Two years on, is the Honda Civic Type R still the hot hatch king?
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Six hundred and ninety seven days ago, fresh issues of Driven hit shelves all over the North Island with a weird, prickly looking Honda proudly placed on the cover.
From the moment the curtains (and jaws) dropped at the 2017 Geneva Motor Show, everyone knew that the new Civic Type R would rock the hot hatch segment to its core.
Big numbers helped that narrative — 225kW of power and 400Nm was fairly ridiculous for a front-wheel drive car. But it was the record-breaking feat at the Nordschleife and the hedgehog-on-heroin styling that prodded the little Honda into the motoring zeitgeist.
In that July 2017 road test, I lamented a few of the Civic's downsides. Things like the crummy cabin, the engine's mild mannerisms, and the fact that that older ones are just a bit more fun.
What I forgot to say was how much I loved it.
In the time since plenty of hot hatches come through the test-car turn-styles. From the enthusiastic little Hyundai i30 N and butch Ford Focus RS, to more sophisticated experiences like the Renault Megane RS and Mercedes-AMG A45.
The time felt right to revisit the Honda Civic Type R, to see whether it was still king. So, that's what we did.
Driven are big fans of the bi-annual Gumboot Rally. Each event is a two-day motoring scavenger hunt, based rather deliberately around some of New Zealand's greatest roads. Think of it as our home-brew equivalent of the Gumball Rally, but with better scenery and less ostentatious participants.
No, you won't find any Lamborghini Aventadors or Bugatti Veyrons at Gumboot. In their place, a licorice all-sorts of motoring spanning the wide gulf between a shiny new Kia Stinger GT and a tatty, perpetually broken down Lada Riva wagon.
A total of 66 cars were present, all dressed up to a 'Good versus Evil' theme. We dressed as members of OSH, clipboards and all.
Our Civic may have been at the newer end of the scale, but that didn't necessarily mean it couldn't tell a vicious war story or two.
Since our road test nearly two years ago, Honda New Zealand's pre-production Type R press car has traveled New Zealand. Its life can't possibly be considered an enviable one, given that it's been hammered up and down more than 25,000km of the country's roadway by ham-fisted car journalists like me.
Still, that gives it character which in turn gives it value. The gear-knob is peppered with scratches from wedding rings connected to sweaty palms. The transmission itself didn't quite feel as slick as I remembered it. And, as you can probably see, it's now stickered up as a safety car.
Joining me was good buddy Sam Thomson. Readers might remember us tackling last year's opening Gumboot Rally together in his microscopic Suzuki Cappuccino. Thankfully this time around we actually brought a car with us that was built by people who knew how big humans are.
Starting at the heart of Mount Maunganui's CBD in Tauranga, Gumboot Rally day one would take us inland to Hamilton via a big northern Mangatarata and Maramarua arc; a juxtaposition of some of the country's most iconic sights, against roads that rarely see more than a handful of cars a day.
It was a day's worth of driving along the sorts of roads drivers from overseas rave about with wide eyes and ear-to-ear grins. From flowing, cambered 'open it up a little' roads to the tight, technical, twisty stuff.
And Civic, naturally, felt right at home.
We were probably in one of the quickest cars there. But, that didn't dawn on us until after we faced one of the most nail-biting perils in cross-country rallying.
Towards the end of the day, one of the challenges involved bombing down the rather lengthy Te Akau road to find, of all things, a blue container.
For the first time since we'd topped up with fuel in the morning, I entertained the idea of peering down at the fuel gauge — inevitably seeing that the needle was rather close to empty. Given that we were in the middle of absolute nowhere and we hadn't seen another competitor for what felt like years, panic set in instantaneously.
Having driven for what felt like 15 minutes down this long road, we pulled a U-turn back. Every hill concealed only another hill, paddocks of sheep seemed to go all the way to the horizon. We had no signal, no way to find out how close the next petrol station was, and by the time we were back onto SH22 there was just 30km of petrol left according to the car's trip computer.
We were toast.
Thirty 30km shrunk to 10km awfully quickly despite all the short-shifting and coasting — our phones still buffering to find something resembling salvation. Then with 6km left and needle pointing well under empty, signal picked up and found a station just 3km away. Bullet, dodged.
But despite the timid detour, we ended up arriving at the end-of-day destination third. It's not a race, but knowing we were one of the last cars to leave the start-line and that we'd rarely pushed the Type R's envelope performance-wise emphasized what an utter rocketship we had underneath us.
Day two was, thankfully, a less dramatic affair. Here we were presented with a snaking route to Taupō. For the drive, we buddied up with a pair of '90s Japanese rally legends; a Subaru Impreza WRX STI and a Toyota Celica GT4 both proudly emblazoned in their respective World Rally Championship colours.
Greg and Karen's Celica is firmly on its way to becoming one of the most faithfully recreated rally cars in New Zealand, while Ryan and Sean's Impreza is a special edition made to commemorate the marque's 1995 WRC crown (and sounded like a demon gurgling mouth wash).
The Civic had no qualms about keeping up with either all-wheel drive rally machine. Sam's sole complaint was the lightness of its nose under power, as its weight shifted to the rear wheels. It's a fair comment, but potentially less of an issue in the Honda than in most other front-wheel drive hot hatches.
The level of grip the Civic supplies is still incredibly impressive. And, 25,000km on, that turbocharged K20 engine sounded and felt stronger than ever.
And, having added approximately 1200km to that tally in our travels, the Civic also confirmed my suspicions on comfort. Ignoring the race-car styling, it's one of the easiest hot hatches to live with.
It never felt over damped, never bottomed out or hit the lock-stops despite some of the roads we were on. The steering and pedals, while well weighted, were light enough not to render us comatose.
And somehow, after packing all those kilometres into a couple of days, we both got back to Auckland feeling comfortable and refreshed. Hell, I'm even coming around on the styling.
You'll have a more raw, unfiltered experience behind the wheel of a Ford Focus RS. It's more angry and pointed in the way it goes about its business, and is arguably the last of the truly hardcore hot hatches (apart from the occasional track-orientated limited editions that swing by every now and then). Those who were initially attracted to the Type R brand years ago by its rawness might find more solace in the blue-oval product.
Meanwhile, it's line ball when answering the question of whether the Type R is more fun than an i30 N. It too is more raw, but in a very different way. Punishable mannerisms like torque steer are instead embraced, made part of the show. There's more scope for set-up adjustment on the run, with thanks to Albert Biermann's ported BMW M knowledge. It isn't nearly as quick as the Honda, but it's arguably more of a character — coughing and spluttering along as it does.
There are valid reasons in both cases to choose against the Honda, but I would argue that those reasons are outnumbered.
The Civic is softer riding and more commodious than both. It's much sharper than the i30 and more accommodating than the manic Focus. It has the best manual transmission by a significant margin, and as a package it inspires much more confidence. My apologies for the awful car cliché, but it's one of the few new cars I'd feel compelled to spend my own money on.
“How long do you think you guys will actually keep this thing,” I ask the Honda NZ rep, gesturing to the fly-spattered Type R. Trying to not sound too inquisitive as I surrender the keys.
“I'm not sure. Why do you ask?”