Honda’s unreal Civic Type R is, without a doubt, the new king of the hot hatch castle – that is, if you don’t mind the bodywork
2017 Honda Civic Typer vs. Mini Cooper JCW 3 Door
Welcome to a special series devoted to skewering the automotive ramblings of young punk Nick Tragianis with the infinite wisdom of old dude Brian Harper. This week, the duo find out if the Honda Civic Type R’s hype is real by pitting it against the exceptionally charming — and loud — John Cooper Works-tuned Mini Cooper.
Nick Tragianis: Consider this a public service announcement for those who think a front-drive performance car is an oxymoron: You’re wrong. Just because it’s the de-facto choice among boring econoboxes and the harbinger of torque steer in higher-horsepower applications, doesn’t mean anything pushing more than 250 hp to the front wheels isn’t worthy of a second glance among hooligans.
Case in point, the 2017 Honda Civic Type R. It’s the car Honda fanboys and fangirls in North America have been eagerly anticipating since, well, forever. As for the hype? Oh, don’t get me started. With 306 hp, a six-speed manual, adjustable suspension and a whole host of other souped-up bits and bobs, the Type R has a lot to live up to. But you’d be forgiven for blowing it off, especially when its main competitors are AWD.
You might think the Type R would be the king of torque steer; I’ll admit I did. Well, I’m here to eat a big slice of humble pie, because I was wrong. The Type R is the new king of hot hatches, and I doubt anything in the class north of $40,000 holds a candle to the performance. Good luck arguing your way out of this one, old dude.
Brian Harper: Oh, I’ll give full props to the Type R. Being old enough to remember when the so-called experts said you couldn’t get more than 200 hp out of a front-wheel drivetrain, to see 306 ponies from the R — without torque steer — is a triumph of engineering. And the six-speed, shortthrow manual it’s bolted to is so precise and slick that it reminds me of Honda’s late, lamented S2000 sports car. Yes, I said it!
There’s just one problem. The Type R is fugly with a capital F. C’mon, is there anything from the tuner-boy playbook that Honda’s designers didn’t hang on this hatchback? Talk about a cliché. I felt like some old guy whose grandkid threw him the keys to the car and said take it out for a spin.
That’s why I brought Mini’s giantkiller John Cooper Works (JCW) small hatch into play. Yes, its 228-hp, 2.0-L turbo-four is puny by comparison, but it’s a sophisticated beastie that also displays little to no torque steer when pushed. My history with this car goes back to the first-generation version, which I and my co-driver campaigned vigorously in the 2004 Targa Newfoundland. There might have been faster cars in that rally, but few could outrun it in the tighter, twistier stages. Generation three is simply more of the same.
NT: When it comes to a Mini, “more of the same” is a very good thing. The three-door JCW is a wonderful, peppy, jumping bean of a car. It’s quick, it’s got both charm and attitude, and the door chime makes me chuckle because it sounds like it’s saying, “I’m a Mi-ni!”
But it’s not perfect. It suffers from expensivus optionitis, a term I totally didn’t just make up in reference to the fact that, as is the case with many BMW and Mini vehicles, options can be very pricey. Although the JCW starts at $33,740, the one we’re playing with hovers around $46,000 as tested. That’s $46,000 for 228 hp, front-wheel drive and an automatic transmission.
So, while the JCW isn’t quite a clearcut Type R competitor, it can certainly reach Type R territory. The R is a onesize-fits-all deal, starting at just under $41,000 — and that’s it. No options, no packages. Fully loaded. What you see is what you get. And when you start optioning out the Mini past the $40K mark, it’s clear the Honda has the performance-per-dollar edge.
The Type R is just unreal. With nary a hint of turbo lag or torque steer, a shifter/clutch combo that’s quite simply a work of art, and an absolutely perfect driving position, the Type R is on a completely different level. The Mini JCW might be a giant killer, but the Civic Type R’s capabilities are magical.
BH: Yes, they are. And, ultimately, I will agree with you: The Type R is formidable, putting the power down like no other production front-drive car I’ve driven. And it’s not just the acceleration; the handling is quite extraordinary as well.
That’s big rubber at all four corners: P245/30ZR20 Continental SportContact 6 high-performance tires. Scrubbing off speed are 350-millimetre cross-drilled rotors clamped by fourpiston Brembo calipers in front and 305-mm rotors with single-piston calipers in the rear. From a performance view, I’d love to throw this Civic into Targa competition.
The point I have to make about the JCW is that it’s a more sophisticated car. I feel young when I’m behind the wheel, but I feel foolish driving the Type R. But your view on the Mini’s BMW-like pricing is well taken; it’s way too pricey as it was equipped. I’d be far more conservative with the options list, starting by dropping the $1,650 automatic transmission (with paddle shifters) for the standard sixspeed manual, which is lovely to shift in its own right. While the car is faster with the autobox, it doesn’t offer the same car-driver interaction as the stick. And both of these cars are about the experience.
NT: Oh, for sure. I can’t help but think the Mini would be far more of a hoot with a proper manual transmission, zero-to-100 times be damned. The rest of the JCW is just so playful, especially when you activate Track mode. The extra growl, snaps, cracks and pops are a gimmick, but it’s a very fun gimmick and certainly trounces the Type R. Honda really needs to step up its exhaust-note game.
As far as day-to-day livability goes, the two are well-matched. The Type R obviously has more cargo space and a functional back seat – and the front seats are simply fantastic – but the infotainment system needs some finessing. Navigating through the menus can be a bit of a chore, but the fact that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are both standard makes up for it. Still needs a volume knob, though. On the flip side, the Mini’s has better materials and infotainment, even if the cabin is a bit less functional.
BH: Yes, the Mini’s interior is as bright and bold as the car’s Chili Red paint job, with two-tone black/red Dinamica (a recycled faux suede) and leather seats (really supportive, by the way) that will set you back $2,250. And the dash area picks up the same colour theme. There are all sort of cool, all-optional playthings, such as the Harman/Kardon sound system, a heads-up display, sunroof, etc. Still, the Mini is strictly a 2+2 for anybody other than Munchkins. The Type R has all the necessities of a proper sport hatch, notably the instrumentation, but the cabin lacks the finesse of the JCW.
So, here’s the bottom line for me, kid. Though my history with the JCW runs deep — and I feel more at home driving it — I’m casting my vote for the Type R, solely due to its performance bona-fides. Simply, it takes the hot hatch to a new level. And, while I’ll be branded a heretic (or worse) by S2000 fanboys, I’d love to see Honda drop a nice two-seat convertible body on top of the Type R’s entire drivetrain. Yes, that would mean a front-wheel-drive sports car, but, c’mon, it would be a 306-horsepower sports car.
NT: See, the Civic Type R is ugly, but it’s a functional ugly – all those creases and vents are there for a reason, whether it’s improving aerodynamics, airflow or cooling. But I’m OK with that, considering the phenomenal performance. The Mini is charming and punchy, but it can get pricey real quick. If you’re pining for a hot hatch and performance is at the very top of your list, the Civic Type R is tough to beat. Until we properly pit it against the Ford Focus RS, that is.
2017 Honda Civic Type R.
2017 Mini Cooper JCW 3 Door.