Snaking deep into Germany’s Eifel forest, the 20.8 km long Nordschleife ‘northern loop’ of the Nurburgring circuit demands regular sacrifice of wrecked cars. Indeed it’s so dangerous that Formula One drivers now no longer race on the forest-lined ‘Green Hell’ Nordschleife section, but on the shorter and tamer 5.1 km Grand Prix loop of the Nurburgring.
Just as the Everest Marathon - the world's highest marathon - is seen as an arbiter separating supreme athletes from hipster Instagram-posting ones, car companies see the Nurburgring as a similar arbiter a car's dynamic competency. It’s a circuit that separates the best cars from the good ones. It's the reason why excellence on the Nurburgring is so important. For Honda, making a name for itself here is a validation that the Type R is the real deal. Both the current FK8 and the previous FK2 were record holders on the Nurburgring for front-wheel drive cars.
These days, advances in electronics and tyre technology have allowed almost any company to build a fast hatchback –all you need is a turbocharged engine, all-wheel drive to ensure perfect corner entry and exit, and lightning fast shifting dual-clutch automatic transmission. Both the Mercedes-AMG A45 and Volkswagen Golf R follow the same formula. They're highly effective weapons, so effective that any fool can drive one fast.
No doubt the A45 and Golf R are highly respected and capable machines but for a select group of elite drivers – the Everest Marathoners of drivers, there is little pride in proclaiming that you are the faster driver if you have to enlist clever electronics to compensate for the lack of driving talent, inability to operate three pedals and heel-toe downshift yourself included.
It’s also the reason why earlier this year, Koenigsegg’s test driver Robert Serwanski was elevated to the status of a driving god when a Youtube video of him driving his tiny Mazda MX-5 hounding a far more powerful Porsche 911 GT3 RS on the Nurburgring Nordschleife went viral.
Just as few will understand why an athlete would want to subject himself/herself to the physical torture of climbing the Everest instead of posting pretty looking gym pictures on Instagram, only purist drivers will understand the appeal of a Civic Type R - lightweight, no-nonsense 6-speed manual transmission, with just a simple front-wheel drive.
Against its equally fast but easier to drive point-and-shoot all-wheel drive and automatic transmission peers, the Civic Type R’s 6-speed manual transmission is an unnecessary effort. There is a reason why Formula One cars no longer use manual transmissions, because humans can't shift faster than the best dual-clutch automatics out there. However for enthusiasts looking for a visceral driving experience, the three-pedal setup is a filter that weeds out the pretenders from the serious drivers. And to be frank, in our recent test drive with the FK8, we found the 6-speed manual to be so easy to use in the city, and offered a much more comfortable and smoother drive than the jerky dual-clutch automatic and unncessarily stiff riding Mercedes-AMG A45.
Indeed, Honda’s philosophy for Type R models have always been about preserving undiluted driving sensations. So even though a dual-clutch transmission is faster, the added weight and the loss experience for the driver to execute a perfect heel-toe downshift puts it at odds with the Type R’s philosophy.
Likewise with all-wheel drive. It’s faster but it also robs steering feel and adds weight and weight is a mortal enemy of every purist driver.
If Honda has a choice, it would even dump the turbocharger but these days, exhaust emission regulations favour turbocharged engines so Honda has no choice but to make an exemption.
Its founder the late Soichiro Honda was known for his staunch resistance against turbocharging as he views any add-on devices as ‘cheats’ for people who don’t know how to build good engines. In the pre-CO2 regulations and downsized engines era, Honda, together with BMW were part of an elite group of mainstream engine builders capable of squeezing more than 100 hp/litre from a naturally aspirated engine. This believe is also why all 'old school' Type Rs were naturally aspirated.
But then again, even Honda’s F1 engines in the ‘80s had turbochargers, simply because the regulations required it so if Honda-san is alive today, there is little doubt that he would approve of the change.
When Hideki Kakinuma, Assistant Large Project Leader for the current FK8 generation Civic Type R joined Honda in 1991, the late Ayrton Senna was dominating Formula One in McLaren-Hondas. On the road car front, development work on the NSX-R was underway. Reflecting on his interaction with earlier generation of Type R models, Kakinuma-san said:
“The Type R’s lineage always had some kind of restriction,” Kakinuma lamented.
“Due to the industry’s self-imposed limits (a gentlemen’s agreement between Japanese manufacturers to avoid a horsepower civil war, which would attract attention of government regulators), the NSX Type R engine’s output was the same as the base model, 280 PS, which was low compared to the world’s top class sports cars.
