HONDA CIVIC TYPE-R GT
'Rawfined'. It's Hondas latest buzzword, and apparently summarizes the new Typre-R. OK, so it's mostly marketing claptrap, but break it down and it does make some sense. The flagship needs to retain the uncompromising character which made its predecessor such a hit, but with added comfort and refinement. That's a tall order - although if any manufacturer can pull it off, it's Honda.
Mind you, the styling doesn't suggest bosses were on a quest to find the middle ground. Sharp sills and striking spoilers beef up the visuals, blending perfectly with the three-door hatches dramatic lines. In fact so well integrated are the alterations that it's almost as though the eighth generation Civic was designed as a Type-R and then toned down for the ordinary versions.
It's a world away from its predecessor, which looked like a racing bread van. What's even cleverer about this version, with its cab forward stance and compact dimensions, has the larger interior. Whether you're lugging people or possessions, none of it's rivals here compares.
And only the Mini comes close to matching the Civic's sense of occasion in the front. Much of the clear and simple layout is carried over from the standard hatch, but the wraparound dashboard, metal pedals and gearknob, red stitching and central rev-counter means the Type-R isnt only interesting inside, but focused and sporting too.
We do have criticisms though. The doors are tinny, the dark red trim is questionable, the otherwise superb seats can prove numbing within a few hours and the stereo could sound richer. But who cares when you've got this engine to listen to? The sound is pure touring car howl - hard edged and intoxicating. As before, there's the familiar VTEC step in the power delivery, but Honda's engineers have worked hard to make the highly tuned 2.0-litre four cylinder engine more usable. True, you need to keep the engine spinning in the 5,400 - 8,000 RPM band to get the best from it, but although the torque output is weak (193Nm @ 5,600 RPM), 90% of that is available at 2,500 RPM, so the mid-range is meaty.
This means the Type-R is more tractable than before, so theres no need for frantic gear changes. But while the 2.0-litres characteristics have changed markedly, the power outputs havn't and we can't help feeling slightly disappointed that the Honda has 'only' 198bhp. The lightweight hatch uses it well though, trading acceleration times with the Mini. But more importantly, the Civic feels fast due to the stunning throttle response, snappy shift and short gearing. These factors should also make it a tiring car to drive, but although it pulls 3,400 RPM when at 70mph the smooth engine doesn't drone when cruising.
Admittedly the unyielding ride means you can never forget what type of car you're in, but while the tuned suspension is very firm, it's brilliant at taking the edge off sharp bumps. There are no sudden jolts and the super-stiff frame not only ensures taught handling, but keeps road noise at bay. The Honda's 72bD meter reading at 70mph was the same as in both the Megane and Focus. And then there's the handling - it's sublime. The steering is perfectly weighted and although its not the last word in feedback, the chassis is incredibly communicative. The honed controls all work in harmony and no rival holds a line in corners as tenaciously or has such fabulous traction. So no matter what you're journey, the Civic is addicitive.
Lowered by 15mm and with a 20mm wider rear track than the five-door, the Civic is dynamite on the road. Taut, positive and well balanced without being uncomfortable, its involving as well as easy to live with.
A radical move away from convention, the Type-R's cockpit urges you to get in and drive. The seating position is superb but we wish the multi-function steering wheel's rim had a better shape and higher quality leather trim.
Hona has kept to it's word - the 2.0-litre retains it's high rev purity and crisp responses, but a meatier mid-range means it no longer has to be pushed to get meaningful acceleration. It's also docile and friendly at low speeds.
What's less appealing is the 11.8 metre turning circle, which makes getting in and out of tight spots tricky. Still, the direct steering only has little over two turns between locks.
The type-R's impressive performance hasn't come at the expense of practicality. We have already praised the standard Civics versatile seat mechanism, and the brilliant flip up, fold flat setup is just as flexible in the flagship model.
Mini cooper S (1.6L 175bhp: 0-60 6.7secs)
Renault-sport Megane R230 (2.0L turbo 230bhp: 0-60 6.5 secs)
Ford Focus ST2 (2.5L turbo 222bhp: 0-60 7.0secs)
Honda has fulfilled its promises. The Civic Type-R is more easy going than it's predecessor, yet retains its sizzling driving experience. In fact the newcomer is better to drive not only than the outgoing machine, but also than every other car here. It wins this test by some distance. The genius of the Honda is that everything on it has been honed until it worked in perfect harmony. No single aspect of the hatch, from the engine to the suspension, dominates the others. Plus the pricing is competitive. Our runner up is the Mini Cooper S. It's zest for life is backed up by a superb turbo engine and truly talented chassis. sneaking into third spot is the Focus ST which, despite a laid back approach, remains highly rewarding. That leaves the revitalised Megane R230 in fourth. It's good in isolation, but couldn't match what we predict may well be the best car of its generation.
1) Honda Civic Type-R GT
The Type-R is a big hot hatch that drives like a small one. It matches the clios energy (197), yet is desireable, easy to live with and has a sublime engine.
2) Mini Cooper S
Hardcore fans shouldn't dismiss the Mini as a town car. It's a superb entertainer and a great investment, even if standard kit is miserly.
3) Ford Focus st-2
The big-hearted ST goes hard, sounds brilliant and loves to corner. It's more relaxing than the Civic, but doesn't have the Type-R's all round talents.
4) Renault Megane R230
It's the newest Renault hot hatch, but not the best. While the R230 is involving and grippy, it's simply not as precise and it's rivals here.