2020 Honda Civic Type R review: Better living through technology
It took quite some time for Honda to finally bring a Civic Type R to the US, but when it did, Americans were left staring down one of the best driver's cars in ages. It quickly launched itself to near-deity status among Honda fans and critics alike. So, where could Honda possibly go from there? For the 2020 model year, the automaker did some nipping and tucking that, in nearly every way, somehow made this already-great hot hatch even better.
The biggest gripe I hear about the Civic Type R, regardless of model year, focuses on its hyperstylized aesthetics. There's no getting around how garish this five-door is, because no matter the angle, your eyes will gravitate to yet another oddball vortex generator, dive plane or intake duct. While some of the vents are, in fact, largely for show, there is a fair bit of actual engineering tucked away in here. In the 2020 refresh, Honda enlarged the grille to let more air across an improved radiator for better cooling in high-performance situations, but that had the downside of reducing downforce, so the automaker also adjusted the front spoiler to make up for that. Some new body-color pieces help break up the dark masses of monotony on the lower parts of both bumpers, but to be honest, most folks won't notice anything's changed outside.
The Type R's interior receives some more notable updates, for better or for worse. The steering wheel is now wrapped in Alcantara suede, which provides a nice grip but will certainly wear to an iffy patina in time, especially if your hands tend to be sweaty -- it should help in winter, though, since cold leather is never fun to touch. The interior isn't too much different from the Civic otherwise, sharing the same excellent build quality and unique dashboard layout, albeit with some red accents and faux-carbon-fiber trim. The seats, which are specific to the Type R, provide excellent bolstering and are mighty comfortable for long stretches. It is, however, a major bummer that the front seats aren't heated, considering literally every one of the Type R's competitors figured out how to jam some elements into the cushioning. As a Midwesterner, sometimes I wonder if Honda thought about places outside California when assembling this thing.
You might not think of the Type R as a family car, but it's still a mass-market hatchback underneath all this frippery. The front half of the car is loaded with storage, including two capacious cubbies on the front end of the center console, as well as a deep, modular cubby farther back containing the sliding cup holders. The second row only seats two individuals -- there's a hard-plastic insert with cup holders and storage between 'em -- but leg- and headroom is more than ample for a car of its size. Out back, the hatchback holds an impressive 25.7 cubic feet of groceries or mulch or whatever, which is more than the Volkswagen Golf R or Hyundai Veloster N can manage.
No matter your opinion on the 2020 Civic Type R's aesthetics, there's no denying just how good this car is to drive. To me, the Type R represents one of the most sublime performance-car experiences that can be had for under $50,000 -- or, hell, $100,000. It's been slightly sharpened for 2020, too, thanks to ball-joint and bushing upgrades front and rear. Turn-in precision was already one of the Type R's strong suits, thanks in part to properly weighted, lively steering, and the small underbody tweaks give me a miniscule but still noticeable improvement in handling. Whenever a corner approaches, the Type R is never caught off guard, ready to throw its weight to the outside wheel and dig in with just a smidge of steering input.
The Type R's standard two-mode adaptive dampers continue to make for outstanding ride quality. The suspension now monitors the ride 10 times more often, but this isn't what you'll notice. Despite riding on 20-inch wheels and damned-thin 245/30 Continental SportContact 6 summer tires, the Civic is surprisingly smooth in the softest Comfort mode, soaking up most road harshness and only communicating the major stuff through the body. But it's not like smooth is sloppy here; in fact, Comfort remains more than agile enough for backroad sprints. If you really enjoy feeling every pebble underfoot, things get considerably stiffer when you push the mode switch to the default Sport or the hardcore +R.
For 2020, the Type R's 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 remains the same, producing 306 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Hooking the tires up requires dry pavement, but in the right conditions, this hatchback flies. Some complicated suspension geometry keeps torque steer from living front and center in the driving experience. I know this might put me in the minority, but at no point have I ever wished this car would pick up additional driven wheels. Front-wheel drive is fine. The Type R's single driven axle has no traction or glaring understeer issues at the limit -- it's just fun, all the time, with a surprisingly high performance ceiling.
And then there's the shifter -- my god, this shifter. Simply put, it's the best manual transmission available anywhere in the industry. The clutch pedal is a little numb, but the bite point is communicated well enough to make smooth starts easy to pull off. The linkage itself has the most satisfying feel moving between gears, and a new weighted shift knob really makes me feel like I'm workin' for it. Every manual Honda makes should have these parts, and every manual other automakers produce should be compared to this one before leaving the engineering stage. Combine it with a rev-matching-downshift program that produces pitch-perfect revs every time, and the Civic Type R just feels like a well-fitting glove on every drive. It's one of the most harmonious driving experiences available.
The only bad change for the 2020 Honda Civic Type R is the addition of a sound synthesizer, which is absolute, unequivocal bullshit. It's at its quietest in Comfort, which is partly why I stay in that mode 99.5% of the time. Move to Sport and the sound coming through the speakers grows more obvious, with an ever-present, unpleasant thrum at highway speeds. It's downright unacceptable in +R mode, droning on constantly without making the car feel any sportier. Why Honda didn't just add a physical flap to the exhaust -- or find comfort in the fact that the car is sorta quiet -- is beyond me. The Hyundai Veloster N's variable pipes throw out legit noise with overrun pops and burbles, and that car is way cheaper than the Type R. That's the kind of pomp and circumstance I want in an affordable hot hatch, not this lab-engineered crap. Worst of all, you can't turn the damn thing off; I'm praying the aftermarket finds a solution here.
One new piece of tech in the 2020 Type R that doesn't suck is Honda Sensing, the automaker's suite of active and passive safety systems. The sharpest car in Honda's portfolio now comes standard with automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and lane-departure warning. LDW is a little sensitive, but generally, the systems just hang out in the background.
Otherwise, the tech is all the same as before, with Honda's Display Audio infotainment system running on the 7-inch dashboard touchscreen. It's an old system, lacking the flashier looks of newer Honda getups, but it has embedded navigation and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are included, so that's good. The lack of rear-seat USB is a bummer, as are the charging speeds of the available USB-A ports. You're probably not buying this thing for the telematics, though, and what you get is more than ample.
The 2020 Honda Civic Type R is available in just one trim, with no factory options, for $37,950 including destination. That's only a few hundred bucks more than before, yet you get a fair bit of new kit tucked in there -- Honda Sensing alone makes this a value. It's now more expensive than the Subaru WRX STI at $37,895, but the Honda's superior build quality shines through. The VW Golf R remains north of $40,000, although buyers get two additional driven wheels and a far more adult aesthetic. The Hyundai Veloster N starts at $28,575, and while it's down some 50 hp, a $2,100 performance package adds 25 hp, a proper active exhaust, summer tires and a limited-slip differential. Its most comfortable suspension setting is still mighty stiff, though. If you want something even more hardcore, it might be worth waiting for the Type R's upcoming limited edition.
While not every improvement could be seen as such, it's impressive how Honda managed to once again raise the bar with the 2020 Civic Type R. Small tweaks give this five-door screamer even more agility, while new tech gives buyers more bang for their buck. This car is going to be a hard act to top for a long time.