1 Mar 2013

Has Honda lost control of the hot hatch market?

James Parker looks at Honda's recent hot hatch history and wonders if the Civic Type R will regain it's crown
The hot hatch market has always been a huge interest to many a petrolhead. The ability to mix the potent combination of power, driving fun and practicality has always appealed to the masses.  As for bang for your buck, there perhaps lies no better type of car – it is petrol head heaven.  In this day and age the Hot Hatch market contains more manufacturers than you can shake a stick at.  Gone are the days where the Golf GTi, Renault 5 Turbo or Peugeout 205 GTI were the weapons of choice -  and that was it.  And it has lead to the market today to become claustrophobic and competitive.

Renault, Ford and Vauxhall dominate the scene today, with the new 5 door ST, “bonkers” Astra VXR and track honed Megane RS leading the way for all manufacturers to follow. All 3 approach the “hot hatch” recipe differently, with the Megane focussing more on a delicate poise and crisp chassis to deliver a sublime driving experience, whilst the Astra has adopted the role of the hooligan, with a monumental nuclear bomb type engine under the hood. The Ford has gone for a compromise between practicality, handling and straight line acceleration, therefore it cannot really match the Megane for poise, the Astra for speed and looks to combine a better, more rounded, user friendly experience than the other two.

Hang on a minute though..... Where's Honda in the list???

I can imagine many Honda fanatics (of which there are a lot) will protest that the Civic Type R is indeed the “ultimate” hot hatch, but is the FN2 really a step forward from the EP3 in terms of keeping up with the goalposts set by the above 3? Now, before I get ridiculed, I am a huge fan of fast Hondas.  I have wanted an S2000 for longer than I can remember (albeit that isn’t long these days) and the EP3 Civic Type R was a complete riot. It was a stage in Honda's history that was considered “golden” just after the turn of the millennium, and both models took the world by storm.

The EP3 Civic was a giant step forward from the EK9.  It was a lot more refined, honed to deliver a brilliant driving experience whilst retaining that completely mental attitude we have come to associate the Type R with.  If it could, it would go around licking every conceivable window in the UK.

The reason it was such a success was the engine, 2 litres, two cams, and 197hp of perfection known as the VTEC. It produced a noise that would ring in your ears for days, a scream that was so mechanical, so raw and untame. Once that second cam was engaged you would instantly find yourself in the next county very, very quickly, with the biggest accompanying smile in the country.

Since its early days, the VTEC unit has gone into folklore as one of the great engines in the automotive world, and the adapted unit that slotted straight into the engine bay of the S2000 (240hp from 2 litres) held numerous hp per litre records for years. But in the EP3, whilst the engine was sublime, it was the way in which it conducted itself around the bends of the UK that was the main reason for its unparallel success.

The chassis was absolutely magnificent - it was ridiculously light on its feet, and hugged the road like you hug your favourite granny, only when you did overstep the mark very slightly would you get a hint of lift off oversteer, of which you could almost telepathically control.  It was quite simply the “perfect” hot hatch with an engine that could rev to 9k - could a petrol head want anymore?

Fast forward to the current day and the Type R brand has took a serious battering with the latest FN2 spec model. It is heavier, softer and not as involving as the EP3 chassis which drew a lot of criticism during its reign in Europe. The trouble is, the VTEC unit has now reached the end of its life somewhat.  In the EP3 it was tuned to its limit, with the exception of bolting on a turbocharger (which a lot of owners did. Madness!) and therefore, for the FN2, I expect Honda didn’t quite know what to do to squeeze those extra horses out. As a result the 197hp remained and FN2 Type R is slower than its predecessor, whilst also losing some of the “hot hatch” magic, the sharpness, and poise.

Then of course we have the Euro V emissions standards which, since 2010, has been the sole reason for the FN2 production line to halt as the VTEC engine no longer meets the stricter, cleaner standards for emissions of all cars produced after 2010. This has meant for two years now the Civic Type R brand has stood still whilst rivals improve year on year, and it has meant the car has simply been left in the shadows compared to the big guns. There of course does remain a certain appeal towards the Civic Type R “way of things”, a nostalgic recipe almost of staying “true” to a driver’s car, a high revving, N/A motor, attached to a decent chassis which goes rather quickly always has it’s perks. But it is the main reason why EP3 prices have started to rise whilst FN2’s have dropped significantly, as the older generation is simply better at that recipe than it’s dad.

Through all of this madness, Honda have simply lost their stranglehold on the market, and for the new Civic range they will need to change their philosophy (albeit with much sadness) to keep up. Smaller displacement forced induction engines dominate most of the automotive world now, where efficiency and emissions can be met alongside performance. Of course in the hot hatch market this is best measured in terms of the top 3 all boasting turbocharged units – it is simply a recipe that you need to have to be successful and sustainable as a brand now.

For 2015 Honda have gone back to the drawing board and they have announced a new Type R Civic. That is brilliant news for the masses as the car does deserve to return to the pointy end of the market. A 265hp, 1.6 litre, turbocharged engine looks set to be the unit of choice and it means that, finally, after a tremendous career, the iconic VTEC engine can go on to retirement.

Honda have announced that the target is the Nordschliefe lap record currently being enjoyed by the Megane RS, but they may need to re-evaluate it closer to the time. Two years is a long time in the automotive world and Honda may have a bigger yardstick to aim for in that time. Ford, Vauxhall and Renault will not stand still and in two years time, expect newer, faster, more refined cars from them as they vie for top spot once again in the hot hatch grudge match.

But let’s not underestimate the Honda engineers.  They an incredible reputation for producing magnificent performance cars when they put their mind to it, and I sincerely hope they go back to “basics” with the new Type R, taking inspiration from the iconic EP3. Whilst the new car might not go around licking windows, I expect it to once again be a serious track day rival to the Frenchies and the Megane RS and it might be enough to once again stake their claim in the hot hatch market, something they have lost hold of in recent years.

About James Parker - Hardcore Petrolhead having had a long passion for cars and Motorsport which stretches back some 15 years ago when I first started watching BTCC and Formula 1. Currently a proud Alfa Romeo owner, who is Head of Business Development at Motorsport Merchandise website www.grandprixmerchandise.co.uk I also am senior editor of theGPM blog dedicated to big Motorsport talking points.