One hundred and forty five miles per hour. One hundred and fifty. The rate of acceleration is slowing noticeably now. One hundred and fifty five... I’m on the Autobahn between Berlin and Dresden, driving – quite legally – at more than twice the UK speed limit. And the Civic Type R feels rock solid. That huge rear spoiler isn’t just for effect, you know.
As a Honda engineer explains, the new fifth-generation Type R is the only hot hatch to produce positive downforce – meaning it’s sucked to the road at speed. The Airbus-sized wing is just part of the package. There’s also a flat undertray, Ferrari-style side vanes and (oh yes) roof-mounted ‘vortex generators’.
The Type R is a serious sort of car, then. So serious, in fact, that it recently snatched the Nürburgring lap record from Volkswagen’s Golf GTI Clubsport S. And while the Golf is a two-seat, track-oriented special, the Civic is a family-friendly four-seater with one of the biggest boots in its class.
What’s the catch? Well, the styling is… controversial. Put it this way, if you’re a fan of the Fast and Furious franchise, you’ll love it. For the rest of us, it’s probably too jazzy. And the bright red interior offers no respite. Even the steering wheel has go-faster stripes.
Let’s not get bogged down with details, though. R-badged Hondas have always been about driving excitement, and the Civic must deliver by the lorry-load to dethrone the mighty Ford Focus RS. Straight-line speed is not enough.
Enter the Lausitzring: a former Champ Car circuit near the Polish border. It might seem a poor substitute for the 14.2-mile Nürburgring, but its tight turns and rippled surface are a great test of the Honda’s ability. And, erm, the ability of its driver. I set out following a pace car, picking up speed and moving through the drive modes, from Comfort to Sport to certified-turbo-nutter R+.
Wow – this thing feels quick. The 320hp Honda blasts to 62mph in 5.7 seconds and a top speed of 169mph. But the G forces it generates when cornering are what really impresses. A mechanical limited-slip differential, combined with electronic inside-wheel braking, really tugs it into the Lausitzring’s late apexes. And it clings on with the dogged tenacity of, ooh, a Prime Minister who’s just lost her mandate.
What the Type R lacks is the brilliant tail-out attitude of the Focus RS. Where the front-wheel-drive Honda eventually succumbs to tyre-scrubbing understeer, the four-wheel-drive Ford stays neutral – then slides into oversteer if provoked. The Type R may be quicker around a track, but the RS is ultimately more fun.
Honda does have one last ace up its carbon-clad sleeve, however: refinement. Yes, you read that right, this ’Ring-slaying hyper hatch is actually very comfortable. Its ride is supple, its seats are supportive and noise is surprisingly muted, despite those three sawn-off shotgun exhausts. You could happily drive this car hundreds of miles in a day. And I did.
The appearance and performance have got more extreme, yet here is the most striking difference versus the outgoing car. It no longer feels permanently like a toddler on Tartrazine – there’s a well-honed maturity to the way the Civic Type R drives. Put simply, it has grown-up.
Does that make it my hot hatch of choice? Not quite. Call me shallow, but I’m not sure I could live with the Civic’s have-a-go-hero styling. I remain torn between the all-round talents of the VW Golf R and the laugh-out-loud brilliance of the Focus RS. The Honda finishes an honourable third.
Tim Pitt works for motoringresearch.com