Thursday September 28, 2017
By Richard Bosselman
(Civic Type R images Lewis Gardner)
WHO’S up for some truly hardcore action?
Hot hatches in their most extreme state aren’t for everyone; the pinnacles of achievement in the affordable thrills sector are so confrontational in their track day tool styling, stonk, refinement and ride that they alienate far more than they attract.
Which doesn't worry makers whatsoever: Sales success is not the aim; it’s all about status. The more they break the rules – and records – the better. Just so long as those go-fast genes rub off positively onto the mainstream fare that pays the bills.
The best of breed playthings are beasts, some producing more power than super cars did in the 80s and far more ferocious and feral than the family cars on which they are based.
That's certainly the case with the newest of this bad bunch, the Honda Civic Type R. It's got everything, including significant street cred through being the present holder of a category speed record set on a German racing circuit deemed too dangerous for Formula One.
Bagging the title as fastest front drive around the 21km Nurburgring Nordschliefe is no mean feat; bettering the old record by no less than seven seconds was astounding. Renault and Volkswagen, which until then had been swapping the silverware between each other, respectively with the Megane RS and Golf GTi, were shattered.
Realistically their Ring master models are Type R rivals on our roads, too. Unfortunately, the timing for a three-way isn't quite right. The Megane RS is currently on sabbatical – a new one comes next year. However, the Golf is still available and has, in fact, just been updated. So we nabbed a Gen 7.5 for a face-off.
There's no better alternate in this fight than a Golf GTi. VW's model has historical status – to many, this is the car that really kicked off the genre – and they are also evenly matched on price, assuming you accept that the Golf is chosen in its most popular format.
That’s the edition with a direct-shift gearbox, which sits at $57,390. You can still get a GTi with a Type R-matching six-speed manual, for $54,890, but it’s indent-only. The Honda, meantime, lands in just one spec, with just a single old-school transmission type, for $59,990.
Roughly the same size, roughly the same weight, roughly the same seating count, with the mid-rear occupant getting the roughest deal (with the rear bench being shaped for two bums) … is that the extent of similarity?
Well, no, there is more, in that both also pack feisty 2.0-litre engines with some truck drivetrain assists and also run special suspension, brakes and so on. They are each finely-tuned machines.
The street brawl stands with a visual stand-off. Which the Honda wins handsomely – ironically, through being anything but. This is really a face off is between the honed and the honed.
Golf styling is has become increasingly sophisticated over the years; this GTi has grown up into a smooth sophisticate that’s now a proper young executive. This time, even the constant of tartan cloth trim is now optional: You can swap for microfibre and leather (a factory-level choice, because the latter also adds seat heating).
Exterior-wise, the GTi gets all the same updates meted regular 7.5 models, such a change to a narrower headlight and a bumper shape revision, though the performance car also adds some GTi-specific design tweaks inspired by the 40th anniversary edition that arrived as a sales-spriuker in the pre-facelift line. It’s a smart-looking car, but this is bogan in a very upmarket business suit.
Whereas the Civic? This car looks like something out of a boy racers wet dream. It’s radical, performance-oriented and outlandish to the point of causing affront. From my week, there’s more hate than love out there.
But hang in there. Yes, it doubtless doesn’t help that the Civic hatch shape is a bit weird to start with, being so long and low it almost seems over-stretched, and if anything that impression of overt leanness is enhanced when those utterly outrageous aero bits are bolted on.
Ugly. Yes, I’ll give you that. But, in a way, that’s part of the allure. It also looks fantastically futuristic – and, more important, clearly Japanese and unlike any other hot hatch. Which is great, right? I mean, who wants a fast car that isn’t going to be noticed? To me, Honda’s approach is like that taken by Lewis Hamilton; the whole reason why my favourite F1 ace shows up to interviews dripping in bling is to both send a powerful ‘top dog’ message and wind up his detractors.
Also, you cannot disagree, surely, as in-your-face as the Ursan Bolt-ons are, the detailing and intricacies of ehat at distance appears a mishmash of aero addenda is true artwork. Check out those vortex generators on the trailing edge of the Civic's roofline and, of course, the triple (uh-huh, triple) exhaust, which has two larger exit pipes to either side and then one smaller item in the middle, a feature that is said to improve low-speed sound, but reduce high-speed resonance.
