It doesn’t matter what you think of the 2017 Honda Civic Type R’s outlandish, almost Gundam-like looks, or the fact that it’s a Honda Civic, or the fact that it’s front-wheel drive. Once you’re strapped into the driver’s seat you’re going to give this car a chance. If you’re already feeling its vibe, just wait until you get a hand on that prime shift knob.

The whole package falls short of perfection, but the first Civic Type R ever to be sold in the United States has a lot of personality for something that looks so much like a robot.

(Full Disclosure: Honda flew me to Montréal, put me up in a lovely hotel, paid for several meals and took me to the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix to watch their race car break down just so I could briefly drive the Civic Type R and tell you about it.)

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A lot of people you might picture buying this car, myself included, grew up with import tuner culture.

The big wings, big rims, aggressive aero kits and obsession with overnight parts from Japan and quarter mile times had incredible momentum in the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s often associated with the first Fast & Furious movie, but it was a mainstream car culture well before that film hit the scene.

So you’re probably not surprised to learn that the Civic Type R was born deep in that era, a bygone time where every Japanese manufacturer seemed obsessed with performance—just not so much with bringing that performance overseas for us to enjoy too.

The original 1997 Honda Civic Type R. Subtle, sweet. (Image Credit: Honda)

In 1997 Honda put red Recaro seats, red badging, a red valve cover and a voracious little VTEC engine into the sixth generation Honda Civic to create the first Type R variant of the popular commuter car. Sadly, American enthusiasts won’t get to experience that legend for another five years when it becomes legal to import and register privately because Honda never saw fit to sell it here.

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We’ve had plenty of high-quality Honda products then and since, but the Civic Type R has taunted and titillated American fans for decades. (The European market was much luckier in that regard.)

Sure, we’d spend thousands of dollars to get the headlights, bumpers, wheels and seats overnighted from Japan to make our Civics look like Type Rs. With an engine swap and high-quality coilover suspension, you could actually get an American economy-spec Civic pretty close.

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But I know I’m not the only one who’s been desperately waiting for the genuine article to arrive on American shores since the first time I saw it in Sport Compact Car, or Honda Tuning, Import Tuner or any of the now-deceased magazines and early internet forums I used to pore over reading about the Type R and its rivals.

So here I am, meeting one of my heroes. It’s bigger now, it’s quite different, adds turbo power on top of VTEC peakiness, but here it is—a Honda Civic Type R, for sale in the U.S. soon. That is why this car matters.

What Is It?

The 2017 model, built out of the 10th-generation Civic, is made to have “more” of everything the Type R has always been designed around: performance and practicality. The new car has more speed around a race track, plus flexibility with “comfort,” “sport” and maximum-attack “+R” driving modes. And USB ports.

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As you’ve probably figured out already- the Civic Type R is supposed to be a single-car solution for people who want a vehicle that turns them on, but need reliable transportation and reasonable running costs.

The Specs That Matter

You pretty much only get to make one choice when you order a 2017 Honda Civic Type R: white, grey, black, red, or blue. Every car rings up at about $35,000 and is spec’ed as a four-door four-seat hatchback that Honda claims weighs 3,117 pounds ready-to-drive.

Stuffed behind the snout is a 2.0-liter DOHC turbocharged direct-injected 16-valve i-VTEC “Earth Dreams” (Hah!) engine rated at 306 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque.

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It is truly a global car now. That motor’s made in Ohio and shipped to the England where this Japanese legend is assembled.

And did I mention that each and every one is loaded with a six-speed three-pedal manual transmission that has God’s own gift to shifter linkages at the whim of your right hand?

Where It Shines

I wouldn’t blame you for being turned off by the Type R’s looks, but I would insist you give it a second chance at a first impression. Close your eyes and climb into that seat. It’s pretty close to perfect: imagine the comfortable familiarity of your favorite basement couch with enough bolstering to keep you secure in a rocket landing.

