The Road Beat: 2023 Honda Civic Type R
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
WHAT IS IT?
It's not every day you find yourself with the keys to one of the most eagerly anticipated cars of the year. Heck, this might be one of the most hyped cars of the decade. Yes, it may be called a Honda Civic, but this is no ordinary commuter. A few years back, America was finally treated to the Type R treatment of the commuter Civic sedan, a recipe previously reserved for more appreciative parts of the world apparently—who in America wants a performance front-wheel drive car when you can have a Dodge Challenger with a Hemi V8? I never drove the former FK8 model, but it was met with near-unanimous, glowing praise, apart from the science-experiment-gone-wrong styling. Here's the next generation that looks positively awesome in person and promises an even better driving experience. The 2023 Civic Type R (chassis-designation FL5) carries an MSRP of $44,385, as tested, and is the car I'd buy for an under-$50K sports machine.
WHAT I LIKED
Honda made news when journalists (that didn't include me :/) were treated to passenger laps in the new Type R driven by none other than Formula 1 Double-World Champion Max Verstappen. Honestly, the Type R is so good at being a sports car, it does seem to be something designed and engineered by those who are both good at driving, and those who love driving; I can't imagine Max having had a single complaint about the dynamics and ability on track.
Performance concerned, Type R strikes a righteous balance of supplying what might be the perfect and correct amount of punch for street driving. While some modern sports cars have power that can only be exploited on a racetrack, the Civic here can be used almost fully on my favorite winding roads and in thrilling fashion. In reality, on public roads, only a skilled driver (with a death wish) in a new supercar would be able to walk away from the Type R, such is the speed and ability that is available here. 315 horsepower doesn't sound like much, but the huge swell of boosted, turbocharged torque provides mountainous strides and the 2-liter VTEC engine pulls hard all the way to the redline. What's a good speed comparison? It's only a smidge slower than my friend's 997 911 Carrera S. It's definitely quicker than my old Nissan 370Z, too.
Blasts down stretches of my favorite detour to work were met with a combination of smiles, laughter, sweat. This is a vehicle you must work for to get the most out of, and it's then you can readily appreciate the breadth and bandwidth of its emotion and capability. Involvement is what I seek in a performance car, and the Type R has no shortness of involvement.
But, what makes it so good?
I said it's plenty fast, but there's more: The chassis speaks to you much like
the Matrix, though no plugs to your spine are required here. If you can think
it, the Type R will most likely do it, such as is the focus and razor-like
tenacity of the vehicle around you. Cornering is...I don't know what else to
call it because it's nigh-on perfect; it just does it. Look where you want to
go, think it, and then the Type R does and succeeds. Body roll is minimal,
there's grip and grip for days from all four Michelin tires with no understeer,
and just neutral, awe-inspiring handling. Some like to knock FWD platforms, but
the Civic handles better than most AWD and RWD vehicles. Oh, and torque steer
is basically nullified, too, except under heavy throttle and bumpy roads, in
thanks to the well-engineered front limited-slip differential.
Coming through and out of a corner, you can be brutal on the throttle. Even if you're trying to initiate understeer on purpose, the inside front wheel just seems to pull you right through like on a zip line, holding your line right to the edge of where you want to be. The wheel will give some wriggles as the tires dig into the pavement, but it's useful information and feedback of your levels of traction. Also of note are the wide 265 Michelin tires at all four corners that signify its intent and pursuit of performance.
Brakes work like they should, and the transmission has such a delightful and positive shift action. While maybe not quite as good as the S2000's precision instrument of the prior century that could double as a surgeon's tool during heart surgery, it's one of the best shifters in any new car today. So good, it's leagues better than any BMW manual shifter ever, better than any VW Golf GTI shifter, and almost on par with Porsche's prestigious six-speed manual. There is an auto-blipper for matching revs on downshifts, but it operates so smoothly in the background I actually enjoyed it. I even found myself heel-toeing with it, which is redundant perhaps, but who says you can't do that? You can also turn it off via settings, but I just left it on as it didn't hurt the experience one bit.
You might notice the
interior looks like a crime scene with all the red fabric (to each their own),
but the highlight is the fantastic front seats. They fit my slim frame perfectly
and are padded such as to be superbly comfortable in normal driving. This is
the rare seat that provides superlative lateral support, like a proper race
seat, while also being comfy on the daily. Gosh they're good, and really help
and contribute to the driver-car connection with a desirable driving position
to boot with your controls in all the right places, something Radiohead would
be proud of.
The rest of the inside follows the general design of the new Civic, with the Type R being based once again on the Civic Hatchback variant, meaning abundant and practical space in the rear as well as trunk space. The quality of some materials do lack compared to the more luxury-aimed Touring model in the Civic lineup, but it still has the same leap forward overall compared to past models, with softer and more elegant styling and improved materials everywhere. I like the simplistic industrial design inside that complements the tone of this model's maturity (mature design, but the dynamics are properly rowdy). Ergonomics make sense, and I like how the digital dash reverts to one akin to the classic S2000 rev counter when R mode is engaged. There's also shift lights which I enjoyed seeing light up.
