How One Small Change Made the Honda Civic Type R More Special
Here’s why driving this thing felt like reading ’90s import tuner fan fiction.
On the snaking, cambered twists of Bear Divide in the Angeles National Forest of Southern California, the 2020 Honda Civic Type R blew everything I ever knew about front-wheel drive to smithereens. I'm an FWD evangelist and I still cannot believe what Honda achieved here. Forget about torque-steer management, the way the Type R behaves and feels should be impossible in a modern car. It feels like the dreams of ‘90s sport compact tuning, distilled. And much of that magic comes down to the engine's lack of balance shafts.
As a longtime fan of import cars and tuning, I did not expect to have my mind rearranged by the challenging-looking hatchback that was dropped off outside my house a few months ago. But before I even started the car, I could feel a remarkable intent in the seating position—from the height and location of the aluminum teardrop-shaped shift knob to the authority with which the car offers the steering wheel to the driver. When the K20C1 engine comes to life, it does so with a peaceful trill. Sans those balance shafts (present in the larger Accord), the Type R’s engine is an unexpected source of joy despite its vanilla presentation on paper. A 306-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four is nothing special these days—but the Honda defied this.
2020 Honda Civic Type R Specs
- 2022 Civic base price (2020 Type R as tested): $22,695 ($37,950)
- Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder | 6-speed manual | front-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 306 @ 6,500 rpm
- Torque: 295 lb-ft @ 2,500 to 4,500 rpm
- Seating capacity: 4
- Cargo volume: 25.7 cubic feet
- Curb weight: 3,071 pounds
- EPA fuel economy: 22 mpg city | 28 highway | 25 combined
- Quick take: Punches several magnitudes above its weight in performance but falls behind in comfort and styling.
- Score: 8.5/10
All About Balance—Until It Isn't
Most modern inline-four engines deploy balance shafts to smooth out second-order vibrations inherent to the engine design. Every inline-four is prone to this thanks to an asymmetry in the connecting rods relative to each other as they move up and down. This causes a vibration at a frequency twice that of the engine rpm, which was the signature buzzing characteristic of inline-fours until the mid-'90s when balance shafts become more common.
Balance shafts on this type of engine are typically geared to the crankshaft and spin at double the rpm to cancel out that second-order frequency. While the net gain is an unbelievable increase in engine smoothness, it adds complication and rotating mass that dampens response. Some might argue that balance shafts cannot be used at high rpms, but the 2006 Honda Civic Si's K20Z3 revved to 8,000 rpm and had balance shafts. The difference here is this: that K20Z3 engine sounded motorsport-bred thanks to its natural aspiration. Turbochargers dampen sound dramatically. If the Type R had balance shafts, its engine would feel like nothing.
The deletion of the balance shafts is the most important change that was made. Without them, the engine is constantly present, especially on the highway. And it offers engine characteristics that we haven't seen from a four-cylinder since the '90s.
After my very first gentle acceleration to the speed limit, I was taken aback by how pure the car felt. It genuinely communicated the road and its drivetrain to me, through the seat and through the steering wheel. It felt special at 40 mph, which does not happen often in modern machinery.
The Civic Type R's turbo-VTEC engine is everything we all wished for in 2001. It has nothing going on below 3,000 rpm until its tone excitedly pitches upward as 23 psi of Mitsubishi TD04 boost is forced into the engine. This madness continues until its 7,000-rpm redline when you have to pull the slick-shifting and well-weighted gear stick back, with the lightweight, single-mass flywheel, lightweight crank, forged connecting rods, and lack of balance shafts allowing the engine to rev savagely and freely with excellent boost response in the powerband. It has just enough power to be addictive but not enough to overwhelm the car. Best of all, it comes like that from the factory. I wouldn't say there is a car that I would never tune, but I would feel bad disturbing this balance if it were my car. It's certainly nothing like the blank canvasses of cars bygone, and more like the thing we would tune them into.
