YOUR EYES do not deceive you. We have not miscalculated the scores. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Honda Civic Type R is MOTOR’s 2018 Performance Car of the Year.
A shock. A surprise. And, to put it frankly, the most unexpected winner of this competition since the S15 Nissan 200SX beat the Porsche 911 Turbo in 2001.
An element of the Civic Type R winning has got to be, of course, the absence this year of any super sports cars, notably a Porsche 911. Stuttgart had a 991.2 GT3 on the boat but it didn’t arrive in time – not to say it would have won, but it would have given the Civic a fair fright.
Either way, it should not take away from the achievement that is this incredible car. Honda, the brand that brought us sublime performance machines like the original NSX, S2000, DC2 Integra Type R and early noughties Civic Type Rs, has its performance mojo back. After misplacing it. For some years.
Classic MOTOR: Honda NSX v Porsche 911 (996)
We must begin by addressing one specific but high profile aspect of the car that you have probably already thought about – the way it looks.
Plainly, this is a car styled for a minority of people. That’s not to say this is an ugly car, but many would-be Civic Type R owners would strike it off their list on the basis of how it looks alone, which is sad, because they’d be excluding from their lives a mega little machine.
If a team of 19 year olds did the styling, it feels as if the engineering was left to the 50-year-old masters. This hot hatch does not drive the way it looks.
You might get in and expect a rough-riding, try-hard track day road weapon fit for only weekend use, with deliberate, demonic oversteer, buzzing vibration and roaring tyre noise – and yet the gap between this expectation and reality couldn’t be more yawning.
There is a precision, a maturity and a talent about how the Civic Type R drives that is completely at odds with the way it looks. A big part of the genius of the Civic Type R is in how beautifully it combines performance with liveability. In a way, the Civic Type R is our winner because it excels not just at Performance but also the Car element of Performance Car of the Year.
This is not true of all our contenders, some freakishly fast but with seriously compromised liveability; or prioritising ride comfort too much at the cost of body control and handling precision; or minimising NVH to the point you have lost connection to the road, or car, when you want to tap into the performance on offer.
In the Civic Type R’s case, the ride has a beautiful long-stroke suppleness in its Comfort damper mode – it has no right to be as good as it is for how well the car handles.
The steering and controls also offer old-school communication and exude a certain satisfying, familiar mechanical-ness, and are a joy to use around town. It’s an easy, forgiving car to drive fast or slow.
Slinking into the Civic Type R’s excellent and generously padded bucket seats, you are confronted with what is another off-putting, to some, element of the car: its interior.
While it’s simple and easy enough to figure out, and there’s nothing majorly wrong here, there’s plenty of little things to annoy you. There’s no satnav, lots of cheap, scratchy plastics – a Golf shades the Civic for interior classiness – ‘only’ four seats, weird backwards ergonomics with some switches and the touchscreen menu, and a mishmash of design eras in the instrument binnacle.
The attractive, modern TFT tachometer – which, awesomely, channels a tiny bit of S2000, if you squint – is flanked by dorky, difficult-to-read fuel and temp gauges right out of Tron: Legacy.
Fortunately, there’s much the Civic Type R does get right in its interior, and that is the bedrock fundamentals. The seats, as mentioned, prove you can combine excellent comfort and excellent support. The seating position is fantastic for a hot hatch, not too high with good reach adjustment on the steering wheel and the ability to find a seating position that feels bang-on.
The controls, again, all feel just right, from steering wheel, to brake, clutch and gear shift – the last one getting a special mention. Honda has always made some of the best-feeling manual gear changes to the point we’re not that disappointed there is no twin-clutch auto option.
Nailing the seating position and feel of controls lays the foundation to properly enjoy the car – and there is so much enjoyment to find in the Civic Type R.
The front end is the best we’ve ever sampled in a hot hatch with precise, feelsome, well-judged steering largely uncorrupted by torque steer – an achievement given how much work the front axle is doing. It makes guiding the Type R down a twisty road a delight, where you’ll find a brilliantly poised, accurate and planted car with addictive and generous lateral grip from its 245/35R20 Continental ContiSportContact 6 tyres.