The cars’ divergent approach continues to evidence when comparing the interior appointments and the cabins themselves. If you like fancy, techy stuff, then both contribute quite strongly. Active cruise, AEB, lane keeping and BSM, a smart key, ambient lighting and smartphone compatibility are common. They each have excellent crash test ratings. The Type R also employs the left-sided blind spot camera from lesser Civics, ostensibly to help with lane changes but potentially just as usual to check out those checking out the car.
The differences in presentation are palpable, though. The Golf cabin is a beautiful thing these days; everything is about quality. The look and the execution is seamless, smart and, to my eyes, every bit as expensive-looking as the cabin its considerably pricier Audi A3 equivalent.
Honda also executes well, but there’s less polish and it’s pegged by inconsistencies. Nothing to do with the assembly: Even though the car Honda NZ is using for its media mission is not actually a saleable item, being from a sample build programme (hence the 0000 build number plate below the gearstick) that has sustained abuse, unlike the tyres and sound and feel of the brakes, the interior betrayed nothing of its hard life; everything still looked factory-fresh.
So it’s hardy. But not to the same level of sophistication. Honda’s plastics and, despite the copious use of Alcantara, are less prestigious that VW’s, the red highlights look very 1990s’ (and might well fade in our high UV sunlight) and it’s held back by some ergonomic issues. Whereas Golf is pretty much get-in-and-go, the Civic requires investigation to achieve competence of more than its basic controls.
One that surely never seems certain never to be fully conquered is, unfortunately, quite vital. I’ve yet to meet anyone in the media group who can claim total success with the central display screen that mainly operates – very poorly – the infotainment, sat nav and the like and also (perplexingly) for the air con settings. Beyond that, the displays themselves have less panache. It’s as though the designers took cues from Atari video games; quite a contrast to VW’s ultra-cool and modern approach.
What I do like – and like a lot – is how you can forget about, or at least bypass, all the ergonomic inadequacy and still massively enjoy how well the car has been sorted for its primary purpose. That is, as a weapon for track-day fun.
The driving position, the front seat, the perfectly-sized fat-rimmed steering wheel, the positioning of the pedals and gearstick, the feel of the milled aluminium gearknob (on cold days at least; being metal it might be expected to get rather hot in sunlight) is just race-ready perfect, moreso than the Golf’s. The GTi looks almost too smart, now, to risk taking it on a hot lap. Whereas the Civic is so utterly circuit-centric it asks for nothing more than a race number. You’d could imagine everyone involved with it’s development came to work wearing racing overalls, having started their day with a race at (the Honda-owned) Suzuka circuit.
This isn’t just a visual impression; this car is incredibly visceral in its operation. You probably know all the good stuff about the mechanical makeup, but the best reminder of what it delivers comes from assessing the opposition.
The Golf is not lacking cojones. The output of the GTI’s 2.0-litre turbo has risen to 169kW with the same 350Nm of torque as previously. VW cites 0-100kmh in 6.5 seconds. Is that enough? They could have given us more: This line also includes, but not for NZ, a GTI Performance model with 180kW, 370Nm and ability to strike the legal highway limit from a standing start in 6.2s.
That’s good. But not enough to worry the Type R, which takes unsullied a turbocharged VTEC engine from the previous edition, not offered here, creating – and you might need to sit for this - 228kW and 400Nm. Not only that, it has a better power to weight.
So, yes, it’s ferocious. Get the clutch drop, throttle punch and first-second shift right and you’ll see, Honda assures, the highway limit from standstill in 5.7 seconds.
The pleasure isn’t fleeting. How little is lost in wheelspin and how straight a line it keeps under full throttle is a tribute to the qualities of the (helical) limited slip differential as to the grip from the 245/30R 20 performance tyres, but also influencing is that it limits launch revs to 3500rpm in first gear.
It just gets its power down and goes. And the muscularity of this engine is truly impressive, though it’s not lazy. Anything but: the hunger for revs is insatiable; snick the gears down a cog or two and it’ll run right out to 7000rpm without hesitation or vibration.
The one weirdness is how relatively quietly it goes about this business. No wonder Honda has to shout about that 7min 43.8sec Ring lap; on evidence from the road model, who would have heard it on the day?
I suppose Honda should get credit for being one of the few current players that chooses not to synthesise the Civic's soundtrack. Yet it's a shame the car doesn't play a tune that's little bit more exciting than its rather gruff, boost-infused voice; the GTi has a definite snap-crackle-pop edge in this respect.
