When you are competing against a car such as the Volkswagen Golf R, it would be easy to design something that is a little understated in its looks, but powerful and dynamic in character. It would probably be the best way to chase sales, to match what your rivals are doing, but make it better in a few key areas.

Or you could go completely crazy and put big aerodynamic bits everywhere, including a vortex generator and a huge rear wing that will make a turn-of-the-century Subaru jealous. And while you are at it, ignore the move towards automatic and dual-clutch gearboxes and use a short-shift six-speed manual. And cloth seats — who needs leather anyway? And scary, make it look a bit scary.

Sensible car

Then tell everyone it’s a Honda and not just any old Honda, but a Civic, the same car in which sensible people drive to the shops. Except that this is not just a Civic, and nor was its predecessor or the one before that. This is the Civic Type-R.

We are being a little dramatic because it is dramatic. Yes it might be a little East Rand or Parow in its appearance, but for us it works. No one will mistake it for anything else and the exuberant styling is not just bling, it all has a properly thought-through job to do and it is all part of a package that real drivers will appreciate.

There are thousands of Golf GTIs on SA’s roads. In fact the GTI is the biggest-selling Golf model in SA.

There are many Golf Rs too, but many people buy them as a status thing. They need to have the top of the range and all that. Of course there are real drivers among them, but not all.

The interior features an excellent driving position and typical Type-R trim. Picture: HONDA
The interior features an excellent driving position and typical Type-R trim. Picture: HONDA

The new Civic Type-R "symbolises Honda’s racing spirit", says Toshiaki Konaka, president of Honda Motor Southern Africa. It’s a spirit that started in Formula 1 and was first injected into the Civic in 1997. The latest model is the sixth generation and it is one of the best.

Konaka says it is more comfortable on the road and it even has a comfort setting for the suspension. It’s not that comfortable though and models such as the Golf and Audi S3 will beat it in the everyday comfort stakes. In these days of electronic adaptive damping, which it has, and pliant chassis configurations, Honda could have made the comfort button do much more, but it’s not Renault Megane RS Trophy-jarring so perhaps they have gone with a middle ground.

Many owners won’t care though, because it’s all about the rest of the package and what you can do with it.

The VTec turbo engine produces 228kW at 6,500r/min and there’s 400Nm torque available between 2,500r/min and 4,500r/min. That six-speed manual pushes the power to the front wheels only but there is also a Helical limited slip differential to allow you to keep the power on and provide better control in the corners.

We experienced the Type-R on the Dezzi Raceway in Port Shepstone, KwaZulu-Natal. It was my first time at the track, the playground of one individual. It’s a technical track with little runoff and it took a bit of time to learn. And I wanted more time because once I got the feel of the Type-R and a better idea of the track limits, I realised Honda has engineered a superb machine, one that revels in the charge to the next corner and urges you to be a little playful if you want to. The driving position is spot-on and as much as it sounds like marketing speak, when Toshiya Hasegawa, chief engineer at Honda SA, says that everything has been positioned for the driver "to feel a sense of unity with the vehicle", he is correct.

Manual gearbox

Yes, this is a manual gear stick and it works brilliantly in the Type-R. Picture: HONDA
Yes, this is a manual gear stick and it works brilliantly in the Type-R. Picture: HONDA

The gear stick is old school, as is the choice of a manual gearbox, but you are involved — you make decisions on everything, not some computer. It has a nod to tech in the form of a rev-matching system on downshifts but it is not overdone and you can turn it off if you want to.

The electronic steering could provide a little more feedback but we have learnt to live with these electronic systems and their limitations. It is still one of the best though.

What the Type-R does not have though, is sound. It is strange, given the triple exhaust at the rear with the central pipe attached to a resonator. Change from comfort into sport and there is the slightest of increases in sound but this does not change at all in the more aggressive +R mode. It needs a bit more growl, but the neighbours will probably appreciate the understated soundtrack.

At R627,900 it undercuts the Golf and Audi but will undoubtedly be more expensive than the new Megane RS, which we will be driving in Spain this week. It’s a lot of car for the money — not for everyone though, but for those who still like to be in control, for those who want to change gears, to feel what the car is doing and expect it to respond to their demands.

It’s a driver’s car, pure and simple, and for that reason we love it.