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I’m on the scrawny side, and I felt planted in the seat but there seemed to be room for broader shoulders as well. The red fabric is fantastic and color-matched seat belts are a nice touch, too. Otherwise, the interior is pretty much “Civic, plus red lines and a little fake carbon fiber.” Which is fine.

Yet in true Honda fashion, the Civic Type R’s greatest triumph is its shifter.

The size and texture of the knob, smooth but distinctive, is excellent and the throws are just right. Shifting is easy but demands a deliberate input. The transmission goes into gear like perfectly aligned Legos and to me, rowing this thing is what true driver satisfaction should feel like.

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Automatic rev-matching makes every downshift professionally heel-toe’d too, if you want it to be. This function can be deactivated easily and I might even argue leaving it off is more fun. But you’d have to be a bona fide master to blip the throttle as precisely as this car can consistently.

The Type R’s stability at speed is impressive, too. And the four-piston Brembo brakes kept reeling the car in, lap after lap. But if you thought “explosive acceleration” was going to be in the goods column, well, we’ll get to that.

What Fast Front-Drive Feels Like

The Type R’s three driving modes adjust the car’s throttle response, rev-match rapidity, traction control intervention, suspension, and steering. The changes in ride firmness and the weight of the wheel are what you feel most between “comfort” and “sport” and “+R.”

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In the softest setting, the car feels like the Civic you remember riding around in after school. And I mean while your parents still owned it, not after you got your license, covered it in stickers and thrashed it like a carnival go-kart.

But comfort mode actually feels a little redundant. In +R the car is surprisingly easy on the ass over rough roads. And the noise, even racing toward the redline, is almost frustratingly inoffensive.

So +R is where you should put it, and +R is where we’ll stay.

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On a race track, the car charges straight off the line with a little bit of wheel hop but that’s pretty much where the drama ends. There’s no wild wiggling when you shift at redline, which can happen when you put a lot of power to a car’s front wheels, but there’s not exactly a gut-sucking shock-and-awe acceleration you might expect after seeing the car’s ridiculous wing.

(Image Credit: Honda)

You will see red lines though—two big ones across the top of the Type R’s dashboard strobe when it’s time to shift. You’ll need them, too, because I’m not kidding about how quiet this car is.

But the first turn was my first encounter with torque steer. The heavily weighted steering wheel felt good as I started to make my move, but pouring too much throttle on too quickly on my way out of the turn overtaxed the front wheels and made it feel like I was pushing the steering wheel through “notches.”

So to answer the question many of us have had: “Does the Type R feel like a front-wheel drive?” ...Yes, and it must be driven appropriately.

And as much as Honda talked about stiffness and rigidity and how much reinforcement went into the Type R body, it sure felt like the thing was rolling a lot through turns. I mean, it’s not a fucking fishing trawler listing in swells, but there’s a strong sensation of weight transfer as you charge through corners.

Doesn’t look that flat to me. ...Can you guys tell who’s driving? You’ll know him if you read this site a lot.

There’s your drama—the car might not be built around 0 to 60 times (Honda won’t even make an official claim on that) but it really feels alive when you link a couple turns together.

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I had expected to get comfortable with this car much more quickly and easily. It is a Honda Civic, after all. And the massive Brembo brakes offer a lot of reassurance as they claw into the Earth directly, aggressively and without fade even when they start to smoke (which, I noticed, they did on one our test cars).

But it wasn’t until the last few laps of two 20-minute track sessions that I really started feeling good racing toward the car’s limitations. The Type R won’t scare you peeling off a line or merging into traffic, but it demands respect for continuous quick driving and forces you to think very carefully about how you’re driving it.

That just means it just needs to be driven hard properly. A front-wheel drive car requires a little more patience about when to put the pedal down and an elevated awareness of where the steering wheel is relative to the throttle. The Civic Type R is no exception.

What’s Weak

Drive wheels aside, the Civic Type R has one critical weakness no amount of driving skill can overcome: the exhaust note is a pathetic whimper.

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Honda went through the trouble of building a lightweight sweet-looking, center-exit exhaust with a resonator pipe specifically to tune this engine’s sound for auditory appeal, but I was still bouncing off the rev limiter on hard charges because I couldn’t hear when it was time to shift.