If this fight was restricted to the track, then the Golf would be sniffing the Honda’s tri-exhaust all day, for sure. Our time at Hampton Downs’ circuit in this very car at the media launch day provided perfect – if all too fleeting - insight into how impressively sorted it is for that kind of work. And, fair dues, although our trackwork experience with hot Golfs has been with previous models, there’s no doubt in my mind this new GTi would have been pretty fine, too. Just not as fast or as feral.
But the open road is where we drive. And here, conceivably, the tables should turn; the usual story for cars so finely tuned for track superiority is that they are too much for everyday driving. And yet, while the Type R is definitely an extreme machine … it’s not too bad as a daily drive.
It’s interesting how this is so. Like VW, Honda offers potential to dial in different degrees of heat. In the GTi, you can option up to adaptive suspension and also configure through four modes, from Eco to outright performance, all of which affects the throttle, gearing and noise. Honda, meantime, simplifies to a three-step programme in which the halfway point, Normal, is the default. From there you can dial back to easy-going (also Eco) or ramp up to ‘Plus R’ mode, which is virtually no-holds barred though it doesn’t go so far as to wholly disengage the traction and stability controls. Loosening those reins requires further button pressing.
Is the VW also more dynamically rounded? Quite possibly, yes. It is a resolved, cohesive and inherently solid machine. One that’s more relaxed in its Comfort mode and a touch less extreme in the ultra setting. Yet, even though it does get a bit jittery on coarse chip, the Type R is not the unyielding rock you might imagine. None of the settings are mattress-compliant, but it’s also bearable. Even in Plus R, the most focused setting for the steering, throttle and dampers, you could drive it on most roads with little hardship. In fact, I did.
The Type R has multilink rear suspension now, the body is stiffer, by 37 percent, and lighter, by 16kg, than the predecessor’s. It has a wider track and revised geometry and bigger brakes and a 10mm lower centre-of-gravity, with a 25mm lower hip point for the driving position. In short, everything on this car is supposed to be better than it was previously.
It’s certainly impressive. On my favourite rat run, the Honda moved around fluidly and precisely; it has such an intuition that you’d think the car was hard-wired into your brain. The response to minuscule adjustments of the throttle, steering and stoppers is immediate and there’s plenty of fun, too. While it wants to get you through the corner in the fastest and most engaging, neutral-stance manner possible, trail-braking or – if you dare – a big lift off the throttle mid-corner will get the tail moving.
It is not only very feisty, but feels quite fail-safe. Even though this particular example’s brakes had developed some squeaks and rattles, they were as brilliant as you would expect from Brembo. And these stoppers are top-shelf items, being four-pot aluminum calipers squeezing 350mm cross-drilled rotors and 305mm behind.
So where does that leave the GTi? It’s not as fiery, for sure, but still puts in a pedigree performance, with the particular appeals of lots of mid-range thrust and not a lot of torque steer.
What’s great about VW’s car is that, when you decided to press on hard, it simply squats down and works pretty much to your bidding. There’s no squirm, no tramp. So it’s also easy to maintain the right line and punch harder out of corners. It’s just not as flirtatious as this Honda.
Which all boils down to what, exactly? It’s not an abdication to say they’re both truly excellent examples of this breed. Yet, of course, they’re also far from being doppelgangers.
The Golf might not be the hottest hatch on the market but it’s still a great all-rounder; in many respects, its ability to be all things to all people remains unmatched. The premium-ness of the current car is undisputable; perhaps, in some eyes, it is too highly-polished, now. A degree of rawness doesn’t hurt in this category but it’s more difficult to pin down in this version than, say, the 40th anniversary special tested last year.
The Civic Type R is … well, it’s just incredible. For sure, it is exceptionally singular in its purpose – some will say it offers fewer compromises (notably in respect to the gearbox) than North Korean despot Kim Jong Un – but, to me, that’s no detraction.
Honda’s historic bent for innovative and daring engineering is not always easily recognised in its mainstream models; the spirit of conservatism has guided their hand too much over the past few years.
Not so with this model: The Type R is a perfect example of what happens when talent is allowed to express without restriction; it’s a wild, whacky and intoxicatingly wonderful masterpiece.
Nan won’t believe what they’ve done to her car.