Payne: To Hell and back in Honda Civic Type R hellion

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The 2020 Honda Civic Type R has 306 horsepower, four doors, a hatchback, red seats, insane handling, the latest electronics and a rear wing the size of the Sopwith Camel. Sounds like heaven to me.

So I took it to Hell.

I’ve spent a lot of time traveling back and forth to Michigan’s devilish burg during the coronavirus clampdown. With the state’s best roads and unlikely name, Hell has always been a fun diversion. The North American Car of the Year jury used to hold our annual test there before we outgrew local facilities. Lunch meeting in Ann Arbor? I’ll detour on the way back to test a car’s limits.

But with national vehicle test programs grounded by COVID-19, Hell has become my test loop to push a performance vehicle’s envelope. Is it comfortable on the two-hour round trip? Does it get good gas mileage? Have modern safety features like adaptive cruise-control? Does it inspire confidence on roller-coaster roads?

Cerberus at the Gates of Hell (Michigan). The 2020 Honda Civic Type R has a big mouth for better air flow as well as a telltale scoop on the hood.

Hell’s a fabulous all-around test. And a showcase for the $37,950 Civic Type R’s impressive all-around game of affordable speed, comfort and utility.

At the end of a good workout this spring, I found but one weakness: With a healthy $3,175 price jump since it was introduced as a 2018 model, Type R has ceded ground to the $37,884 Subaru WRX STI and $30,675 Hyundai Veloster N for pocket-rocket affordability.

Nail the imperturbable R over Hankerd Road’s heaving high-speed blind turns and you’ll swear it’s Velcroed to the pavement, so flat is its chassis. The only limit to the sports car’s speed was my fear of cresting a brow to find one of Michigan’s finest in a squad car (their presence ubiquitous in these COVID times).

But before I get too deep into Hell’s twisties, a quick primer on the Type R.

New for 2020. The 2020 Honda Civic Type R gains some minor tweaks like body-colored gills  and 13 percent better grille area to feed the powerful engine within.

When Honda took the 10th-generation $20,806 2015 Civic to Germany’s Nurburgring race track to benchmark against the Audi A3, the Type R was the ultimate goal. King Civic offers top-of-class room, features and handling across a vast lineup that includes sedan, Sport hatchback, Si performance coupe — and then peaks at the Type R. It’s like watching the evolution of Michael Jordan from high school star to six-time NBA champion.

New for 2020, the Type R brings significant upgrades like standard Honda Sensing (adaptive cruise-control, lane-keep assist, emergency braking), which helps explain the price hike. And it adds minor tweaks like a new front spoiler, suede steering wheel and body-colored fascia gills.

They were minor tweaks because the Type R is hardly modest. The body is smeared with goth makeup: black grille, black wheels, black window trim.

Standard on the 2020 Honda Civic Type R: bolstered red seats.

My black ’n’ Championship White menace looked like it had been assembled from a drawer-full of knives. Sharp angles were everywhere from its front splitter fangs to its rocker panels to the twin shark-fin endplates that held the rear wing. Type R telegraphs its road-carving abilities.

Open the door and the red bolstered seats warn this thing is devil’s spawn. Yet as I set out on my journey to Hell, the Type R felt more Civic than R-rated. Despite a hungry bark at startup that exhales through a trio of center-mounted exhaust pipes, the Type R is quite civilized to drive in Comfort mode. (I’ll get to other, more aggressive modes in a bit). Adaptive cruise is standard, even with a manual transmission.

At stoplights I had to blip the engine a couple of times to make sure the engine hadn’t stalled, so quiet is the idle. And while the ride is expectedly firm, Mrs. Payne found the R’s roomy, thoughtful interior a laudable travel companion (even as she feared how quickly it could turn, Hyde-like, into a highway heathen).

Civic’s infotainment commands trail recent segment entries like the Nissan Sentra and Subaru Impreza, but standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto neutralize that advantage in a jiffy. I plugged in my phone and told Google Assistant to take me to Hell. Who needs a fancy-pants premium navigation system?

For about $38k, the 2020 Honda Civic Type R features a loaded interior of bolstered, red, carbon seats, Level 2 autonomous driving/adaptive cruise control, Alcantara steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, and more. Only blind-spot assist and heated seats are conspicuously missing.

The hatchback’s utility is self-explanatory (a big reason SUVs are so popular today), but Civic goes a step further. It adds sub-cargo storage and a pull-across shade to conceal items in the cargo bay that makes the common snap-on shade seem needlessly complicated. That thoughtfulness is matched up front by a configurable console of sliding cupholders and cubbies.

My first hot-hatch was a cramped two-door VW GTI. But the Type R rocket ship has 1.5 inches more rear legroom than a midsize Acura TLX luxury sedan, for goodness sake, while weighing 500 pounds less with 16 more horsepower.

The Type R’s lightweight 3,121 pounds was evident as I assaulted the Exit 148A clover leaf upon exiting I-96 for U.S. 23 South.

Despite roads slicked by spring rain, Type R danced around the 180-degree downhill turn, its chassis flat as a pancake. As I dialed in more throttle, the front-wheel drive system predictably pushed. But when the road surface unexpectedly changed from concrete to greasy asphalt — briefly causing the R to skitter laterally — there was no nervous tail wag like a rear-wheel drive car.

Take out. The 2020 Honda Civic Type R is small enough to maneuver in downtown Ann Arbor for a pickup sandwich (see bag on roof) at Zingerman's. Yet roomy enough inside to eat on the fly.

Flattening the throttle onto Route 23, the heretofore quiet cabin erupted. I had dialed the mode-select switch to Race (what did you think R stood for?) and the 2.0-liter turbo-4 roared with hunger. Its 295-pound feet of torque might have ripped the front tires out of their fenders were it not for modern electronics and clever suspension engineering.

Exiting slippery turns in second gear, I could easily get wheelspin, but R never felt out of sorts. The notchy, manual box is the best thing this side of a Porsche, and the tranny automatically rev-matched on downshifts so I didn’t fuss with heel-and-toe.

All this capability in a $38,000 package. Sure you want a smaller 306-horse Audi S3 for $10,000 more? Subaru STI, however, will match Type R’s price, while also packing impressive standard features. With all-wheel drive (a $2,000 value), the Subie puts the power down better in slick conditions while offering similar horsepower and interior room. As the ’Ru moves toward a 2022 model with an estimated 400 horsepower, the Type R will be challenged.

For now, though, there’s no beating a hot hatch for convenience. It makes a trip to Hell heavenly.

Along Doyle Road in Livingston County, the balanced, 306-horse 2020 Honda Civic Type R is stuck to the road like Velcro.

2020 Honda Civic Type R

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger hatchback

Price: $37,950, including $955 destination charge 

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline 4-cylinder

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Weight: 3,121 pounds

Price: $37,950

Power: 306 horsepower, 295 pound-feet torque

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.0 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 170 mph

Fuel economy: EPA est. mpg: 22 city/28 highway/25 combined

Report card

Highs: Insane grip for a FWD car; modern amenities for daily driving

Lows: Boy-racer styling not for everyone; price up from $34,800 in 2018

Overall: ★★★★

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.