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Honda Civic Type R TCR first drive review: Playing race car driver for a day

Honda’s turn-key Civic TCR racer is a $172,000 thrill ride.

It's not often I get nervous behind the wheel of a car, but as the Atlanta Speedwerks crew straps me into one of its two Honda Civic Type R TCR racers, I feel my heart rate quicken. The walkthrough of the ignition system and getting the sequential transmission in and out of gear doesn't faze me, but learning how to arm the fire extinguisher system and unlatch the window nets should I need to make a quick escape, well, that's something else.

My fear isn't so much for my own wellbeing, but more so that I don't want to do anything to hurt the $172,000 car with the crew and team owner and driver Todd Lamb watching from pit lane. His baby is without a doubt the most expensive Civic I've ever sat in, and one that needs to be racing in a couple of weeks at the next round of the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge series at New York's Watkins Glen International.

Now playing: Watch this: Honda Civic Type R TCR is one serious $172,000 race car

Super Civic

Why such a steep price tag for the TCR? Well, for one, it's a race car. But also because it's far from your $35,700 Civic Type R street car.

Beginning on the outside, you'll notice the aero-optimized composite body work, an adjustable front splitter, giant rear wing and 18-inch OZ wheels. Inside, this Civic is all business, with a full chromoly roll cage, digital gauge cluster with data logger, quick-release multi-function steering wheel, racing seat and pedal box, tunnel switch panel and fire extinguisher system. Anyone eagerly waiting to hear details about infotainment and safety tech systems should stop reading.

The TCR's suspension is also upgraded for serious track work with Öhlins dampers, heavy-duty front wishbone ball joints, massaged electric power steering, an adjustable rear antiroll bar and a beefier AP Racing brake setup.

The simple confines of the Civic Type R TCR is void of many creature comforts.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Under the hood, the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is a version of the one you'll find in the road-going Civic Type R, though output jumps from 306 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque to approximately 340 hp and 310 lb-ft. The output bump comes courtesy of custom engine mapping to run on 100-octane fuel, a larger intercooler, as well as a race-spec catalytic converter, exhaust, and air filter. Instead of the standard Type R's six-speed manual transmission, the TCR race car uses a six-speed Xtrac sequential gearbox, routing power to the front wheels.

On track

On the short but challenging 1.5-mile M1 Concourse track, the Atlanta Speedwerks-prepared Civic race car is an absolute riot. The power isn't intense, but it's delivered in a linear fashion to hustle out of corners and achieve triple-digit speeds down the half-mile straightaway. It also belts out a mean exhaust note -- well, four a four-cylinder engine, anyway.

The sequential gearbox whips through up- and downshifts in rapid fashion when pulling back on the steering wheel-mounted paddles. That, along with the mega-strong brakes, makes diving deep into corners a cinch, though drivers will have to get acclimated to firmer stomps on the middle pedal that are necessary to kill speed in a hurry.

What's most impressive about the TCR is how balanced and well-behaved of a front-wheel-drive rocket it is. Obviously, sticky Michelin racing tires with some heat scrubbed into them help matters a lot, making piloting the TCR a point-and-shoot affair even around M1's ridiculously tight hairpin. As long as you don't overcook it going in, the Civic claws to the apex with ease. Then, through the high-speed sweeper, it hunkers down with lots of grip, enabling you to build speed throughout.

For the most part, this is a friendly car to wheel around after you come to terms with the higher brake pedal effort, and lift-off oversteer tendencies. The back end steps further out than expected during one of my laps, but gathering it up is easy enough and I return the Civic to the trailer safe and sound with a goofy grin on my face. Sadly, I have to relinquish the controls after ever-so-briefly living out every enthusiast's dream of being a race car driver. It's among the coolest automotive experiences I've had to date.

Championship credentials

On track, the Civic Type R has proven to be a formidable TCR entry, battling it out in North America with the Audi RS3, Hyundai Veloster and Volkswagen GTI. Last season, RealTime Racing captured the TCR driver's championship with one in the World Challenge series. And this year, it's already chalked up class wins in the Michelin Pilot Challenge.

The Civic TCR is a proven platform with multiple race wins and a championship in North America on its resume.

My only problem now is coming up with the $172,000 to hand over to Honda Performance Development. In addition to the car, that'll get me off-track and on-track engine and electrical management support, parts service, and engineering support for one shakedown run. A spare package that includes extra suspension components, brake discs, and splitters is going to be needed, too, for a season of racing that costs another $21,000, putting this dream further out of reach.

I guess my best shot now is getting a ride with an existing team. Hey, Atlanta Speedwerks, you've seen what I can do behind the wheel. Call me!