This is a hugely fun and satisfying car to drive fast. And it’s fast, too – really fast, proving if you ignore the obsession with 0-100km/h times, there is still plenty to be said about a front-drive hot hatch when on the move.
An interesting handling characteristic of the Civic Type R is its chassis balance. Hot hatches tend to have strong handling personalities with bases in understeer or oversteer. The Civic Type R is remarkable for being neither, showing off a neutrality that errs a poofteenth towards understeer, but without its rear end being excessively tied down.
It’s easily livened up on the brake if you invite it, and never when you don’t. The mature, sophisticated roadholding surely owes a lot to the fitment of a multi-link rear end.
The 2.0-litre engine, too, is a gem, showing off – to the relief of some – traces of VTEC DNA with its high-for-a-turbo 7000rpm redline and a buzzy, angry enthusiasm. Yet it’s also obviously turbocharged, with a blow-off valve noticeable with the windows down. It sounds better than you’d expect, also with a gravelly Megane RS-like note from the outside under hard acceleration.
Power is strong and traction too, thanks to its proper mechanical limited-slip differential. There are so many more positive things to say about this car. The chassis electronics are well calibrated (and ESP goes all the way off), the brakes are strong and resilient, coping with all the track time we threw at it at Winton. And this is a car you will want to stay out and do another dozen laps in.
On track, it’s fun, fast, engaging and a challenge to get the best out of. And almost all of the time you’re punting the Civic Type R hard, it feels contented and in control beneath you. This can be said of a surprisingly few performance cars. And while the Civic Type R looks a little out of place on our list to the above right, it absolutely deserves to be there.
Follow the Performance Car of the Year 2018
It’s a surprise packet. It’s an engineering achievement. It’s the Performance Car of the Year, and the performance Honda of the decade.
PCOTY Winner's Circle
The list you want your car to be on
1996 - Porsche 993 Turbo
1997 - BMW E36 M3
1998 - Porsche Boxster
1999 - Porsche 911 (996) Carrera
2000 - Porsche Boxster S
2001 - Nissan S15 200SX
2002 - BMW E46 M3
2003 - Porsche Boxster S
2004 - Lamborghini Gallardo
2005 - Porsche 997 Carrera S
2006 - Audi B7 RS4
2007 - Porsche 911 (997) GT3
2008 - Porsche 911 (997) GT2
2009 - Audi R8 V10/Nissan GT-R
2010 - Porsche 911 (997.2) GT3 RS
2011 - Nissan GT-R
2012 - Porsche 911 (991) Carrera S
2013 - Audi R8 V10 Plus
2014 - Porsche 911 Turbo
2015 - Porsche 911 (991) GT3
2017 - Porsche 911 Turbo S
2018 - Honda Civic Type R
2018 HONDA CIVIC TYPE R SPECS:
Body: 5-door, 4-seat hatch
Engine: 1998cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo
Bore/Stroke: 86.0 x 85.9mm
Compression ratio: 9.8:1
Power: 228kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 400Nm @ 2500-4500rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Kerb weight: 1380kg
Suspension: struts, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (f); multi-links, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (r)
Brakes: 350mm ventilated/drilled discs, 4-piston calipers (f); 305mm solid discs, single-piston calipers (r)
Wheels: 20.0 x 8.5-inch (f/r)
Tyres Sizes: 245/35 R20 (f/r)
Tyres: Continental SportContact6
0-400m: 13.66sec @ 174.92km/h
Morley – 1st
I can’t believe it’s a tail-dragger. How good is this thing? Utterly.
Campbell – 1st
Honestly, I expected this car to be a piece of crap. I was spectacularly wrong.
Newman – 1st
Looks weird, interior is meh, who cares? An incredible driver’s car.
Robson – 1st
Just wow. Phenomenal on road and track. It’s made me fall in love with driving again.
Reynolds – 1st
Great balance, brakes, steering, gearbox and torque. Unreal fun!