2018 Honda Civic Type R First Drive: It was worth the wait

Bravo Honda, bravo. The 2018 Civic Type R is the company's most powerful car ever to be sold stateside. Indeed, Honda's people are unofficially referring to it as the fastest front-wheel drive "road legal racecar" on the road. In short, no, the "R" in the name plate isn't just for show.

It starts out with the 10th-generation Civic, but while it may be the fifth iteration of the car to wear the Type R badge, it's the first to make it – officially, at least – to US shores. That alone was enough to build the pre-release hype. That you're getting so much tech packed into this little gem for only $33,900 arguably seals the deal. Still, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

It's got no shortage of attitude, but then again there's no lack of power to back that up. As wild as it looks, the engine is no laughing matter.

A highly tuned, direct-injected 2-liter turbocharged inline 4, with an output of 306 HP and 295 lb.-ft of torque, maximum power comes in at 2,500 and sticks around until you hit 4,500 rpm. Whether you're passing a slow driver on the highway, or blasting through a straight on the track, 3,800 to 4,000 rpm in my opinion is where the engine really gets into its perfect stride. Pleasing purists, it only comes with a six-speed manual transmission – no automatic for the lazy left-footers – with close ratios and buttery smooth shifting. If you're not keen on the whole heel-toe thing, that's alright too, because it has Honda's first ever rev-matching system.

That proved critical in smoothing out the up- or downshifts, avoiding mismatched revs even as you're getting aggressive with your gearchanges. In +R mode or Track mode, it trickles in a greater level of exhaust note too, with the center resonator in the tri-top tailpipes emphasizing the lower, full-bodied sound while simultaneously smoothing out the higher frequencies. All the same, out on the road I did feel a couple of times that the tailpipes were more for visual show than auditory. I wouldn't say no to more of an angry yowl; the best you're getting is the sound of an angry four-banger reviving up.

On track or road, the 2018 Civic Type R performs exactly as you might have expected if you were to judge it based on looks alone. In fact, at a recent gathering in Tochigi at the Honda Meeting 2017, Honda executives made a big deal of the idea that the driving experience should more closely match whatever check the styling is writing. In the case of this particular hot hatch, that's a fairly complicated check.

Indeed, it's bristling with styling tweaks and aero. When was the last time you saw roof-mounted vortex generators on a road car? It'd be almost bordering on the embarrassing, were they not so functionally-useful: they channel air down to the overly-large rear wing. That then adds more downforce at speeds that'll surely land you with a massive speeding ticket or, worse, in jail. Up front, winglets guide air around the wheel openings, as well as ridges along the sides to direct air around the body. The engine is also air cooled via an opening on the hood, which doubles as a way to help reduce lift. On the track, the front brakes can get hot super-quick: Honda added vertical air intakes to temper that, strategically placed on the outer edge of the fog lights.

Turn one of Quebec's ICAR circuit mimics a sharp switchback on a winding road, just the sort of place where things can go seriously wrong if you're carrying too much speed. I suspect my ride-along coach wasn't particularly thrilled with me for pushing the Type R to the limit by testing out under- and oversteer coming in hot. Indeed, optimal cruising speed through turn one is 40-45 mph. Anything faster than that, you'll end up left foot braking in the hope of redirecting some of the weight around, lest the car get all out of balance. Best thing about it is, it's all communicative to the idiot behind the wheel, and even silly driving is fixable.

When driven properly, though, the Type R is at its most rewarding. It's happiest in third and fourth gear, with rev-matching taking care of the "pro driver" work on the track so that you can instead focus on smoothing your inputs on the gas and steering. The flat torque curve provides power as expected, even when I'd forgotten that I was in fourth gear when I really should've been in third. Smooth is fast and fast is smooth, the punchy Civic a willing collaborator rather than a beast to be tamed. It's something I really love about the Type R over Ford's Focus RS.

That ease doesn't mean the Honda is any tamer, mind. In fact, the Type R scored a lap time of 7 minutes and 43 seconds at the infamous Nurburgring Nordschleife, making it the speediest front-wheel drive car on the circuit.

Honda's chassis and dynamics engineers have earned their keep. We've come to expect torque steer from high-power front-wheel drive cars, since the front wheels are trying to deal with both power and steering. Somehow, that's something the 2018 Civic Type R manages to avoid. On the road, it was only when I provoked things drastically – very rapidly switching lanes to pass – when a fledgling hint of torque steer kicked in. We can credit the helical limited-slip differential and adaptive suspension for that talent, since without them keeping the 306 HP in check would be a difficult task.

They're not the only changes over the regular Civic. For the Type R, Honda throws in dual-axis suspension with adaptive dampers, a higher negative camber, and 200-percent greater spring rate stiffness. The car's front track is 2.5-inches wider, while the rear increases 1.6-inches, using a multi-link configuration. The rear stabilizer bars are also 240-percent stiffer, and other Type R-exclusive features include new control arms and knuckles, and new electric steering.

Were you to judge the daily drivability of the Type R based purely on its looks, I'd totally understand if you expected it to be rough going. Turns out, with specific damper settings for each of the three driving modes – including a Comfort mode for taming the experience – it's not actually the case. Sport mode is the default, so it does require the push of a button to switch it into a kid-shuttling machine. The adaptive dampers are great for rougher roads, smoothing out the ride nicely.

Even so, the stiffer ride handling in Sport mode shouldn't give your family much to complain about. It's the most balanced of the three modes, with enough immediate steering response and feedback without it being jerky. +R mode is my favorite, though, on the road or the track. The car feels much more connected and direct, with very little assist on the power-steering. This is the Type R's firmest setting and, when paired with the low profile 245/30 series Continental SportContact tires on 20-inch wheels, you get a superior ride whether you're in Comfort or +R.

Behind the wheel, you're strapped into Honda's very own sports seats. They're great when you're driving but, as a passenger, my rear end wasn't too fond of the bolsters. They're not so much uncomfortable as very "present" in their enthusiastic support. The seats are bright red, and just as "in your face" as the exterior; they go well with the whole red and black fabric, and red contrast-stitching theme that Honda picked for the cabin. The steering wheel has a nice grip and the flat-bottom matches the sportiness of the car. If I've a complaint, it's that I wish Honda had placed the drive mode select control on the wheel, where it would be easier to switch when you're driving in earnest. Nonethrless, all the touch points feel great including the aluminum shift knob.

The 10th-generation Civic made big strides in its infotainment system, and they're shared by the Type R. Its 7-inch touch display is responsive and easy to use, and it includes navigation, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto. Other creature comforts include a 12-speaker, 540-watt stereo system, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated seats, keyless ignition, LED headlights, and a massive cargo space when the rear seats are folded down. To top it all off, there's a serial number plate on the console to make you feel special for having purchased the Type R.

With all that power, you can still expect to get 25 mpg combined and 28 on the highway, though you might need to rein in your excesses along the way. It's also noteworthy that super-unleaded fuel is required.

With expectations so high, it would've been all too easy for the 2018 Civic Type R to miss the mark in one way or another. Too tame for its enthusiast audience, perhaps, or too extreme for everyday use. Instead, Honda has taken a great hatchback and made it sublime. Indeed, the only thing more jaw-dropping than the combination of aggressive style and usable performance is the mark-up Honda dealers are slapping on the first cars. Even so, I suspect they'll sell every last one of them.