At a bleak Northamptonshire airfield in July 1985, a swaggering figure with a bristling moustache and mirrored aviator sunglasses looks up towards the threatening British sky. Already on provisional pole, the sun was briefly emerging and rivals were heading out to try and go faster; Mansell. Senna. Piquet. Prost. Stubbing out a cigarette, he climbed into the cockpit and blared out onto the track one last time.
Blasting through the chicane and onto the start/finish straight, the car is an unguided missile, twitching and bucking through flat out corners in a shower of sparks, bubblegum qualifying tires struggling to contain the fury of a 1.5-liter turbo engine making more than 1000 horsepower. Foot hard in, never dropping below third gear, the ungainly yellow, blue and white car with rudimentary aero pawing at the damp air stops the timing gear one lap later; the time is a scarcely believable 1 minute 5.967 seconds. An average speed of 160.924mph. The first time a Formula one car has gone over 160mph on a lap. It will remain the highest average speed for qualifying in Formula One for the next seventeen years. Keke Rosberg, Saturday qualifying, the 1985 British Grand Prix at Silverstone. The car, a Williams Honda FW10B.
Keke Rosberg, Williams, Silverstone, 1985. pic.twitter.com/dUghCEbcb8
— Demetriou Neto ???? (@NetoDemetriou) July 5, 2021
This is one of the many stories the legend of Honda is built on, but take your pick: Mike Hailwood cleaning up at the Isle of Man TT on small capacity screamers in the sixties. Mick Doohan dominating the ‘unrideable’ 500cc two stroke class in Gran Prix motorcycle racing in the nineties. Mansell vs Piquet. Senna vs Prost. You meet the nicest people on a Honda.
Honda’s reputation was long forged on mechanical integrity. Vehicle engineering with purity of purpose–the double wishbone suspension on Accords for example. Overkill for a passenger car, but this is the way. A Japanese BMW without the arrogance. From the lowliest Civic to the plushest Legend, the best Hondas had a certain feeling of precision, clarity and rightness in the way they sounded and drove, which is why three years ago a moron with more money than sense paid the thick end of $50k for a 2000 Civic Si sedan.
Historically, in the UK at least, Hondas were always seen as worthy but dull. No amount of pontificating by Setright about their engineering was going to change that; it took the arrival of a computer game. My automotive tastes were well entrenched when Gran Turismo rolled around – I was 25; so the subsequent mania around high performance Japanese metal passed me by. But even I recognized the Integra Type R (a Honda as opposed to an Acura in UK) was something special. That was the car I originally asked Honda UK if I could borrow. Only there’s no longer one on the fleet, would the latest Civic Type R do instead?
No More Samurai Nonsense
Nominally Championship White with dog dick red seats and carpets, early versions of the Civic Type R were not exactly shrinking violets, but when 300bhp became the cost of doing business in the mega hatch market Honda went full shogun helmet with the exterior styling. Slapping on all manner of dubious aero addenda the FK2 and FK8 repulsed as many buyers as they attracted. This was in keeping with typical overwrought Japanese design directions of the time, but to me they were over the top, disjointed and tasteless.
The new FL5, in keeping with the standard Civic, is a much more subtle proposition this time around. The front and rear fenders are unique to the R and gently swollen to accept wider 265/30 Michelin Pilot Sport 4s, up from 245 sections on the outgoing model. Honda have even given the Type R new rear door skins, to better blend the surface transition into the wider arches, unlike say the BMW M3, whose designers presumably fucked off to the pub.
Capping the off the ends of the wider bodywork are a new front bumper with additional cooling ducts for the brakes and intercooler, and a rear that integrates a subtle diffuser and an odd three tailpipe exhaust arrangement which reminds me of Briareos from the Appleseed manga. I’m not totally sold on the eyeliner flick on the trailing edge of the C/D pillar window either. In profile Honda have wisely used the increase in wheelbase to give the Civic a nicely not-cab-forward proportion.
There’s good visual separation between the passenger compartment and the hood, and at the front the hood line descends between the light units, cleverly riffing on the second-generation Accord. But the overall feeling is everything today’s go faster car needs, and nothing it doesn’t (something that will recur later when we talk about equipment). It almost totally flies under the radar, only the rear wing slightly giving the game away that this car might actually be A Serious Piece of Kit, something confirmed by the lack of attention eyeballs pointing in my direction when I was driving it, even though my hair was immaculate and I had my sunglasses on.
It’s a Front-Wheel Drive Porsche
Despite appearances I don’t just throw this shit together. I usually read and watch a couple of reviews of vehicles I’m trying, to see if my thoughts align (or don’t) with the consensus. What came up repeatedly was that the Type R felt like a front wheel drive 911 GT3. My ambivalence towards the 911 I hope is by now well known, but I got it. The heft, precision and utter lack of slack driving the Type R for the first time took me straight back to when I test drove my 986 Boxster. The steering wheel (suede covered in UK versions, leather in the US) gently buzzes road surface messages and is touring car quick at two turns lock to lock. The seats, resplendent in red suede gently held me like a strange woman in a nightclub, although I have the proverbial ass like a parrot so YMMV. Nonetheless they are fantastic – nuzzling the small of the back and supremely comfortable even after a couple of hundred miles. The main comfort gripe is road noise; on anything other than glass smooth tarmac the Pilot Sport 4s will have you reaching for the volume knob.
