By Shari Prymak
Despite building some truly terrific cars in the past, Honda’s current lineup is about as exciting as a bag of flour. The disappointing bit is that this is a brand capable of true magnificence. The original NSX, the S2000, the Integra, the Prelude. They were all standouts that proved Honda could build amazing cars when they really tried. After all this time, the brand finally seems ready to dabble in their engineering and racing talents to build something special once again. Honda enthusiasts have been waiting decades for the opportunity to purchase a Type R on our soil, and the time has finally come.
To prove its worth, another iconic Japanese nameplate, WRX STi, has come along for the ride. Subaru’s rally-star special is a favorite of the enthusiast community. 2018 brings a few updates, including a now fully electronic all-wheel drive system, larger Brembo brakes front and rear, and a few cosmetic tweaks here and there. The basic framework of the STi, however, is well-worn and has stood the test of time. Subaru fans aren’t complaining.
The original Type R was conceived in the midst of the Japanese tuner car movement of the 1990s. This new one, however, based on the 10th generation Civic, is the first one to officially be imported to North America. Only around 1000 units will make it to Canada over the next couple of years, which should help to pretty much guarantee some level of collector car status down the road.
The WRX STI, by comparison, shares no similar kind of exclusivity. If the goal is to slide under the radar, however, that could be a good thing. With its massive rear wing and bright World Rally Blue paint job, the STi may not be discreet, but it won’t draw crowds either. The Type R is a different story. Everywhere you look there are scoops and ducts and wings popping out of every panel. I don’t doubt that much of it is functional and aids performance, but even so, it’s hard to be taken seriously driving something with such an overtly tuner car look.
The STi really starts to show its age when you poke around the interior and, on this mid-level Sport model, insert the traditional key into the ignition. The infotainment system has dated graphics and, at times, is horribly laggy. Subaru made an effort to improve the materials over previous year models, but they still aren’t up to par for an MSRP pushing over 40 grand. The seats are comfortable and the steering wheel feels nice in hand, but the seating position is ridiculously high when compared to the Type R. The shifter too doesn’t feel quite so slick and is rather tall.
The Type R’s infotainment system isn’t much better than the one in the STi, but at least there’s Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The bright red sport seats are very supportive and the driving position is spot on. It’s a bit of a shame that Honda replaced the middle rear seat with plastic cup holders. The Civic hatchback is a spacious, practical car that’s more than capable of moving around four passengers. Even so there’s a lot to like. The stubby metal shifter falls nicely to hand and has a superb feel. It even come with a defeatable auto rev match function that will blip the throttle for smoother downshifts.
In addition to the excellent 6-speed manual gearbox, the Type R includes a helical limited-slip differential, Brembo brakes, and adaptive suspension with selectable drive modes. The default mode is Sport, which offers a fair compromise between ride quality and handling. Comfort mode doesn’t feel too different, but softens the ride to an acceptable level for daily commutes. It’s a little shocking to see how tame the Type R can be given its comical outward appearance.
Flick it into +R mode, however, and all that Honda racing pedigree starts to bubble to the surface. The suspension firms up and the steering adds a bit of heft, but it never feels overly harsh the way the STi can feel. The body control is phenomenal with huge amounts of grip thanks to enormous (and pricey) 20 inch performance tires. Despite being front-wheel drive, understeer never really makes itself known, at least not on the road. The steering feels precise and quite natural, and the brakes have a strong, firm feel. Given its strong all-around performance, it’s not hard to see how the Type-R stole the Nurburgring lap record for a front-wheel drive car.
The turbocharged 2.0L VTEC engine produce 306 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, which is a lot of power to send through the front wheels. Fortunately, torque-steer is virtually non-existent. The power is delivered smoothly without fuss, and the shove is far more immediate than the peaky VTEC engines of the past. The acceleration is strong, but the exhaust note is quite muted, even at higher revs. That’s great for long highway drives, but the hottest Civic needs an exciting sound to match the performance and visual drama.
The STi hasn’t received the same finishing school treatment. The ride is more brittle and cabin noise is noticeably higher. The hydraulically-assisted steering though has a more natural, weighty feel to it than the Type R’s helm. The all-wheel drive system puts the power down effectively with loads of grip from the tires. At 305 horsepower and 290 lb-ft of torque, the long-running 2.5L boxer engine produces just as much power as the Type R’s mill. With an additional 150kg to haul, however, the acceleration feels less immediate. It also consumes far more gas, averaging 13L/100km compared to the Honda’s average of only 10.5L/100km.
For an MSRP of $40,890, all Type R’s come full loaded with the only option being a choice between two colours: Championship White or Crystal Black. WRX STi pricing starts at a lower $39,495, but a more comparably-equipped Sport-Tech model with push-button start and navigation will run $46,595. The STi does come in a wider range of colours, but with its wider availability and more common road presence, it isn’t likely to be as sought-after in the long run.
Despite a few minor misses, the Civic Type R mostly delivers on being a thrilling hot hatchback that can be used comfortably every day. The reasonable fuel economy, strong predicted reliability and resale value help solidify its appeal as a daily driver. It’s certainly better suited to the task than the STi, which offers no clear performance benefit over the Type R in exchange for its lack of refinement or inferior fuel economy. A quick drive in a Ford Focus RS in between Type R and STi runs resulted in a similar conclusion. The RS offers the most thrills out of the three, but its aggressively-bolstered Recaro seats and awkward seating position compromise its mission as a road-going daily driver.
Some are calling the Type R the greatest front-wheel drive car of all time, but I think that assessing it in the context of only front-wheelers might be selling it a bit short. Hot hatchbacks just don’t get much better than this. Welcome back Honda. We missed you.