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2023 Honda Civic Type R First Drive Review: The King of Hot-Hatch Hill

Thanks to some tasteful updates, the new Civic Type R remains the car to beat in its segment.

2023 Honda Civic Type R
A hero in a hatch shell.
Honda

When it first arrived in the US in 2017, the Honda Civic Type R quickly became one of, if not the most approachable yet exciting sports car within spitting distance of the average new-car transaction price. The segment has grown considerably since then, but even with some expanded (and impressive) competition, this new Type R is so thoroughly competent and capable that I still wouldn't think of putting anything else in my driveway.

Honda takes the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach with the Type R's powertrain. Its 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 picks up a new turbocharger and a revised intake, bumping output ever so slightly to 315 hp and 310 pound-feet of torque. It's a fantastic engine; boost takes very little time to build up, and when it does, it feels strong but controllable. Powerful front-wheel-drive cars tend to exhibit torque steer, where the car pulls laterally under acceleration, but the Type R's unique front suspension virtually eliminates those unwanted motions. I smash the loud pedal, and the CTR heads nowhere but straight ahead.

It's raining almost the entire time I'm snaking my way around the roads leading north out of Napa, California, but the Civic Type R never feels twitchy or uncomfortable in inclement weather. It's chilly, too, but the standard 265/30-series Michelin Pilot Sport 4S summer tires still provide prodigious amounts of grip.

Just like its predecessor, ride quality is excellent when the adaptive dampers are set to their default stiffness. Smaller 19-inch alloy wheels and slightly taller tire sidewalls give the new Type R just a bit more plushness than before, which is appreciated on this mildly craggy asphalt. Find some smoother pavement, though, and swapping to Sport or Plus R modes ditches what little body roll exists in favor of serious lateral stability.

And then there's the shifter. The standard six-speed manual transmission has a shorter throw than before, but the basic tenets remain the same. It feels great going into every gear, encouraging me to shift more often than I probably need to. The clutch pedal's bite point is communicated well, making it dummy simple to launch the Type R smoothly every time. Rev-matching downshifts are turned on by default, and it's one of the best systems on the market; no matter how fast my hands and feet are moving, the tachometer needle is always where it needs to be at the right time. If you're wondering about rev hang, wonder no more: there isn't any. It's spectacular.

From inside, you'll never even notice the wing is there. It's perfectly positioned to maintain visibility.

Honda

Sound was not the old Civic Type R's strong suit, but things have improved for the 2023 model. A revised tri-tip exhaust with active valving gives the Type R a much more sedate around-town demeanor, but as I dig deeper into the accelerator's throw, the four-cylinder growl gains some appreciable volume. That valve in the center tailpipe keeps the car from droning at higher speeds under lighter throttle, too. It doesn't have the outright theater of Hyundai's N cars -- there are no massive pops and crackles as I let off the gas -- but I like it more than the previous Type R.

Despite all this sharp-edged stuff, the 2023 Civic Type R is still mighty practical. Interior changes are largely ornamental, like a slightly thicker steering wheel, an aluminum shift knob, red carpets and some slick metal trim. The Type R's standard sport seats are supportive without feeling claustrophobic. Visibility is just as good as it is on the standard hatchback; yes, there's a big ol' wing out back, but it lines up perfectly with the top of the rear windshield, so it's easy to forget that it's even there. Pop the trunk, and the five-door offers loads of space for suitcases, backpacks, groceries, you name it. Thumb through the 9-inch touchscreen infotainment system, and you'll find wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, in addition to satellite radio and all the other usual creature comforts. After all, it's still a family car -- just, you know, a really cool one.

Unlike the last Civic Type R, which had fender appliques to increase its width, the new model has wider bodywork created for this specific car.

Honda

The most interesting part of the Civic Type R's interior is its new digital gauge cluster. In most modes, it's not much different from what you get on other higher-end Civic trims, but in Plus R mode, everything is rearranged for maximum attack. The tachometer stretches across the top of the display, and a set of LEDs above that prevent me from ever needing to look down to know when to shift. And, unlike the Toyota GR Corolla, if I do look down, all the icons are in places that make sense.

As Napa's back roads lead me to the front gate of Sonoma Raceway, the rain is not letting up. While this is a less-than-ideal situation for track driving, it does offer a unique peek at how the 2023 Civic Type R turns lemons into lemonade. Tackling corners in the extreme wet requires maintaining a delicate balance. Apply too much throttle, and the front end pushes as the tires struggle to maintain traction. Lift off the gas at the wrong time, and the rear end will rotate. Hit the brakes just a bit too hard, and it's ABS City, USA. The Type R's stability and traction control systems are quite capable, so even though the limits are much lower than normal, it's not expressly difficult to keep the car under control.

No, the standard wireless device charger won't keep your phone in place during serious track antics. Throw it in the center console or the glove compartment.

Honda

Thankfully, the next day is nothing but sunshine, and most of Sonoma's standing water disappeared overnight. I only have a few laps to suss out the CTR's on-track demeanor, but it feels damn near unflappable, even without the dealer-option Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires. Halfway through a turn, it's easy to tell when I'm reaching the limits of adhesion. As the turn ends, I can lean onto the throttle a little early and let the differential sort out traction while the car hustles its way to the next corner. The steering response is quicker than the old model, making the complicated esses in the back part of the track easier to link together. For tighter radii, a smidge of trail braking brings the front end right where I want it. At the end of each straight, the four-piston Brembo front brakes put in work, its 13.8-inch rotors helping scrub speed in a hurry. At no point did I feel like I was missing out with only two driven wheels.

All-wheel drive? Never heard of it. Don't need it.

Honda

The only real bummer with the 2023 Honda Civic Type R is its $43,990 price tag, which includes $1,095 in destination charges. Yes, it's very well equipped (minus heated seats, which are still frustratingly absent), but this front-wheel-drive hot hatch comes in about $10,000 higher than a Hyundai Elantra N, and roughly $7,000 above the AWD Toyota GR Corolla's base trim.

Those are both great cars, but I stand firm that the Civic Type R beats them in terms of how the car feels and how the Type R makes me feel when I'm driving it. It wants everything I'm willing to give it, and in return, it provides one of the most sublime behind-the-wheel experiences a person can find for less than six figures. It's still the king of the hill in my book.


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.