Payne: Honda Civic mutates into TCR track monster

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

You’ve heard of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But what if Mr. Hyde also had a crazed alter ego? Call them Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Mr. Hyper-Hyde.

Honda calls 'em Dr. Civic, Mr. Type-R and Mr. TCR.

The Honda Civic Type-R is the ultimate deranged Civic. With 306 horsepower and wings and air intakes sprouting from every body panel, Mr. Type-R is the 158-horse Honda Civic hatchback on steroids. But then Honda went out and made a 340-horse racer version called the TCR to compete in the Michelin Pilot Challenge race series.

I had a chance to flog the TCR around Pontiac’s Champion Speedway at M1 Concourse, and it has about as much in common with a Type R as I do with Michael Jordan. Sure, the TCR and Civic are both front-wheel drive and turbo-4 powered — just like Michael and I are both 6-foot-5 and shoot right-handed.

But what the TCR does show is that, when blessed with the right automotive DNA, a front-wheel drive race car can be remarkably athletic. It is also a window into entry-level professional motorsport and its steep entry costs.

When the latest 10th-generation Civic was introduced in 2016, it had the Type-R and TCR in mind.

The Japanese brand has been marinated in racing since its birth. Its logo has graced every level of motorsport from Formula One to IndyCar to sports car prototype. But it has been the compact Civic that has carried the production performance flag.

Like Mazda and its affordable Miata sports car, Honda’s performance halo is the small Civic. Ford has the $700,000 GT, Nissan the $100,000 GT-R and Chevy the $57,000 Corvette. But Honda asks that you merely put down $36,620 smackeroos on a Civic Type-R.

That’s R as in GRRRRRRRR.

The powerful Type R hot-hatch is the ultimate production expression of the $20,000 Civic. For another 16 grand it undergoes a Hyde-like transformation that sprouts a wing, Brembo brakes, air intakes and beefed-up suspension to become a fire-breathing, front-wheel track rat aimed squarely at more expensive weapons like the all-wheel drive Volkswagen Golf R and rear-wheel drive Chevy Camaro V-6.

With its garish aerofoil and scoops it looks like it was designed by a crayon-wielding 12-year-old, but it has the track instincts of a seasoned vet.

I took it out on Champion Raceway and immediately began to wring its neck, so intuitive are its handling and controls.

Concerned that Civic had grown domesticated, Honda baselines its sixth-generation car to the Audi A3, for goodness sake. This benefits every model in the Civic’s sprawling range, from Sport hatchback to Si Coupe to the insane Type R.

The R has been tweaked with suspension geometry wizardry like limited-slip front differential and bigger knuckles. Not only can I fling it around the track, but it looks wicked doing so, its rear wing poised like the tail of a scorpion (now, there’s a good name for a sports car). The manual gearbox is the tightest thing this side of a Porsche — no missed shifts here — but under the cane the front-wheel drive R will push.

Throw out all assumptions with the race-prepared, track-only Civic TCR race car

This is a weapon that competes against rockets like the Audi RS3 (so that explains the Audi baseline thing) and Alfa Giulietta in the Michelin Pilot Challenge TCR race class as well as compact competitors like the Hyundai Veloster entered by no less than IndyCar’s Bryan Herta race team.

Built to highly regulated racing specs, Honda takes Type Rs off its Swinden, England, assembly line and ships them to Italy where the R is hollowed out like a baked potato then stuffed with racy spices like a quick-shifting, 6-speed sequential gearbox, big front brake rotor and an even bigger rear wing.

It’s a beast. Squeezed into its bolstered NASCAR-like seat like a hot dog in a bun, my frame barely fit behind the button-infested race wheel.

I felt right at home. This is my happy place, where I have raced cars for 30 years like the Porsche 908 and Lola 90. But those are 1,300-pound rear-wheel drive sports racers. This was my first front-wheel race sedan.

I would have to rewire my brain to master it.

Todd Lamb — who owns and co-pilots the TCR out of his Atlanta Speedwerks race shop and has an impressive pro racing resume — warned me that the cold rear slicks would take some getting used to. Got that right.

Based on the Honda Civic Type R, right, the Honda Civic TCR race car weighs just over 2,700 pounds (including driver) and  sports 340 horsepower and a quick-shifting, 6-speed sequential gearbox.

Throwing the car into Turn 2 at M1 Concourse, the rear end kicked out like the boom on a sailboat. Whoa! Instinctively, I lifted off the throttle to prevent a spin as in a rear-wheel drive car. Wrong reaction.

The answer to a slippy rear end in the Civic is more throttle so that the front wheels can drag the rear along like a bulldog scrabbling for traction on a slippery kitchen floor. Anticipating the Type R’s inherent push on corner exit, Lamb has tweaked it with a neutral setup (not unlike the drifting rear-drive Toyota Supra I tested a few weeks back) to help rotate the car. The result? The little bulldog has traction to spare as I put the power down through the front wheels.

After learning the Civic’s cornering eccentricities, the rest was gravy. The sequential, paddle-shift operated box means no shift gate. No heel and toe. No clutch at all. Just bang-bang-bang through the gears on acceleration. Bang-bang-bang on downshifts.

Easy-peasy. Every gearbox should be this simple, allowing the driver to concentrate fully on cornering. I dialed in more speed with every turn, the tires heating up and the TCR sticking like glue.

Screwed to the ground and highlighted with blue and yellow paint scheme, Speedwerks’ Mr. TCR is even more insane looking than Mr. Type R production car. Its transformation will cost you.

I thought an upgraded, $68,000 Mazda MX-5 Cup racer — double that of a production Miata — was expensive. The Civic TCR is another ballgame.

A new, out-of-the-box TCR will set you back $172,000 before spares and options (like ABS). That’s six times the cost of a production R. Ouch.

But what you get in return is full immersion in the real world of motorsport. A real race car, racing against top drawer talent, with one of the world’s most respected performance brands behind you.

They know how to turn Dr. Jekyll into something special.

2019 Honda Civic

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact sedan

Price: $20,370 including $920 destination charge

Power plant: 2.0-liter, inline-4 cylinder; 1.5-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 158 horsepower, 138 pound-feet of torque (2.0-liter); 174 horsepower, 162 pound-feet of torque (1.5-liter)

Transmission: 6-speed manual; continuously variable automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.4 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 2,742 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA 25 city/36 mpg highway/29 mpg (manual, 2.0-liter gas); 30 city/38 mpg highway/33 mpg (CVT, 2.0-liter gas); 32 city/42 mpg highway/36 mpg (CVT, 1.5-liter turbo)

Report card

Highs: Diverse model lineup; roomy

Lows: Polarizing styling; AWD option, please


2019 Honda Civic Type R

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

Price: $36,620 including $920 destination fee

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbocharged inline 4-cylinder

Power: 306 horsepower, 295 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

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

Weight: 3,117 pounds

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

Report card

Highs: Easy to drive fast; the bargain hot-hatch

Lows: Wing-bling may not be your thing; front end pushes at limit


2019 Honda Civic TCR race car

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, one-passenger race car

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline 4-cylinder

Transmission: 6-speed sequential with paddle shifters

Weight: 2,789 pounds including driver (minimum, race-regulated spec)

Price: $172,238

Power: 340 horsepower, 420 pound-feet torque

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA

Fuel economy: NA

Report card

Highs: Neutral handling; sequential box

Lows: Oversteer until tires up to temp; pricey


Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.