The 2017 Honda Civic Type R Breaks the Front-Wheel Drive Curse


he 2017 Honda Civic Type R is as close as Honda is going to get to a halo car, and that’s fine with me. It’s a front-wheel-drive coupe with an all-new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that fires 306-horsepower—that’s a lot for a Civic, so much that it set the FWD production lap record at the Nurburgring, with a time of 7 minutes and 43 seconds. 

A 306-horsepower Honda Civic? I’ll take it. 

When I was in college, I had a Honda Civic in my little fleet. Through a combination of owner neglect and what may have been poor rust-proofing, the passenger door was quietly rotting from the inside out, one day, as I was driving through the Catskills with my girlfriend, it popped off and cartwheeled over the guardrail and down the slope of a mountain. 

This old Civic—a 1984 model year—was actually part of Honda’s golden age in America. The Civic and Accord together (along with Toyota and Nissan) were conquering market share from the Big 3 by the month, capitalizing on Detroit’s shoddy build quality. By the late 1980s, Japanese cars were topping every reliability index.   

Fast-forward ten years. It’s been a strange decade or two for the Civic. Having passed through an uninspired, if not altogether forgettable, design phase, the little Honda has emerged in a troubled world that’s become obsessed with compact crossovers and drunk on record-low fuel prices. Despite all that, this new Civic is built on a platform solid enough that Honda feels confident enough to release a halo with the Civic Type R. One Honda exec went biblical and called the Type R the “forbidden fruit” that Honda enthusiasts inside and outside of Honda HQ have been waiting for. 

So was the new Honda Civic Type R worth the wait? 

Absolutely. 

First, the look. The new Civic isn’t a design that provokes ambivalence. It is sometimes busy, sometimes overly enthusiastic. Where Mazda chooses a minimal, elegant, more Italian styling, the Civic (along with most new Japanese cars) bristles with Japanese aesthetics—the intersecting lines that generally make for a kinda fierce little anime character. Some think it’s ugly, others can’t resist. I respect the risk.

The Civic Type R sedan is lower and wider than its predecessor, and there is a hood-scoop, a pronounced splitter, vortex generators up top, and a diffuser down below. There are intakes and cooling ducts, and the pronounced wing on the rear has its own winglets.

All of that work come together to great effect at high speeds and quick turns. We took the car out on the ICAR Mirabel track, in the hinterlands of Quebec. It’s a small circuit with an abbreviated front straight and a couple of exhilarating high-speed sweepers. 

I selected the Sport driving mode (sandwiched between Comfort and Plus R). The six-speed manual transmission was a marvel. The brainy rev matching system makes for seamless shifts with nice short throws. 

The new engine, a 2.0-liter turbocharged four that will also power the new Accord, has a high horsepower-per-liter output, with dual timing control on the intake and exhaust cams. The low inertia turbo generates 23.2 psi and has a nifty electric wastegate. Coming out of corners at ICAR, the engine has little delay with throttle tip-in; going in, there almost no overshoot with liftoff. The engine is so effectively assembled and carefully tuned, it turns this little Type R into a beast in Sport and track mode. 

So how does this halo car stack up against the competition? For starters, you have to define the competition. The Type R is a FWD, and it costs $34,000. Honda wants to pit it against the Subaru STI, the VW Golf R and the Ford Focus RS—all of them more expensive and all-wheel-drive (although the Golf R uses a Haldex, so…). It seems like a crazy marketing position. But the truth is, Honda has developed a clever dual axis front suspension that has all but eliminated the torque understeer that would disqualify most FWD cars. This such a finely planted car—with such a killer manual gearbox—that it rotates through and powers out of corners even better than the fantastic Ford Focus RS and—going out on a limb here—the somewhat weary STI.

There are a lot of details that gather this little monster together into a true halo: four-piston Brembo brakes up front and a beefed up master cylinder that gives you all the bite; there are sport seats that grab ahold of your love handles; there an exhaust note that broadcasts out of dual center pipes with a smart center resonator that makes you sound tough with faking it (cough cough Jaguar F-Type cough) while looking kinda like a Ferrari F40. 

The Civic Type R ain’t cheap at $33,900, plus $875 shipping, but if you’re after a low-volume halo that will give ‘em hell at the track, put this on your list. 

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