Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
The brilliant new 2017 Civic Type R goes on sale tomorrow, exactly 802 years following the signing of the Magna Carta. The only significance in this coincidence is that it seems like we've been begging for the Civic Type R to be sent to North America for a significant portion of that time period. Now that we are older and (much) grayer this $33,900 road rocket is finally a reality.
Over the weekend, Honda hosted us in the wonderful city of Montreal. We spent Friday morning getting to know the Civic Type R at the ICar circuit, which is located at the Mirabel airfield about 35 miles (55km) northwest of Montreal. In the afternoon, we took the Civic Type Rs on a drive of the local roads, heading further out into the wilderness where we would enjoy a roadside poutine break amongst improbable swarms of curious gnats.
Honda has developed a handful of Type Rs since the first ones debuted in the mid-90s. There were 2 generations of Integra Type Rs, one generation of NSX Type R (plus an updated mid-cycle model with fairly substantial improvements), one Accord Type R (the Accord Euro R doesn't quite count) and until now, 4 generations of Civic Type R. That's a fair number of Type Rs covering about 20 years, but only ONE of them managed to find its way to the US marketplace (the original Integra Type R, and that was an Acura). But finally, the 5th Civic Type R is actually coming to the US and Canada, and it is going on sale tomorrow (June 15th, 2017).
The original Type R formula
The original formula for the Type R was pretty straightforward, and it was consistently applied to all of the models. Ultimate responsiveness to the will of the driver was essentially the primary goal of the Type R, and this was generally achieved by improving the power to weight ratio and developing the chassis and driver interface to their maximum potentials. The improved power to weight ratio generally came by way of reducing weight in combination with increasing the power, and this typically involved careful reworking of the cylinder head by hand as well as upgrading some of the components in the bottom end, enabling higher redlines and better specific outputs. On the chassis side, the goal was to stiffen the body structure as much as possible, while simultaneously lowering the overall weight. This was achieved in a number of ways, but typically there were chassis braces bolted or welded in strategic locations, while sound deadening materials and other heavy items which didn't contribute in any way to performance were reworked or eliminated. In some cases, sections of the unibody were replaced with stronger pieces of steel in order to provide stronger mounting points for suspension pieces. Responses were always amped up, the tires were always grippier, the wheels usually considerably lighter, and limited-slip-differentials were practically a given. NVH was essentially an afterthought, and these Type Rs tended to be considerably louder than their "normal" counterparts. Ride comfort took a backseat to track-worthiness.
Type R 2.0
With the 2017 Civic Type R, we're seeing a slightly different take on the original Type R formula. The most obvious part is the turbocharged engine. The 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 4-cylinder K20C1 is an amazing engine, but it does not rely upon DOHC VTEC or stratospheric rpms to achieve its 306hp. Instead, it uses a monoscroll Mitsubishi TD-04 turbocharger, set to deliver as much as 23.2psi of boost. It does use VTEC, but it's only present on the exhaust side. Variable cam phasing (VTC) is employed on both camshafts, and direct injection is employed to help the K20C1 deal with its relatively high boost levels and 9.8:1 compression ratio. The torque output is immense, but the delivery is tuned to be fairly linear and progressive so the power is satisfyingly delivered across a broad range of rpms.
Another part that's a bit different about this new approach is the fact that this Civic Type R weighs more than 200lb more than the Civic Si, so it is no longer the lightest trim level. It also carries a fairly extensive set of features, including a high-powered 540-watt stereo system and dual zone climate controls. The Type R's adaptive suspension offers a "Comfort" mode, and even in the "Sport" setting it's actually more than reasonable to drive the Type R on the streets. The "+R" mode can be fun on the street but it tends to get a bit too jiggly over choppy sections of road, sort of like how the older Type Rs always were.
Track Driving Impressions
We started out our day with the Type R on the track at the ICar Circuit, which is about 35 miles to the northwest of Montreal. ICar is located at the Mirabel airfield, and utilizes a portion of the airport's concrete tarmac for the circuit. The circuit can be configured in a number of ways, and the configuration we ran was about 2.1 miles long and included 15 turns. Honda had 5 Civic Type Rs set aside for the track portion, and there were 20 drivers, so we were all split up into 4 groups. Each group had 2 sessions of track time, with 20 minutes allotted per session. Everybody was paired with a pro driver, who sat in the passenger seat to help those who were not already familiar with the circuit. We were able to run around 4 or 5 "hot" laps during each session, with one warm up lap to begin and a cooldown lap to complete the session.
I happened to be placed in the first group of drivers and as soon as we completed our brief safety meeting/chalk talk, I practically sprinted out to the pit lane to grab my Type R, which was painted Rallye Red. After situating myself in the nicely bolstered and very comfortable driver's seat, we set off. Even during the "warm up" lap I was already loving the Type R. The pro driver had set us up in the "+R" mode and everything felt amazing. By midway through the warmup lap, we were carrying a fair bit of speed, and I was immediately impressed by the engine response and especially the chassis. As we cleared the start/finish line and started our hot lap, my appreciation for the car continued to grow. We carried quite a bit of speed coming down the straight and before entering the first tight left hand turn, I just stood on the brakes. The power of the brakes and the grip afforded by the 20" continentals was extremely impressive. And over the course of our track session, I never once felt a trace of brake fade nor did the tires seem to lose any grip.
