At Speed With The 2020 Honda Civic Type R Touring
Back in 2017, when Honda first unleashed the Civic Type R on American buyers, it faced stiff competition from the Ford Focus RS as well as the Volkswagen Golf R. While both the Ford and VW were excellent hot hatches in their own right, the Type R was arguably the best of the bunch despite being the only car in the trio that put its power to ground exclusively through the front wheels.
It nailed the fundamentals. At the time, the Type R was the most balanced in terms of power, grip, chassis tuning and comfort. It was simply a joy to drive, and could punch well above its weight class on a good road. It also didn’t hurt that it was significantly less expensive than its rivals.
There were a few notable caveats, though, one of which was obvious just by looking at it. We are all for functional aero, and the Civic Type R is definitely fast enough to utilize it, but it was undeniable that there was a lot going on from a visual standpoint. Design is a largely subjective matter at the end of the day, but it seems that even Honda agreed that a nip-and-tuck job was in order, so the Civic Type R recently went under the knife for a refresh.
Evolutionary rather than revolutionary, the changes are fairly subtle, but there are a number of them. Honda says they set out to deliver a wide range of improvements to the car that include enhancements in handling, braking, ride quality, technology, overall driver involvement, and styling, so it’s clear that the automaker had some specific targets in its sights for the revamped car.
At the same time, one can’t help but wonder if revising an already-great performance car could actually detract from the winning combination that Honda established a few years ago. Did Honda hit the bulls-eye or move further from the mark with the latest Type R? With the keys to this Rallye Red example in hand, we set out on a fact-finding mission.
Inside and Out
Let’s just get this out of the way: the Civic Type R’s exterior style hasn’t changed all that much. But there are some good reasons for that. First, enthusiasts have bought more 13,000 Civic Type Rs over the past two years. That’s a healthy number for a niche model like this, so it’s clear that for many, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Secondly, the vast majority of the racy bits and pieces that make the Type R look the way it does are functional components that serve very real purposes. That big wing on the back? The 66 pounds of downforce that it generates at 124 mph might not sound all that impressive at first glance, but when you consider the fact that the car would actually generate rear-end lift at high speeds without it, the necessity of it becomes obvious.
The hood scoop reduces lift as well, pushing cool air into the engine bay and hot air out through the bottom, which relieves pressure in the process. Meanwhile, the front splitter further increases downforce at the nose of the car, the side vents in the bumper direct air to cool the Brembo brakes, and winglets on the side sills direct air around the back wheels.
To put it another way – there’s a lot going on because there’s a lot going on. That said, Honda did add body-colored inserts into the front and rear bumpers in order to segment those large cutouts, and to improve cooling when tracking the car, the automaker has moved to a more efficient radiator and expanded the size of the grille to allow more air in. The larger grille came with a small hit to downforce, though, so Honda also tweaked the front splitter to offset that as well.
Like the exterior, the Civic Type R’s interior has seen some strategic, low-key tweaks as well. There’s a smaller, weighted shift knob on hand to make gear shifts more satisfying, and the steering wheel is now wrapped in Alcantara, while the shifter boot switches over to synthetic suede.
The other changes in the cabin are technological. Honda has implemented what it refers to as Active Sound Control in order to “enhance the natural engine sound” through the audio system, and unique system settings are implemented based on the drive mode selected. Honda Sensing, the company’s safety feature suite, is now standard as well, bringing active features like adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and collision mitigation braking into the mix.
For the enthusiasts, though, it’s the chassis tweaks that matter the most. New lower ball joints are installed up front, while stiffer bushings in the lower B-arm of the rear suspension allow for better toe-in while cornering. The adaptive dampers have been updated, too, and now sample road conditions ten times faster than the units used in the outgoing car, in turn providing more accurate real-time reactions to road conditions. Stopping power is also enhanced thanks to new 13.8-inch two-piece floating rotors and new pads, while the brake pedal stroke has been adjusted to provide faster response.
The rest of the combination is the tried and true hardware seen previously. Under the hood is a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four cylinder engine making 306 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, and it’s hooked exclusively to a close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox with automatic rev matching. A limited slip differential distributes the power up front, and thanks to Honda’s efforts with the suspension geometry, the Civic Type R is blissfully devoid of torque steer despite all the grunt going through front wheels.
Three drive modes are available – Comfort, Sport, and +R – and each adjusts steering weight, throttle response, the character of the ASC and automatic rev matching systems, and damper stiffness.
And as with the Civic Type Rs sold in previous years, paint color is the only option available. Everything else is standard, including the sport seats, navigation, and 12-speaker audio system. All in, the car you see here will set you back $37,950 with destination.
That’s about three grand more than the car that tested back in 2017, but trust us, it’s still a bargain. Lest we forget, the 3100-pound Civic Type R is a former front wheel-drive lap record holder at the Nürburgring.
More importantly, it’s a car that also impresses out in the real world.
Behind The Wheel
After settling in at the helm, the Type R’s interior feels immediately familiar. Like the standard Civic, the cabin is logically laid out and relatively simple. Controls are where you expect them to be and there aren’t too many of them, so there isn’t much of a learning curve.
The infotainment system is a weak point, though – it was falling behind the technological times back in 2017 and it hasn’t seen a significant update since. It can be slow to respond to touch inputs, and the overall visual aesthetic is, well, pretty basic. It’s compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, though, so once we had everything configured to our liking, the interaction with the infotainment system itself was kept to a minimum.
Honda’s six-speed remains an absolute honey of a gearbox with smooth, positive shifts and clearly defined gates, and it’s paired with a light clutch with a clearly defined engagement point. The new egg-shaped shift knob feels a bit small in our hand, and we were occasionally grabbing it sideways rather than over the top to get a better grasp, but it’s still a joy to row through the gears in this car.
Around town the Type R is as easy to drive as a garden-variety Civic; it doesn’t punish you with teeth-chattering harshness during the daily commute because you chose a performance car. Even with the sport seats and track-tuned chassis, the Type R feels downright relaxed in Comfort mode, with light steering and plenty of suspension compliance. It’s fairly quiet, too. Honestly, if it weren’t for the aggressive bodywork, it would be pretty easy to chill out and fly under the radar when needed.
Bumping the drive mode up to Sport changes the Civic Type R’s character substantially. The suspension firms up, the steering weight increases, and the sound of the engine gets noticeably louder thanks to that Active Sound Control system. While the noise is pumped in artificially, it addresses the fact that the Type R engine was previously too quiet to hear at times – like when you’re driving hard with the windows down – and that made timing upshifts more difficult. A more boisterous exhaust system would probably be the ideal solution, but ASC does earn its keep here.
Out in the mountains the refreshed car is even better than we remembered the Civic Type R being back in 2017. The suspension changes are indeed subtle, and I wonder if many folks would notice the difference outside of back-to-back lapping sessions, but the upshot is that the chassis tuning remains absolutely top shelf. On the right road, this car will hunt down 911s.
+R mode’s character feels ostensibly like an amplification of Sport mode – more suspension firmness, more steering weight, and more ASC volume. We generally preferred Sport mode out in the canyons because it generally does a better job of handling mid-corner bumps and other surface imperfections that can upset the chassis at those speeds, but I have no doubt that at track pace on a good surface, +R makes the most sense.
Like the best performance cars, the Civic Type R strikes a masterful balance between power, grip, chassis tuning, and braking capability. That balance makes its performance capability approachable, and the car is rewarding to hustle in turn. The fact that it’s also easy to drive around town – and costs less than the average transaction price for a new car – is nothing short of stunning.
Buy it in black and thank us later.
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