sane speeds, the sharp-handling Civic is in a totally different performance ballpark. It challenges you to tackle curvy roads harder. Faster. Brakes are stout enough to bury the pedal repeatedly without a lick of fade, and the Type R doth not protest even at ham-footed mid-corner throttle prods, the helical limited-slip differential happy to handle the extra power.
Why so serious, though? The Civic is brutally competent, maybe even to its own detriment, compared to the more joyous Veloster N. Of course, the N has a joke of a back seat, worse rear visibility, and much less of a price delta from the Honda than when Hyundai first introduced it. N and R aside, the Civic is just a much better foundation than the Veloster, and that shows when you need it to just be a regular car. Priorities. Decisions.
When my new friend in the old Civic challenged me again to put him in the dust, I obliged, just as I had earlier in the trip for a wide-eyed Jetta GLI driver. To deny either of them this gesture would have been to disabuse them of the exciting notion that the Type R was anything but the 24/7 riot it appears to be. Or that childish antics are only for children. The truth is even more satisfying. The Type R can turn it on when necessary, but it remains a Civic for adults—practical, well-engineered, and always punching above its weight. A new, next-generation Type R looms on the horizon for 2022, likely one with a more presentable haircut than a purple mohawk. No matter. We should all be twirling our collective fingers in the air until it gets here. Fun. Again, please.
2020 Honda Civic Type R
Base price: $37,950
Highs: An outstanding hot hatch that sacrifices none of its practicality. Stupid-high performance threshold.
Lows: Juvenile exterior/interior design, chintzy infotainment. Stupid-high performance threshold.
Summary: Perhaps the best-handling front-driver of the modern era, the Type R lives up to the hype without sacrificing its inherent Civic-ness. Demand is sky-high for good reason.