Hot hatches have predominantly played the lead role in my memory bank of great drives. Simple, nonsense-free cars which combine practicality, affordability and point-to-point pace resonate with me like no other form of car. Great ones fit our challenging roads like a glove and it’s why the UK market continues to indulge its considerable obsession with pumped-up versions of humble hatchbacks.
Let’s face it, if you’re on a tight, twisty road with crests and undulations, you’re not going to enjoy the experience if you’re behind the wheel of a hugely expensive supercar. Instead of recalling corners and revelling in how the car feels, your mind will think back to the ear-splitting graunch of a carbon splitter kissing the asphalt and close calls with oncoming traffic. Just about every supercar is simply too wide for our favourite roads but the best hot hatches, on the other hand, excel.
My first hot hatch love came from Japan and although I would only have been eight when I first set eyes on its creamy Championship White hue, it’s resonated with me ever since as it began my obsession with Hondas of the famous Type R variety. That car was the import-only EK9, the first Civic to ever wear the famous moniker and one that was incredibly rare due to it never being on sale through Honda’s network of UK dealers.
Its spec sheet still makes for incredible reading: 182bhp at 8,200rpm, a naturally aspirated 1.6-litre engine, 1,073kg and all-important red Recaro seats – key in cementing its place in minds of impressionable youths. It set the bar high for its successors, which were available to buy from UK dealers from the EP3 onwards as the early noughties’ obsession with affordable, lightweight and characterful hot hatches really gathered steam.
The powertrain has always been the stand-out performer in Civic Type Rs, but in recent years the recipe has been radically changed and it now uses a turbocharged engine. The lithe, agile welterweight has become a true heavyweight and while that transformation and stark change of ethos may appear alarming at first glance, one which would almost certainly alienate its loyal following, the newest version – codenamed the FK8 – manages to capture every ounce of true Type R spirit while delivering a full-blooded 316bhp punch.
Its looks aren’t for everyone. You almost get the impression Honda’s designers have gone all out to provoke strait-laced Golf R owners which, in appearance terms, is the complete antithesis of the wild Civic. The triple-exit central exhaust, numerous wings, bulges, vents and carbon-effect trim would be scoffed at by owners of subtle hot hatches but I’ve always been one for look-at-me, in-your-face cars and the sheer outrage it causes is something I love.
It's all there for a reason, though, and each aero addition plays a part in hunkering the Type R down at speed. Vents have been positioned by engineers who know their stuff as the air is channelled around the Civic’s curves in order to make it more aerodynamic, reducing drag and in turn adding to its driving ability.
Open the door and you’re met with lashings of red trim – it’s on the fantastically supportive seats and the chunky steering wheel – but again it’ll have Golf R owners reaching for the sick bucket as it is rather low rate. The infotainment system is somewhat dim-witted and its graphics wouldn’t look out of place in a 15-year-old EP3, however it’s well-made, sturdy and spacious and those seats do claw back much-needed points.
It generally takes a straight bit of road, a corner, a few gear changes and using the brakes to find out what a car is all about and it took all of 100 yards for me to fall for the Type R. Key to its greatness is its powertrain – the engine and gearbox – which feels far more special than its £33,000 price would ever suggest. Simply put, its six-speed manual is up there with the best I’ve ever used and makes a mockery of its rivals’ gearboxes. The ball-topped lever fits your hand perfect but it’s its short throw action that’s to die for – and that’s before you even get on to how it works in perfect harmony with that muscular 2.0-litre turbo.
Traditional Type R fans who remember having to wring out engines to extract every bit of power will be in for a shock as there’s serious grunt everywhere. The majority of hot hatches use turbochargers these days, both for improved torque and efficiency, but they tend to feel breathless and do their best work below 5,000rpm, robbing the driver of holding on to a gear, but the Type R’s unit is a cracker and gets a new lease of life thanks to Honda’s famed VTEC cam technology.
There are three settings – Comfort, Sport and +R – which each progressively up the ante and offer very different traits to the Type R experience. Get in the car and it’ll be in Sport in its default mode; this is a good thing as it’s probably the best balance, but it takes about 30 seconds for curiosity to get the better of you before you select +R. It considerably weights up the steering, it brings in clever rev-matching on down changes, sharpens up throttle response and of course alters the dampers’ rigidity. It suits the car’s crazy look, its feel when you’re behind the wheel and gives the experience you crave from a car of this type.
The steering feel is fantastic and the handling feels otherworldly. You find yourself working the gearbox, sneaking in perhaps unnecessary shifts just to revel in the rev-matching aspect +R brings to the equation as the system optimises the engine’s revs to match the intended gear, subsequently leaving you better placed in the powerband. Sure, some roads do prove too much for its harsher setting and it’s that point when you slacken off the settings, but on most it’s simply not an issue and just feels right for the Type R and the type of car it is.
Given it’s remained front-wheel-drive, it won’t get near a Golf R off the line but its 0-60mph time of 5.7 seconds is still impressive and it’ll hit 169mph flat out as it’s free from the electronically-limited shackles its German rivals have while the brakes, made by Brembo, have huge amounts of stopping power. However, it’s the way the pedal feels which is most impressive: there’s no sponginess, none of that confidence-sapping, disconcerting travel and its modulation is a revelation.
Memorable drives become regular in it. There aren’t many cars for sale that offer that unbeatable pound-for-pound experience and if you’re after an out-there hot hatch which somehow, even in this day and age, instils the magic of its predecessors while putting its own unique twist on things, there’s nothing quite like it.
In most cars there’s something I dislike but the Type R – in my opinion at least – is a true great and one which will be remembered among the very best hot hatches. It’s a true mini exotic, almost a Porsche 911 GT3 in hot hatch form, which feels far more special than its price would have you believe.