“The Integra Type R and Civic Type R that followed were based on affordable mass-produced models, so to gain performance, unnecessary components had to be removed. This meant that the usual comforts had to be sacrificed to build what turned out to be a ‘racing car with license plates.’
“They were, however, cars that were true to the fundamental values of driving pleasure and excitement,” Kakinuma recalls.
“So, young drivers who loved Honda and loved sports cars welcomed the Type R. But it was not an easy option for other drivers.”
There are many high performance cars on the market but the problem with performance enhancing add-ons like turbochargers, all-wheel drive, dual-clutch transmission, and thickly insulated comfortable cabins is that every step gained in performance and ride comfort is a step backwards for raw driving experience. Every additional layer of add-on simply distances the driver further from a visceral driving experience that Type Rs are known for. Striking the right balance was a huge challenge for Honda.
With the previous FK2 model, Honda had made huge gains in engine performance and tyre grip but the chassis was reaching its limits. The all-new FK8 chassis was a turning point for Kakinuma-san. It is the first Type R that marries pure unadulterated driving performance with a comfortable and quiet ride.
“We just knew that we were developing the new era Type R that we really wanted to build,” recalled Kakinuma.
In this sense, the all-new Civic Type R is not just a flagship model for the Civic, but symbolizes the car that Honda has dreamed of making,” he added.
In the interest of preserving a pure driving experience, Kakinuma’s team were adamant about retaining a six-speed manual transmission.
“Every Type R has had a manual transmission model. We kept this tradition going with the new Type R.” Akira Nakamura, in charge of transmission development, explained the attraction of the manual transmission.
“Manual transmission gives the driver much more freedom over an automatic car. In other words, the driver has more control over how the car moves. This is why a manual transmission is so attractive.”
“Gear shifts are the most important part of enjoying a manual car, so we naturally improved the gear shift and clutch feel. The most important aspect was a solid feel. The gear lever plays a large role in the driver determining the seat position, so we carefully considered its placement, just where the driver’s left hand would naturally rest,” said Nakamura.
A large part of a Type R’s appeal goes beyond speed, but a difficult to quantify subjective quality of how the car communicates with the driver. This is also the reason why purist drivers prefer simpler cars with minimal driving/performance enhancing aids, as they don’t like having ‘middle-men’ filtering their ‘conversations’ with the car.
“The driver constantly converses with the car. If the car cannot accurately and immediately respond to the driver’s will, it’s not a great drive,“ said suspension/variable damper engineer Yuya Goto.
“It cannot just be a ‘good car.’ It can only be called a Type R if the driver can feel the excitement when gripping the steering wheel, when the car beckons to go faster. The new Type R not only responds faithfully to the driver’s will, but directly conveys its will to the driver.”
In fact, “conversing with the driver” was mentioned far more often by the development team than the car’s Nurburgring lap record. The fact that it was the fastest in its class was a bonus but not the core objective – which remains preserving the joy of driving.
“Every Type R was not just fast, but taught the driver the joy of conversing with the car. Every aspect of the new Civic Type R’s engine performance has been reviewed, to enhance this joy even further,” acceleration performance Engineer Hayao Matsutani.
So is this the ultimate Civic Type R? Yes and no.
Yes, in the sense that Honda has finally made an all-rounder hot hatch that enthusiast drivers can drive one every day – important because many owners of earlier Type R models had left their Honda for a more refined Volkswagen Golf R as they grew older – while keeping the raw visceral driving experience that a Type R is famous for. Finally there’s now a Civic Type R that doesn’t ride on rock-hard suspension, and is comfortable enough to be driven daily. As noted in our earlier review, yours truly had no trouble driving the 6-speed manual through rush hour traffic. It's actually more comfortable than either the Golf R or A45, hard to believe until you experience it yourself.
No, in the sense that unlike the previous Japan-only models, this FK8 is a global model and therefore will be produced in greater numbers. The previous EK9 and FD2 generation models were forbidden fruits that were limited only to Japan (and Malaysia, for the FD2R), which added to their mystique and value.
The FD2 was also the last of the Civic Type R that follow Honda’s original philosophy of using only high revving naturally aspirated engines. Few turbocharged engine can match the emotions delivered by the banshee screaming K20A VTEC engine chasing the red line. Many have been badly modified and very few are left in its original state. Mint condition examples are highly sought after by punters, many of whom are betting it to be a future classic. Our recent review of the FD2 concluded it as “…car that shows you (or reminds you) what real driving pleasure feels like.”