As I was fumbling my way around those first few laps, learning the layout of the track, I was very impressed by how linear the power delivery actually was (is this really a turbo?) and even more so by the responsiveness of the throttle. Was it as responsive as the hair-trigger nature of previous naturally-aspirated Type Rs were? No, but on the track at least, it far exceeded the expectations I've developed over many years of sampling turbocharged engines. While it wasn't as granular as the best Type Rs, it was still as good as or better than a number of naturally aspirated engines I've driven over the years. And on top of that, this thing goes like stink. It pulls relentlessly and only begins to barely taper off as you approach the 7000rpm redline.
One of the things we learned during the chalk talk was that the Type R features a rev matching feature for downshifts, so you don't have to be a ninja heel-and-toe specialist to wring this car's neck around a circuit. We were also told that this feature can be disabled, but it worked so well for me that I decided not to disable it, though I found myself instinctively trying to unnecessarily rev match a few times. The shifter itself offered a very high quality feel, with clearly defined gates and a rifle-bolt action of engagement, with plenty of positive feedback. The weighting of the lever itself was very good and I found that the clutch setup was also very intuitive in feel. After reading the press kit, I learned that there's also a launch control mode but I wasn't aware of that during any of the driving portions so I didn't have a chance to try it out.
The chassis was taut and extremely responsive, but at the same time it didn't bludgeon you to death over the rumble strips and rougher sections of the track. There's a good bit of road feel through the seat of your pants, so you have a solid sense for what's happening at each of the four corners of the car, but there's still not a ton of feedback through the electrically assisted power steering. One of the things that I like so much about the 10th generation Civic's architecture is how low its center of gravity and roll center feel, and the resulting stability of the car. Looking at some of the photos that I shot at the track (see the photo gallery), the Type R appears to exhibit more roll than you actually feel from behind the driver's seat, but thanks to the active suspension, it always remained settled even through the quickest transitions. At the limits, which are quite high, it tends to break away first with some very mild understeer, though you can easily neutralize it or even transition to an oversteer situation with a sudden lift of the throttle or with a bit of braking. On the track I never sensed even a trace of torque steer, and the combination of limited-slip-differential and sticky tires meant that I had no problem getting the power down on corner exit.
The only thing I found somewhat peculiar during the track drive was the engine note. It sounds pretty good overall, and not really too much like a typical turbocharged engine, but it still seemed just a bit too quiet. In the old days, part of the reward of winding out a Type R engine was the glorious sound it made as the revs got closer and closer to redline. This engine seems to hold almost a level sound output from 3000-7000 rpm.
On the street route I was impressed by how "livable" the Type R was, particularly in Comfort and Sport modes. It's certainly stiffer than something like an Accord or a base Civic, but I found it to be entirely acceptable. Road noise is a bit higher than a normal Civic, as is the engine noise. And the short gearing of the Civic Type R will remind you of its track-minded focus, but considering the minimal sidewall of the 30-series 20" tires, the ride quality is very impressive.
I had basically no opportunities to perform standing start launches at the track, so while I was on the street I made sure to give it the spurs a few times and I found that wheelspin could be an issue in 1st gear without some careful throttle management. Balancing the launch rpm to avoid bogging while simultaneously limiting wheelspin took some effort, so the "launch control" mode of which I was not aware probably would have been quite helpful. I will certainly test that feature as soon as I can get my hands on another Civic Type R.
I also found the stiffest suspension setting (in +R mode) to be a bit too jiggly for "everyday" comfort levels when we were traveling over bad sections of road. On these poorer sections of road, I could also sense some trace effects of torque steer while getting onto the throttle. It was all very manageable, but while it was essentially imperceptible on the track, it's not completely vanquished on the street.
As for the turbo engine, as brilliant as it was on the track, it for sure felt more like a typical turbo engine on the street, where you don't tend to spend as much time constantly shifting near the rev limiter. This means that there is some boost onset delay (turbo lag) that's noticeable at lower rpms and between "normal" shifts. The throttle response didn't feel as linear or as granular as it was on track. And one thing I noticed from the passenger's seat was that the engine isn't quite as smooth as what we've come to expect from the K24s and K20Zs from the past which benefitted from balancer shafts.
While I intend to thoroughly test the Civic Type R at the soonest possible opportunity, I think I know a lot about the car from the time that I had with it, and I think there's a LOT to like about it. Would I have liked it more with a crazy 150hp/L naturally aspirated engine? That probably goes without saying, but in this day and age of rising CAFE standards and ever more restrictive emissions standards, engines like those are becoming less and less feasible. At the Civic Type R's price point (assuming you can FIND one for MSRP), it's quite a special car, one which you can drive straight off the showroom and onto your favorite circuit without having to even change the brake pads. And it's one of the fastest and quickest Hondas ever made. I have had a number of people ask me if this Type R is legit, and my response to them is an emphatic "yes".