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Driven: Honda’s Civic Type R looms

Kicks like a mule: Honda isn’t spilling all the beans yet, but we’ve driven its new Civic Type R prototype and have reason to hope for great things.

Hardcore VTEC turbo helps Honda Civic Type R return with a vengeance – in 2015

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Honda logo19 Nov 2013

By MIKE COSTELLO

HONDA claims its dormant performance credentials are returning with a vengeance, but the car at the vanguard of its return to form, the all-new turbocharged Civic Type R, will not roll into Australian showrooms until late 2015.

The latest in a long drip-feed information campaign surrounding the Japanese maker’s long-awaited RS Megane-rivalling hot hatch this week coincided with a blistering hot lap at the helm of an almost production-ready test mule at Honda’s test facility in Tochigi, Japan.

The forthcoming new Type R is the first car to wear the hallowed badge since the previous generation was axed in 2010, and beneath the evolutionary skin there has been a significant mechanical departure.

Full powertrain details remain under wraps, but the Euro 6 2.0-litre engine under the snub bonnet is the first to combine Honda’s VTEC technology with the modern age’s now almost requisite turbocharger, with impressive figures of “more than” 206kW of power and 400Nm of torque.

These figures are respectively about 25 per cent and 50 per cent greater than the Type R’s dearly departed normally aspirated predecessor, and they leave the Megane RS, Ford Focus ST and Golf GTI – though not the forthcoming new all-paw Golf R – in the dust.

Power is sent through the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox. Honda is already on the record as saying it intends to eclipse its Renault Megane nemesis as the fastest front-drive car to lap Germany’s Nurburgring Nordschleife, with a sub-eight-minute time.

Despite feeling all but ready to hit the roads from behind the wheel, Honda’s Japanese research and development team says the car will not be ready for key markets Europe and Japan until early in 2015, although you can expect to see the car revealed in production form next year.

It is not clear exactly what lies at the heart of this delay.

This timing will push the Australian launch out to late in 2015 at the current rate of development, by which time the current-shape British-made Civic hatch on which the Type R is built will be heading towards the end of its lifecycle.

Once regarded as a performance brand, Honda has slowly whittled back its range of sporty offerings in recent years, with the NSX, Prelude, Integra and Civic Type R all being relegated to the figurative scrapyard.

Successors in some form were never developed, with the company trimming back investments during the global financial crisis, prioritising hybridisation and other green technologies over its sports heritage. The company once affectionately dubbed the ‘BMW of Japan’ had lost its edge.

But a return to the Formula One area in 2015 as engine partner for British-based McLaren, the revival of the NSX in the guise of an all-paw hybrid supercar in 2016, and the new, albeit still distant, Civic Type R, are just the tonic for the brand, according to Honda Australia director Stephen Collins.

“I think the performance edge over the last few years has been missing, and I think our announcement of NSX returning and our strong desire for Civic Type R indicates how important that performance edge is to Honda,” Mr Collins told GoAuto this week in Tochigi.

“I still think we’ve got a strong brand perception and image but of course you can’t rest on your laurels and I think that again, some of the cars you’ve seen today will help build that reputation.

“They both have a rich, strong heritage and a loyal base, and it’s Honda’s DNA.

We desperately need to get more sportscars into the range.

“We’re still a premium brand with a great reputation in the marketplace. But we definitely need to be stronger in the performance arena – not just in Australia but globally.”

Further Type R details remain scarce, although rivals in Honda’s sites along with the Megane will no doubt include the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Ford’s Focus ST, pointing to a likely starting price in the low $40,000s.

Our time in the deep bucket seat of our left-hand-drive test mule was brief, but sufficient to come away convinced that Honda can still carve out a memorable performance car when it has the mind.

Even with a Honda engineer and two colleagues stuffed into the cosy cabin, the force-fed test engine pulled like a train from 2000rpm, before finding a second wind at 4500rpm and redlining at around 7000 revs.

We found the electronically limited 200km/h top speed on the closed circuit in somewhere slightly faster than a flash.

Honda has managed to make the car feel rough around the edges in a similar way to the Megane RS, with a whooshing induction note accompanying every stab at the throttle. The engine itself emits a lovely, gravelly soundtrack, especially when exploring the upper echelons of the rev counter.

It may not stretch out to 10,000rpm like VTECs of ages past, but it’s not a mile off either.

The six-speed manual gearbox, likely to be a standard fit unless Honda’s can toughen up its new eight-speed dual-clutch unit to handle the big slab of torque, is heavy and mechanical in feel, and whatever tricky differential or steering system Honda is working on keeps torque steer well and truly at bay.

Frustratingly, we didn’t get to take the car around any challenging twists and bends, only a cambered speed loop, so we can’t attest to the agility of its handling or its level of body control. Likewise, Honda won’t say what suspension modifications have been carried out.

Still, we have walked away satisfied than Honda once again has fire in the belly, we’re just a little confused how the car could possibly still be two years away.

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