No Oppo Required
Now, this isn’t going to be a I-trailed-braked-up-to-apex-and-the-tail-danced-round assessment of the car’s handling. Because that’s all bullshit anyway, and attempting to get near the limits of the Type R on public roads would be criminal lunacy. And thanks to my dyspraxia, I’m more uncoordinated than a drunken clown so I’m by no measure any sort of wheelman. But even within my limited driving skills this Civic handles. It remains stubbornly flat and keyed into the road surface whether you’re flicking through a roundabout or gunning it on a slip road. The motor, docile at lower speeds and a shade coarse through to three thousand revs, comes alive at four, and by five thousand is ripping a hole in time.
There’s a row of racing car style shift lights that activate at five and half thousand to stop you head butting the limiter, which in first and second you will do very quickly. Despite the twin axis front suspension, mechanical LSD and sticky rubber, stabbing the throttle in the dry will result in some tug through the steering. Three hundred and twenty four horsepower through the front wheels will do that. Of course, being the UK, throughout my week with the Type R it was positively pissing down with rain nearly every day. In the middle of July. The same behavior in the sodding wet resulted in a lurch to the left. This is a car that requires you actually drive it and pay attention to what it’s telling you. If it can flatter and entertain a ham-fisted klutz like me, you know it’s good.
There’s torque aplenty for being lazy, and just rolling in and out of the throttle in forth and fifth gear will result in swift progress down a winding British B road, but why would you? Despite being turbocharged this engine thrives on being wound out, and the Type R gets better the harder you go. The gearchange is a total and utter tactile delight. Rest your hand on the aluminum knob and there’s some sense of the rotational goings on below, and the action itself is short, slick and millimetric precise. There’s rev matching to smooth your downshifts (which can be disabled in some driving modes) and it works brilliantly – a good job because you’d need to be some kind of kipper foot to heel-and-toe this thing.
On the subject of driving modes, one of the main differences between the previous FK8 and this FL5 is the introduction of an individual mode, which allows you to pick and mix things like damper settings, steering weight, exhaust note, rev matching ferocity. There’s also a hardcore +R mode, which chucks out the springs and dampers in favor of steel girders but is the only mode in which the engine sounds half decent. The rest of the time it’s pretty subdued – there’s no artificial anti-social farting and popping, so professional vapers need not apply. I left the suspension in comfort and had everything else in Sport or +R mode. Comfort suspension is still stiff, but thanks to the softness of the seats it won’t have you putting your chiropractor’s kids through college.
Range Rover Life Spoiled Me
Honda’s commendable commitment to reducing weight (it’s 1430 kg or 3150 lbs) means standard equipment is a bit thin. In a demonstration of how spoiled I’ve become, I was pressing the trunk release on the key fob wondering why the tailgate wasn’t opening before I realized it only unlocked it – not popped it open, a feature both my Range Rover Sport, and my new car, (which you can read about soon) had. It’s quicker to list what you do get: Passive entry, split zone HVAC, wireless charging and CarPlay/Android Auto, electric mirrors, automatic headlights, active cruise control and the usual safety systems (which are very unobtrusive but if you turn them off reset every time you start the car) and that’s about it. Nothing to distract you from the business of pretending you’re in a BTCC racer when you’re nipping out for the papers and coffee on a Sunday morning.
The brilliance of this car then is you could leave everything in comfort mode, keep it below three thousand revs and you’d happily lend it to your granny for doing granny type shit. Underneath the tweaked and sharpened mechanicals it’s still a Civic, carefully honed and developed over eleven generations. It’s no longer a small car; at 4.6 meters (181”) it’s over 350mm (about 12”) longer than a Golf R, but this gives you full seating for four adults and a trunk that could probably swallow a washing machine. There is however one big problem. Well actually, a small one and a big one.
Usually the deal with press cars (in my limited experience so far at least) is they are dropped off with a full tank of gas and no expectation that it’s returned full. Knock yourself out, this tank is on us. Have fun. Over a week I did 575 miles and had to fill it up TWICE. Not because the gas mileage is terrible; drive like granny and you should see the happy side of 30 mpg imperial (25 mpg US), but because the tank is TINY. Checking the media pack revealed a fuel capacity of 47 liters (12.4 US gallons). If a Civic Type R is your daily, and it absolutely can be, you’re going to be getting fat on gas station snacks. That’s the small problem.
The big problem is price. This FL5 Type R has gone up nearly £10k over the previous model. The UK price (on the road including all fees and taxes) is £49,090 (US retail is $43,795 but good luck with that). The only options are different colors at £650 each (Championship White is optional, when surely it should be standard as the hero color?). Honda Motor Europe product manager Andrew Winfield has stated they underpriced the FK8 (sound familiar, Ford?), and now every car in the line-up is expected to make a profit. Is it worth it? Think about it like this. You’re getting a Civic, but one with a lot of bespoke parts (seats, bodywork, suspension, engine etc.). When you consider the bandwidth of its abilities, it’s two cars in one. Going back to the Porsche analogy, you don’t have to buy a load of HRVs to get invited onto a waiting list either. For what it gives you, what it represents and what it can do, it’s absolutely worth the money.
I’ll Have a Large Slice of Humble Pie Please
Oh, and then I damaged it. My trip to the airshow was a figurative and literal washout. Torrential rain made everything miserable and stopped most of the flying. I gave up after a couple of hours and, wet through to my Batman underpants, grumpily decided to head home. I missed a turning, Apple Maps had a redirection meltdown and I ended up in a small Cotswold village, attempting to turn around. Pulling over to let another car past, I heard the sickening graunch of alloy wheel against low stone curb. FFS. Upon getting home and after emailing an apology full of humble pie to Honda, I checked the hand off sheet and saw there was already previous damage noted to both nearside alloy wheels….
I think I was subconsciously punishing them for putting black wheels on it.
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