As the needle nudges 155mph, the Rolls-Royce clicks gently against its electronic limiter. We’re on autobahn A3, somewhere near Nuremberg, and this is the fastest I’ve ever travelled on a public road. Sadly, I’m sound asleep at the time, reclined next to a now-empty champagne cooler in a private jet-style rear seat.
WIthin weeks, I’ve gone faster: an indicated 162mph – also on a German autobahn, you’ll be relieved to hear – in a Honda Civic Type R. This time, I was wide awake behind the wheel, but there was zero chance of a snooze anyway. The Civic isn’t that kind of car.
That record run was four years ago, at the launch of the current ‘FK8’ Type R, which has just been updated for 2021. And no, before you ask, it isn’t any faster. Nor has Honda fitted a champagne cooler (more’s the pity).
Can it see off the Renault Megane RS and all-conquering Volkswagen Golf R – not to mention the upstart Toyota GR Yaris?
Back in 2017, the Type R’s chief designer told us how its styling was “inspired by a jet fighter” I’m fairly certain no-one’s ever said that about a Golf R. From red-striped splitter to triple tailpipes – via widened wheelarches and that unmissable wing – it certainly ain’t subtle.
Nope, it splits opinion like a well-known brand of yeast extract. My nine-year-old son thought it was the coolest car he’d ever seen. Me? I felt slightly self-conscious driving it.
If you’re in the extrovert camp, choose the new-for-2021 Racing Blue paint colour, seen here, which is so vivid it almost glows in the dark. If you’re a 42-year-old shrinking violet, consider the also-new Type R Sport Line, which has a less outré rear spoiler and 19-inch wheels (20s are standard).
Open the door, but keep your sunglasses on, because the Honda’s interior is equally in-yer-face. Bright red bucket seats have been a Type R trademark since the original NSX-R of 1992, and you’ll find more red on the steering wheel, seatbelts, doors and dashboard. It’s like a bloodbath with the body missing.
It feels fantastic, though. The low seats lock you between their big bolsters, the grippy, Alcantara-wrapped wheel evokes the Civic Type R BTCC race car (or it does to me), and the gearknob is a lovely lozenge of cold aluminium. Honda has paid attention to the touch-points and it shows.
The seven-inch media system has been revised as part of the facelift, with more physical buttons for ease of use. Its blocky graphics still look dated, but you can simply connect your phone via Android Auto or Apple CarPlay.
Besides, nobody buys a Type R to fiddle with the touchscreen. This car is about driving – and here the engineers have been hard at work.
Let me throw some numbers at you. The brake pedal has a 15mm shorter stroke for faster response, while new discs save 2.5kg of unsprung weight. The larger grille ingests 13 percent more air, helping reduce coolant temperature by up to 10 degrees. And the gearlever has a 90g internal counterweight for a slicker shift.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Honda has applied the Japanese kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement to the Type R – and the result, as I’ll discover, feels more than the sum of its parts. On the right road, it’s sensational.
The Civic sets out its stall within the first few hundred metres. Its steering is firmly weighted, the six-speed manual gearbox is mechanical and Teflon-slick, its dampers are taut like clenched muscles.
The car defaults to Sport mode, but you can click the toggle to easier-going Comfort or maximum-attack +R. Steering weight, throttle response, gearshift feel and damper stiffness are all adjusted accordingly, while +R slackens off the stability systems for sideways fun.
Even in Comfort, frankly, the ride is quite restless around town. But this is a Type R, not a GTI, and the faster you go, the better it gets. Best travel at 162mph everywhere, then…
Even when you’re not in derestricted Deutschland, the Honda offers plenty of usable performance. Its 2.0-litre turbo four musters 320hp at 6,500rpm, plus 295lb ft of torque from just 2,500rpm. It’s a world away from peaky, all-or-nothing Type R engines of old, glorious though they were.
Granted, a 0-62mph time of 5.8 seconds won’t worry that pesky Golf R, but remember the Civic is front-wheel drive, so traction is the limiting factor here.
It’s rarely an issue once you’re rolling, however, thanks to a proper helical limited-slip diff – not the cheaper electronic version used by some rivals. Honda says it can ‘contribute to a reduced lap time around the Nurburgring Nordschleife, when compared to the same powertrain with a traditional differential’. Indeed.
In tighter corners, the diff feels like hooking an umbrella handle around a lamp post. The Civic simply knuckles down, grips and goes. It feels utterly unflappable.
That’s also broadly true of, say, an Audi RS3. But the Honda’s genius is that it doesn’t sacrifice driver involvement for all-round ability. You feel the front tyres bite and the rear end start to rotate. It’s confidence-inspiring and laugh-out-loud fun. And it’s faster on real roads than many far more exalted cars, too.
Rewind again to 2017 and I had mixed feelings about the Type R. “The Golf R is a better car overall,” I opined, “and the Focus RS is still more fun”.
Now, I think the updated, even-more-hardcore Honda might be my favourite hot hatchback. I haven’t driven the new Mk8 Golf R yet, admittedly, but I was a tad disappointed by the GTI. And the Focus RS is no more. I also find the Civic more fluid and fun than the Focus ST, Megane RS and other rivals.
What about the GR Yaris, though – a car second only to the Covid vaccine in terms of positive news coverage this year? Well, they’re different. The Toyota is a homologation special with motorsport pedigree, but it’s also smaller and far less practical. The Honda, with five doors and a big boot, still does the everyday stuff pretty well. As perhaps a hot hatch should.
Oh, and its top speed is 169mph, in case you were wondering. Must try harder next time…
Tim Pitt writes for Motoring Research
PRICE: £34,820 (£35,670 as tested)
0-62MPH: 5.8 seconds
TOP SPEED: 169mph
FUEL ECONOMY: 36.7mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS: 176g/km