About half of that texture came from the proud buzz of the engine. At first, I thought it was an error but I quickly realized this was deliberate. Save for the Type R interior fixings, the car feels so much like a Civic in its quality and utilitarian attitude that it would be easy to forget it was a serious performance car. It needed to make this basic formula, a turbo engine driving the front wheels, feel like something special when so many other cars with this configuration feel like nothing.
Uncouth Is the Point
I took my family to dinner in the Honda—the ultimate litmus test of a car’s social graces. I have a tolerance for performance cars, but the people I share a house with ruled the CTR as downright uncouth. The engine boomed at highway speeds, making the overall sound and harshness level feel much higher than it actually was. Road and wind noise were actually reasonable, but it was decidedly rough for long drives or daily usage.
And it should be. It’s a Type R. It’s not supposed to be an everyday experience. I almost want to say it reminds me of the last Integra because of its easy and intuitive inputs, but it obliterates any other Honda ever made in outright performance, precision, and maybe even driving enjoyment. Even with a turbocharger, the car had an impossible-to-quantify Honda spirit about it. It goads you into driving harder, enchants you into another visit with the rev limiter, and makes you never want to give it back.
The other half of the experience was honest-to-god road feel through my hands and seat. Because of the optimized steering axis and general suspension geometry from the Dual Axis Steering front suspension (watch my video about it below), Honda didn’t need to actively filter out all of the pavement texture and bodyweight to shield drivers from torque-steer and tramlining. A little-known secret of the latest electric power-steering systems (told to me by a Mazda chassis engineer) is that it can be tuned to feel natural, but is often tuned to negate torque-steer and road texture for a more refined drive. Truth be told, without this ability, most front-drivers we love would be a lot more annoying to drive (read: with torque-steer), but the Civic can sidestep this with genuinely thoughtful mechanical engineering.
I could not get enough of the feeling the car gave me. It was graced with familiarly old-school linear damping and stiff springs that made it feel natural in a way many modern digressive dampers don’t feel. Over mid-corner bumps, the car bucked and bobbed without losing contact with the tarmac, letting me know that it was working hard, but not struggling. It had a bag of tricks so deep that I felt like I could never quite reach the bottom. Because of its frankly ridiculous 20-inch wheels and Continental SportContact 6 tires, sidewall flex was at a minimum and offered almost artificial but impressive steering directness.
In the background, even with the separate hub carrier front suspension and helical limited-slip differential, there are still nearly invisible programs running deep in the brain of the CTR. The adaptive shocks stiffen and soften each corner independently with cornering loads, which is nothing new but welcome. There is an Agile Handling Assist that brakes individual wheels at turn-in for more crisp apex tracing. But what is really impressive is the torque management program that always feeds you enough power to feel like you’re using full throttle but never overwhelms the front wheels. It’s nearly imperceptible, but the combination of brake vectoring and throttle management do some serious dynamic heavy lifting. All combined, the car's systems do the thing where they make the driver feel like a hero while performing their own more impressive computerized heroics behind a distant veil, but they also don't hold back more experienced operators.
I adored the 987 miles I put on the Civic Type R. I think that this car offers some of the best driving performance at any price, and it proves that innovation and crushing responsiveness can be had by the every-person.
The good news for all of us is that the next-generation Civic Type R will likely be mostly based on this astounding car. It would silly if it wasn't. This magic will live on for another model generation, and that should be celebrated. Even as I write this, I feel a Type R-sized hole in my heart. I can give it no higher praise than this: it is on my shortlist of must-owns.
The CTR is so unashamedly proud of what it is that it’s hard to dislike. It loves that it is a four-cylinder so much that it has no balance shafts, so you can always feel just how much vibration we’re otherwise all missing out on. It loves that it is front-wheel-drive so much that it shows anybody who drives it that front-wheel drive could actually be the best drive layout, where it's always possible to maximize performance without fear of losing control. The Type R embraces front-wheel drive instead of sheepishly rejecting it.
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