Torque on the street

We test out the world’s hottest hatch, the Honda Civic Type R, by tak­ing a spin with a former F1 cham­pion

Esquire (UK) - - Style -

Has the hot hatch grown up? Once sneer­ily but un­der­stand­ably dubbed the hooli­gan hatch for its as­so­ci­a­tions with un­nec­es­sary spoil­ers, pro­vin­cial car parks and farty sound­ing en­gines, it’s now an ul­tra-com­pet­i­tive field where the best have the kind of Jekyll and Hyde per­son­al­ity that can switch be­tween the Can­non­ball Run and the school run; that can not only do dough­nuts but also store them away with the shop­ping be­fore a se­date drive home.

To test out how far this dual per­son­al­ity has de­vel­oped on the Honda Civic Type R, I asked McLaren-Honda F1 driver Fer­nando Alonso to take me for a cruise around Berk­shire’s mean streets.

In the new realm of hot hatches, this is a car with strong claims to be king. It cer­tainly looks the part. Just enough ag­gro add-ons and bodykit not to lose face with its ri­vals but stop­ping just short of ridicu­lous. And the en­gine doesn’t sound as anti-so­cial to neigh­bours and passers-by, de­liv­er­ing more of a purr than a needy whine.

If I’m ex­pect­ing a white-knuckle ride around these subur­ban roads, the re­al­ity is quite dif­fer­ent. Alonso is driv­ing as if he’s on his li­cence test.

“All the adren­a­line goes out in the cir­cuit so I’m quite calm. Maybe peo­ple ex­pect dif­fer­ent things but nor­mally the re­ac­tion when peo­ple drive along­side me is that I drive too slow and they are dis­ap­pointed,” he ex­plains as an el­derly cou­ple cruise past us in the out­side lane.

It’s per­fect for the pur­poses of our

test, how­ever, be­cause this is where many hot hatches, in­clud­ing the pre­vi­ous Civic Type R, strug­gle. “It’s com­fort­able,” Alonso says. “Com­par­ing it with the old Type R which was a bit stiff and more re­ac­tive, this one feels like you can use it a bit more in ev­ery­day life. For an ex­tremely sporty car there is still the com­fort there.”

He’s right, the old car could leave you feel­ing edgy and rat­tled but this car is calm. Like Alonso him­self. He ad­mits to be­ing at his most re­laxed at the track (“When you jump in the car and put your hel­met on you are alone in­side your en­vi­ron­ment”) and in his free time, when he’s cy­cling. “I would go with my fa­ther as a kid, en­joy­ing the out­doors. And in the last 10 or 15 years I did a lot of cy­cling on my own and with friends,” he says, but de­nies he’d take it up se­ri­ously af­ter rac­ing: “When I stop F1 I want to have more free time not less.”

The car’s cabin hits the right bal­ance be­tween sporty and re­laxed, with a clean dis­play panel and slick bucket seats. And when you switch out of Com­fort mode into Sport or the track-fo­cused R+, the Type R’s per­son­al­ity changes dra­mat­i­cally.

As an in­di­ca­tor of what this car is ca­pa­ble of when the shack­les are off, it holds the pres­ti­gious Nür­bur­gring fron­twheel ti­tle record. “It’s the only place you can prob­a­bly push a car to its lim­its within a safe en­vi­ron­ment,” Alonso ex­plains when asked why the Nür­bur­gring is still the bench­mark for speed tests. It says much for the work done on the car’s aero­dy­nam­ics and sus­pen­sion that it achieved this feat via a rel­a­tively mod­est 316bhp 2.0-litre tur­bocharged en­gine.

Some­what sur­re­ally, two horses ap­pear round a bend up ahead, block­ing our path. A good if un­ex­pected test of the brakes. Alonso weaves be­tween the mo­tion­less beasts with­out any fuss and with­out caus­ing any equine dam­age.

Well, he is a former F1 world cham­pion.

From a stand­ing start we get a taste of the Type R’s ac­cel­er­a­tion.

The gear­box, only avail­able in a sat­is­fy­ing stick shift, is one of the best around, and the 5.8secs quoted to 62mph feels a lit­tle con­ser­va­tive when the pedal is down. But maybe that’s not the point. There’s a sassy con­fi­dence about this car that doesn’t need to lurch and howl around town to an­nounce it­self. And in the hot hatch world, that’s grown-up be­hav­iour.

THE DRIVE by Will Hersey

Fer­nando Alonso and the 2017 Honda Civic Type R

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