It feels like somebody decided this car was loud enough, visually, that a crackle-pop snorting exhaust note was unnecessary. Of course, such a person would have been right. But nothing about the Type R is “necessary.” This thing deserves a set of pipes righteous enough to be church bells at the temple of VTEC, calling the Honda cultists from every corner of town. It doesn’t sound bad, it just, doesn’t really... sound.

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The aftermarket will solve this problem in short order, but a little more wail would have gone a long way to solidifying this car’s collectibility status.

The Type R’s backseat is a big miss, too. Honda decided to make this car a four-seater (instead of a five) by replacing the butt pad in the rear bench with a little plastic cupholder. Aside from that, the rear seats are straight out of the regular-ass Civic.

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There’s no bolstering at all, not even any interesting embroidery back there. And the back bench isn’t even the same color as the front seats, which, ugh.

That wouldn’t bother me as much if this car were a two-door, but come on, there’s plenty of room in the back to move four adults around in this car. Ergo, Honda should have built the back out for actual use. But be wary if a friend of yours buys a Civic Type R—whoever’s not quick enough to call shotgun is going to get tossed around the rear of this thing like a loose cannonball on the deck of a pirate ship.

And as much as I love the seats up front, I did find something to complain about in the cockpit: blank buttons, and a lot of them. There’s a whole cluster to the left of the steering wheel and one proudly pissing you off front and center near the shifter.

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“Those functions are for other markets,” Honda’s people explained. I don’t care. If the company is seriously trying to build a collector’s item, and I know it is because the Type Rs are serialized, it sucks to see a bunch of dead switches that make you feel like you’re back in a base model economy car.

If Honda didn’t have any more functions to add, somebody could have just made these shortcut buttons to menus to functions in the infotainment system. A hard button for the automatic rev-matching on/off would be great. Or how about an actual volume knob instead of that stupid slider Hondas have?

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And speaking of blanks, did you look at the front and rear “grille” sections of the bodywork on this Civic? Look again. Those random dots near the center are blanks where parking sensors go on the luxury trim. Honda attacked this thing with design elements: Wings! Scoops! Aero! Couldn’t the company be bothered to pony up for Type R-unique plastic fake-grille pieces?

What To Watch For

After a few laps around a little racetrack and a brief drive through rural Quebéc, I got the impression that the Type R was easy to drive but a little more difficult to master than some other relatively affordable performance cars.

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I think a few hundred more miles would go a long way to helping me figure out how to build a relationship with this car and extract more of its abilities.

And if I were seriously considering buying one of these, I’d be thinking about its museum potential, too. Will this become a future classic like the last Type R we had in North America, the DC2-era Integra? If Honda sticks to fairly reserved runs of production, it’s possible. But regardless of how many are built, you can bet a factory-condition clean-titled example will be pretty prized on the used market in a decade or less when most have been mauled or modified.

Early Verdict

Twenty years of compounded anticipation and a professional racing driver’s glowing endorsement set my expectations for the Civic Type R stratospherically high. And... it was good. It was fun.

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I didn’t quite have the heart-stirring emotional awakening I thought might have been waiting for me in this car, but it seemed well built, it’s riding on a great reputation for reliability and gets good gas mileage. All that hooked up to some beautifully optimized bucket seats and one of the best shifters I’ve ever cupped makes a compelling case for the Civic Type R, “wrong-wheel drive” be damned.

I just wish Honda had taken care of a few more details to give the Type R the differentiation it deserves to become a prized piece of history some day.

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But the car delivers on its promise of “daily driver with fire,” so if you get one, please don’t just park it in vacuum-sealed storage for a 2027 Barrett-Jackson auction.

It seems like the Civic Type R may have lost a bit of its signature brutality with this generation, but the car’s undoubtedly still got character and it most certainly demands respect. And that makes it worth your attention.

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(CORRECTION: I originally called this the 2018 Civic Type R, but in fact the car’s launching as a 2017 model. The 2018 will probably be the same, but still. Sorry!)