Alternative power sources and autonomous vehicle technology are perceived as threats to the survival of the petrolhead. If the motoring future looks anything like Google’s vision of it, with the company’s driverless car concept, then traditional car enthusiasts have every reason to feel threatened.
For the moment, however, there are a number of enticing prospects for those who cherish the joy of driving. This year sees the local release of thrillers like the BMW M2 and Ford Focus RS. In January Mzansi was graced with the arrival of the Honda Civic Type R — and you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from its fans. By now you would have heard that Honda’s NSX supercar will not be on sale in South Africa. Our exchange rate is to blame. Quite sad, because the Type R proves that Honda is serious about a performance revival.
So, for example, this is the first iteration of the model to sport a turbocharger. The previous version, of which 850 were sold in South Africa, was often the butt of lawnmower jokes among members of the hot-hatchback fraternity. Although it had a superb chassis, it couldn’t keep up with its boosted competitors. With 228kW and 400Nm, the new Type R moves with more conviction. The 0-100km/h sprint takes 5.7sec (claimed). And it makes a pretty good noise while doing so: throaty, crisp and authentic — not like the synthetic tunes from some of its peers.
According to the manufacturer, the Type R has the shortest gearshift throw in the segment — an infinitesimal detail, but one that could mean the difference between glory and a bruised ego when a Volkswagen Golf R (manual) pulls up alongside you at the lights. But the Civic is destined for pursuits far more noble than juvenile robot-to-robot brawls. This is billed as a hot hatchback for the true driving enthusiast. And if that is the only criterion you will use to determine which hot hatchback gets a place in your garage, then the Honda wins.
Let me state it for the record: this is the most engaging example of the genre you can buy today. Do I mean it is even more entertaining than the Audi S3, Opel Astra OPC, BMW M135i, Mercedes- AMG A 45 and Renault Sport Mégane RS 275 Trophy? My answer to this is an unequivocal yes. We spent a morning evaluating the Type R at the Killarney race track — the jewel of Cape Town. It took me very little time to find that sweet spot before setting off. The position — ensconced in the heavily bolstered red driver’s seat — is perfect, and feels natural.
The R+ driving mode is engaged, giving me greater access to the massive dynamic potential beneath the Type R’s busy-looking exterior. I grab first and go. The tachometer needle is wound up to a 7000rpm red line before lights on the instrument panel order a shift. A quick snick into second as corner one looms. I am mindful that those front wheels are being asked to handle a sizable amount of grunt in addition to their steering duties. However, the Honda suits are adamant that the helical limited slip differential is more than capable of ensuring effective power application from rubber to tarmac. My entry speed into turn one is far too quick — and it tightens up sooner than expected. I prepare for understeer. But, instead, the Honda holds on, dispatching us around the corner (and apparently around the laws of physics) with incredible resolve.
That leaves a huge grin on the face, plus the confidence to sniff out apexes with the skill of a basset hound. You can take tremendous liberties with the Type R. It tucks into corners and sticks in the intended direction with a determination that resets your barometer of how a car is supposed to handle. The braking system, by Brembo, proved tenacious on lap after lap. In conclusion, the Type R was well worth the wait. The remarkable thing is how plugged-in it feels. Steering, pedal modulation, brakes, poise in the corners — the car seems instinctively in tune with the will of its driver.
But of course, that asking price of R586 400 is a deterrent, no matter how supreme the hot Civic is. And bear in mind that the Volkswagen Golf R and Audi S3 start from R537 400 and R541 500 respectively. BMW asks R551000 for a basic M135i. Regardless, the Type R was never intended to compete on sales volumes. Honda had set out to remind the world that it is still skilled in the art of the performance car.
Engine: 1 996cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged
Power: 228kW at 6 500rpm
Torque: 400Nm from 2 500rpm
Top speed: 270km/h
Fuel consumption: 7.5l/100km (Claimed)
Price: R586 400