Honda's New Civic Type R Is Making The Hatch Cool Again

We test it out with a former F1 champion

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Has the hot hatch grown up? Once sneerily but understandably dubbed the hooligan hatch for its associations with unnecessary spoilers, provincial car parks and farty sounding engines, it's now an ultra-competitive field where the best have the kind of Jekyll and Hyde personality that can switch between the Cannonball Run and the school run; that can not only do doughnuts but also store them away with the shopping before a sedate drive home.

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To test out how far this dual personality has developed on the Honda Civic Type R, I asked McLaren-Honda F1 driver Fernando Alonso to take me for a cruise around Berkshire's mean streets.

In the new realm of hot hatches, this is a car with strong claims to be king. It certainly looks the part. Just enough aggro add-ons and bodykit not to lose face with its rivals but stopping just short of ridiculous. And the engine doesn't sound as anti-social to neighbours and passers-by, delivering more of a purr than a needy whine.

If I'm expecting a white-knuckle ride around these suburban roads, the reality is quite different. Alonso is driving as if he's on his licence test.

"All the adrenaline goes out in the circuit so I'm quite calm. Maybe people expect different things but normally the reaction when people drive alongside me is that I drive too slow and they are disappointed," he explains as an elderly couple cruise past us in the outside lane.

It's perfect for the purposes of our test, however, because this is where many hot hatches, including the previous Civic Type R, struggle. "It's comfortable," Alonso says. "Comparing it with the old Type R which was a bit stiff and more reactive, this one feels like you can use it a bit more in everyday life. For an extremely sporty car there is still the comfort there."

He's right, the old car could leave you feeling edgy and rattled but this car is calm. Like Alonso himself. He admits to being at his most relaxed at the track ("When you jump in the car and put your helmet on you are alone inside your environment") and in his free time, when he's cycling. "I would go with my father as a kid, enjoying the outdoors. And in the last 10 or 15 years I did a lot of cycling on my own and with friends," he says, but denies he'd take it up seriously after racing: "When I stop F1 I want to have more free time not less."

The car's cabin hits the right balance between sporty and relaxed, with a clean display panel and slick bucket seats. And when you switch out of Comfort mode into Sport or the track-focused R+, the Type R's personality changes dramatically.

As an indicator of what this car is capable of when the shackles are off, it holds the prestigious Nürburgring front-wheel title record. "It's the only place you can probably push a car to its limits within a safe environment," Alonso explains when asked why the Nürburgring is still the benchmark for speed tests. It says much for the work done on the car's aerodynamics and suspension that it achieved this feat via a relatively modest 316bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged engine.

Somewhat surreally, two horses appear round a bend up ahead, blocking our path. A good if unexpected test of the brakes. Alonso weaves between the motionless beasts without any fuss and without causing any equine damage. Well, he is a former F1 world champion.

From a standing start we get a taste of the Type R's acceleration. The gearbox, only available in a satisfying stick shift, is one of the best around, and the 5.8secs quoted to 62mph feels a little conservative when the pedal is down. But maybe that's not the point. There's a sassy confidence about this car that doesn't need to lurch and howl around town to announce itself. And in the hot hatch world, that's grown-up behaviour.