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2023 Honda Civic Type R First Drive Review: The Hooligan Grows Up

Even with newfound refinement, Honda's sweet little hot hatch will still give you the giggles.

2023 Honda Civic Type R
There's nothing wrong with a hot hatch exercising some aesthetic maturity.
Honda

About halfway around Harris Hill Raceway, traditionally affectless Formula 1 driver Max Verstappen lets out the tiniest giggle. He's single-handedly -- like, literally using one hand -- sliding the new Honda Civic Type R around a bumpy turn, the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires begging for mercy while Max tests the limits of adhesion. He slams the shifter into third gear and goes hard on the gas as the Type R bouncy-bounces around the asphalt. "Just give it full throttle here," he says. "It's the only way."

Seriously, Max is freaking caning the Civic. And from the passenger seat, all I can do is giggle, too. The Civic Type R clearly loves being thrashed, and at the hands of an F1 champ, this car's inner hooligan has every opportunity to shine. That inherent playfulness was one of the previous Civic Type R's best traits, and not an ounce of that spirit was lost in the development of the new car. Instead, Honda worked on smoothing out many of Type R's rougher edges, and the Civic is better for it. 

The big win: The Type R no longer looks like an anime character. The handsome styling of the 11th-gen Civic totally works when pumped up for hot-hatch duty, and now the Type R looks like a car an adult could reasonably pull off. Sure, there's still a big wing out back serving as the last bastion of immaturity, but at least it's functional, and like the old Type R, it doesn't impede rear visibility.

The interior is similarly straightforward, and carries over mostly unchanged from the standard Civic. There's a Type R-specific steering wheel with a thicker rim and red stitching, in addition to an aluminum shift knob, metal trim on the console and awesome red carpets. The new sport seats are comfy as heck and easier to get in and out of but offer lots of side and thigh support. The reshaped seats don't push your head forward if you're wearing a helmet, which is helpful for getting a good seating position on track.

The interior doesn't change much from the standard Civic, which is good, because it's pretty darn fabulous.

Honda

The Civic's digital gauge cluster has a new display motif for the Type R's hottest Plus R drive mode, complete with F1-style shift indicator lights. Atop the dash, you'll find the same 9-inch touchscreen as other Civic models, with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a relatively simple -- if basic -- complement of features. Driver-assistance tech gets a boost this year, too, with the addition of traffic sign recognition, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, bolstering standard features like adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning, lane-keeping assist and lane-departure warning.

You'll hear more about the Civic Type R's on-road livability when we drive it again next month, but for now, my test time is strictly limited to a few laps around Harris Hill. The 2.0-liter turbo I4 engine is a treat, making 315 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque -- increases of 9 hp and 15 lb-ft over the old Type R. There's the slightest bit of initial lag as the turbo spools up, but the full torque thrust hits hard just above 2,500 rpm, and the power band is wide enough that you can hold third gear through corners where you might normally want to downshift to second.

The Type R continues to use Honda's automatic rev-matching tech, which the company says is now 10% quicker than before. You can turn it off if you prefer to heel-and-toe yourself, but it works just fine when left on. Plus, automatic rev-matching is useful for day-to-day driving in traffic. It also makes the transmission a bit more forgiving, which is great for newbie stick-shifters.

Zip zip zip.

Honda

On track, you really notice the 2023 Type R's more responsive steering, which feels better on initial turn-in and delivers slightly more feedback through the wheel. The suspension is a little better, too, keeping the Civic frisky and agile without being overly stiff. When you push it hard, there's an appropriate amount of roll that gives a higher sensation of speed, but the Civic encourages you to keep hustling. This car loves to attack corners, the four-piston Brembo brake calipers clamping down on 13.8-inch front rotors to quickly scrub off speed with only a slight shimmy from the hatch's rear end. My past experience with Cup 2 tires leads me to believe they offer tremendous grip, but I'll have to sample this setup again when I'm not getting an F1 driver's sloppy seconds.

Those Cup 2s are an optional tire sold at the dealer level, FYI, with the standard rolling stock consisting of 265/30-series Michelin Pilot Sport 4S rubbers wrapping 19-inch wheels. Those wheels are an inch smaller in diameter than the 20s from the old Civic Type R, but they're wider, which is a win-win for ride quality and traction.

My only complaint is that the Type R still doesn't sound particularly good, even with the 2023 model's improved exhaust flow and active valve design. It just doesn't bark like a Hyundai Elantra N or Toyota GR Corolla, but at least that super cool tri-tip exhaust setup remains intact.

Next month, we'll tell you all about how the Civic Type R feels on the street.

Honda

Those compact performers from Hyundai and Toyota will be the Civic Type R's strongest competitors, especially since they both undercut the Honda's $43,990 base price (including $1,095 for destination). An Elantra N starts at $33,245 while the GR Corolla starts at $36,995, though if you want Toyota's hella-hot Morizo Edition, that crests $50K. Woof.

Assuming the Civic Type R isn't a total chore to drive on the street (how could it be?), it'll continue to be one of the best all-around performance cars money can buy. Better looking and better equipped, the 2023 Type R is a grown-up machine that's even easier to live with, but it packs a serious punch that'll make even the most stoic of F1 drivers smile.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of CNET's staff are our own, and we do not accept paid editorial content.