In normal driving, the Civic Type R is ruthlessly easy to drive, with an effortless clutch action and superb shifter. But also, when on the highway in the comfort settings, the ride quality is surprisingly compliant, and the road noise is actually not miserable. I would be happy to drive the Type R miles on end to a distant track day, with full confidence that I would be fresh and limber upon arrival. And for commuting, when driven gingerly, I averaged a commendable 27 MPG. On long highway stretches, expect to see just over 30 MPG even.
Another small detail I
enjoyed was the fact that, at night, the buttons on the door illuminate with
the rest of the cabin upon entry. This makes it very easy to see all the
controls and locate the unlock button to allow passengers in. So, so many other
vehicles remain dark here and it can be frustrating in the night, even the
WHAT CAN BE IMPROVED
I do love this car, yet there are items that I didn't like. For a vehicle that handles and corners so serenely, the suspension is just far too firm on less-than-ideal roads. R mode is actually unusable on many roads because mid-corner bumps are met with a flying sensation, pounding into them with such authority it feels like you're actually just jumping over them. On smooth surfaces, have at it—it's great—yet the bumpy roads around me were not meant for R mode. Even after customizing the individual mode to the softest suspension, I still found the pounding just too harsh at times, mostly noticeable again over mid-corner bumps causing a pounding and skipping sensation. However, as disconcerting as it may be, it does not little to diminish confidence as the Type R relentlessly holds it line to the edge of the world. So, it does less to impact actual ability rather than mostly affecting comfort here. Smooth highway cruising is wonderful, but when at speed and with a suspension loaded and goaded, be warned. It makes me question whether aftermarket suspension companies might make coilovers that are actually softer than stock for those seeking everyday compliance.
For several days I found the navigation to be stuck near Las Vegas, whereas I live in Northern California. Responses of the infotainment overall were laughable during this period, but then one day it decided to snap back to consciousness. Weird. At least this daze passed and resumed normality eventually.
Focusing more on the interior, the driver seat had some creaking to it, to the point where I would take it the dealer and ask for a warranty fix. In fact, following this test, a dealer did fix the creaking, so problem averted luckily thanks to Honda. The passenger seat never creaked, so maybe it's just a fluke on this example that is subject to test-fleet abuse. Also of note was the grab interior on the inside of the driver door. Each time I grasped the large handle to shut the door, it felt like the handle or the door panel was loose and not totally connected to the door, and you could even hear a slight clunking to it. Honda build quality is typically foolproof, so I'll let both these issues down to dumb and bad luck. So I wouldn't let this be a concern, but I noticed it and therefore am obliged to report.
Steering can be subjective due to preference, but I found the electric power steering of the Civic Type R to be a mixed bag. Funny enough, I preferred the steering in its standard light mode, where I found it to be the most responsive and with the best on-center feel. The two heavier settings increase the weighting dramatically, but do not increase any feel. I guess it can help make the car feel less twitchy, but the heaviest steering adjustment also brings pretty bad on-center feel. What I mean by this is that, when driving totally straight in the heavy/R mode, the steering has a couple millimeters of play in it, as is normal in most cars. But this play is light in weight, and then there's this micro threshold where it becomes heavy, giving an impression of there being a delay almost in response rate. It's less noticeable in quickened driving with lots of transitions between turns, but that on-center feel is compromised enough where I chose to leave the steering in its standard low-effort setting in my own personalized Individual mode as it brought a confident consistency.
IS IT WORTH IT?
At its retail price of $44,385, yes. Oh yes. There are other FWD performance hatches and saloons with similar levels of performance for less, like the Hyundai Elantra N or Golf GTI, but neither gives the sensation and theatre of a Type R. This car is so sweet right out of the box, it's like a fine tea brewed to perfection. You could go further north and fork over an additional few grand for a Golf R, but the Type R is so much more involving and fun to drive. A Golf R is grown-up and mature, sure, but it's boring. I drove one and had little fun behind the wheel despite the capabilities being similar. Compared to pony and muscle cars, the Type R gives me the focused and resolute thrills that I crave with its unmatched precision. In the over $50K range, a Camaro SS 1LE is still probably the driver's choice or a GR Supra 3.0 with its new manual option.
IS THE HYPE REAL?
Yeah, the Civic Type R was frankly pretty dang incredible; I loved each and every drive. The interior noises I heard did annoy me, but they did little to diminish the experience. In an age where most all modern cars can be fast, experience is as important as any aspect, and the Type R delivers. I can't wait to drive another and see how it behaves on a racetrack, and I do expect the new Type R to become a firm fixture at track days like the outgoing FK8 model. The FL5 Type R will likely join the ranks of the all-time hot hatch greats, among which usually include such giants as the legendary Renaultsport Megane R26.R (that never came to the States). It's expensive for a Civic, costing the same as a 2.0 GR Supra even, but the Type R reigns supreme even at this price when it comes to the thrill of driving.
2023 Honda Civic Type R
As-tested price: $44,385.
Pros: Outstanding experience and performance.
Cons: Harsh ride; expensive (for a Civic).