After spending a day pent-up inside a garage, the Honda Civic Type-R was begging for a good thrashing. I could see the disdain in its headlights; an insular squint that translated into something along the lines of, “You dragged me 1000km away from home to sit inside this gloomy barn and converse with a tractor? I’m not impressed.”
Yeah, it was a slap in the face to say the least. So after treating the Silver Samurai to a quick wash and wax (those spattered bugs are now history), I strapped myself into the driver’s seat and headed off to what’s always been one of my most favourite ribbons of tarmac: Franschhoek Pass. A snake of pristine bitumen that twists and turns above one of the Cape Wineland’s most famous villages, this is a testing strip of back road that wouldn’t be out of place in a WRC special stage. From swooping double S-bends to gnarly hairpins that can easily rearrange the lie of your internal organs, it offers up a slice of real gourmet driving goodness; a feast best enjoyed with a feisty hot hatch.
So after a slow cruise through the town’s main drag – a street lined with tour busses, tourists and numerous boutique eateries – I turned left at the Huguenot Monument and prepared the Honda for an all-out assault. With its VSA neutered and the now-famous Haute Cabriere wine cellar shrinking in my rear-view mirror, I then kicked hard on the Civic’s throttle and watched as the tachometer needle hurtled towards 8000rpm.
With the two-litre iVTEC engine screaming like a witch sizzling on some medieval stake, it soon became evident that these were the conditions that Honda’s Type-R was born to revel in. For not only does the Civic have a seemingly limpet-like hold on terra firma, but it’s also been endowed with a chassis that encourages you to unleash every fibre of your inner Stig. Amazingly it gets better thanks to a very well weighted and feelsome steering setup; pedals that are brilliantly conducive to a bit heel-and-toe trickery and a gearbox that’s almost as slick as the one in the S2000.
Keeping those revs up – anything below 5500rpm will see you bog down – the Type-R made short work of the ascend, it’s nose cutting through the bends and slicing past slow moving traffic with the aggression of a katana-wielding ninja. Of course unlike all the Civic’s force-fed rivals, it takes a lot more concentration and, dare I say it, skill to keep this kind of pace up over any given length of time. But, and rather crucially, I found this just sinks you deeper into the overall driving experience.
For whereas a Ford Focus ST relies very much on a turbo to go fast, all the Civic has going for it is the amount of bravado lying behind its steering wheel. Wimp out and you’ll go nowhere fast but commit with all the ballsy zeal of James Hunt and you’ll find that it’s almost every bit as rapid as any member of the blower brigade.
Unfortunately after about my fourth blitz up the mountain, it’s peaks now alive with the sound of iVTEC, it became evident that the Type-R isn’t without a few foibles. The first, and probably the most annoying, can be found in a most vexing mount of understeer when you’re really pressing hard on the limit.
Fortunately it’s not quite as bad as what you’d experience in something like an Alfa 147 – a car that just refused to turn in – but it does feel woefully out of place in a machine that’s otherwise been very well setup. Needless to say this soon sees you adopt the textbook “slow-in-fast-out” technique when it comes to tighter sets of corners. Be careful just how fast you do go out, however, because if you get too hard on the gas that inside wheel has a nasty habit of spinning uncontrollably. Yep, what this car is screaming for is a Limited Slip Differential.
Perhaps not as serious, but still worth mentioning, is a tendency for those Type-R branded brakes to fade a little after a bout of hard stopping. Particularly when hoofing back down towards the Franschhoek valley, I found that the Civic’s anchors lost some of their bite. Granted, it was a scorchingly hot summer’s day but for a dedicated performance car I would certainly like more staying power in the braking department.
Regardless, pulled over on the top of the pass for one of those brooding, Steve McQueen-esque stares down at the vista below, it was hard not to be impressed by what the Samurai was capable of. I’ll agree that Honda’s hot hatchback isn’t as sorted as VW’s new get-in-and-gun Golf GTI but, with the right driver behind the wheel, it can be just as entertaining. Next on our must-drive list is a stint up Bain’s Kloof. Needless to say the Type-R is licking its lips.