November 13th 2007 was one of the most eagerly awaited media drive event I have attended. It was of course the belated but very much anticipated Honda Malaysia's media drive for the FD2 Civic Type R that was launched here in Malaysia back in August 2nd 2007. And acknowledging the racing heritage from which the Type-R concept was born, Honda Malaysia held the event at the Sepang International Circuit.
Reception for the FD2 Civic Type-R has surpassed Honda Malaysia's wildest expectations, with booking approaching the 100 units mark 6 months after its launch. This is in stark contrast to the original planned sale 'quota' of 30 units for this whole year (60 units annually and thus 30 units from August till December of 2007). So Honda Malaysia is having a rather nice problem - demands are far outstripping supply. Because of this however, the number of units set aside for marketing and promotional activities is very little - only 2 units, and these 2 were used in the media drive event. As a result, 'seat-time', or the amount of laps we get to actually drive the CTR on the track was extremely limited. Each of us were allowed to take the car out for only 4 laps. But that 4 laps includes the out-lap and the in-lap as well. So that makes it effectively only 2 proper laps around Sepang. In addition, each lap was not the full Sepang lap but only half a lap, i.e. the north circuit. This means that after turn 6, instead of going onwards to the double apexes around turns 7 & 8 (around the grandstand tower), I will have to make a sharp right to get back to the main straight. For me anyway, it was difficult to get a totally accurate feel of the CTR with such limited amount of seat-time and laps so I have to clarify upfront at this point that what I could get can accurately be called only 'impressions' and nothing more. Still, few people can argue against that the race-track is the proper place to try out the CTR and I do compliment Honda Malaysia for understanding this instead of holding the media drive event on public roads.
To ensure smooth running of the media drive, each of us were assigned a number at random when we arrived. This number determined the order of our session, i.e. who gets to go first and so forth. It also determined which of the two units of CTR we will get to drive. And then to make things a little bit more interesting, Honda Malaysia also allocated two standard Civic 2.0S which we will also get to test-drive on the track as well. This is to allow us to give an answer to the crucial question that many newcomers to Honda ownership (and thus not experienced with what the Type-R badge signifies) will have - what are the differences between the two cars (on a race track at least). When I checked the number I got, I found out that I will get to drive the CTR first and later the regular Civic 2.0S. Initially I had thought it was a good arrangement but as I found out later, the reverse would have been the much better one.
For the test-drive proper, Honda Malaysia had 'instructors' assigned to all the cars (including the regular Civic 2.0S), to accompany us on our 4 'laps' around the north track and also to answer any questions we might have. For the CTR drive, I got the car which has HMRT MME race-driver Rubens Wong assigned as the 'instructor'. He drove the No 26 HMRT Civic to overall P3 in this year's (2007) MME. Rubens is an extremely courteous and nice guy and after mutual introductions, I started out to the pit exit for my 4 laps.
For the 4-laps, Honda Malaysia actually marked out their 'recommended' racing line on the circuit, using cones to mark out a path into and around all the corners. These cones even designated the desired braking point as well (which unfortunately I really feel are set way too early). Also, I think it was to ensure we don't build up too high a speed, perhaps for fear we will overcommit into the 1st corner and overrun into the gravel trap - the CTR is a rather expensive car after all - a slalom was put right in the middle of the main straight and we were told to negotiate the slalom when we were on the straight. So I never did have any chance to get the CTR up to very high speeds, to get a feeling of how it handles at high speed on the track.
Nevertheless, I tried to make the best of what I had. One immediate impression was how revvy the K20AR engine is. It is a true full-blooded Type-R engine, willing to rev like there's no tomorrow. More surprising however was its sonic signature. It sounded pretty much like the B18CR and B16B engines of the DC2 ITR and EK9 CTR, more than 2 generations ago ! This of course is really a great thing as the VTEC 'roar' of those cars are one of their most endearing points to Type-R fanatics. When the DC2 and EK9 was replaced by the DC5 and EP3, eventhough the latters are quite a bit faster, the most common comments from owners have always been how the VTEC roar of their K20AR have been a little bit 'toned down'. The significance of this 'VTEC roar' as an important part of the 'character' of a Honda VTEC engine was finally understood by Honda's R&D engineers during the development of the new 8th Gen Civic. And it was gratifying to hear the FD2 CTR's full bodied 'VTEC roar' on the track.
The CTR gearbox shifts much like Honda's MT gearboxes, which means one of the best feeling manual shifters in the world except that while Honda's manual transmission always had that strange feeling of a slight 'notchiness' when getting into the next gear (after the synchros have engaged), the gearbox on this FD2 CTR was super smooth, no hint of any notchiness at all.
The engine felt very torquey, even in low-revs, which was surprising because I had expected the huge 18" wheels to suck away any low-end torque. But the engine was willing to rev and the car willing to go, even in the higher gears at low-ish speeds. At the first corner, I tried twice (though unsuccessfully) to experiment and test the engine's lower rpm grunt by going in at 3rd gear but as I did not inform Rubens beforehand, he kept instructing me to change down to 2nd. So to avoid getting into a tedious explanation, I followed his instructions both times, meaning I never did get to try out the 1st corner in 3rd. Nevertheless, from the little time I tried with 3rd, the CTR actually felt perfectly capable of negotiating the 1st corner in 3rd with plenty of grunt to exit into the 2nd corner, eventhough 2nd would have been ultimately faster.
As mentioned, a slalom was placed right in the middle of the main straight and so I wasn't able to really check out the car in 4th gear. I did shift into 4th after getting onto the main straight. But the braking point into the slalom was placed way so early that I never had a chance to really give 4th gear a go.
I believe I was bit too cautious, due to a very long absense from driving on the Sepang track, and so I did not push the CTR enough to build up the speed I was expected/supposed to, into all of the corners and the slalom. Anyway, my constant remarks about the super early braking points marked out for us was due to the fact that eventhough I did not brake at the limit of the tyre's traction, I still found myself getting down to the speed I want way too early - way before the point I planned to turn into the corner itself. So often I found myself having to feather the throttle for quite a distance before entering the turns. But this also shows how good the massive brakes on the CTR is. Speed drops faster than a falling rock under hard braking and more importantly, the car was extremely stable.
Unfortunately, I didn't really manage to test the limit of the CTR's traction in the 2 high speed corners of turns 5 and 6, my favoured place to guage the high speed cornering limit. This was because I had misunderstood the meaning of the cones layout and thought I was supposed to take a deep entry into turn 5. Unfortunately I had this wrong impression on all my laps through it (out lap plus the 2 proper laps) so I never had a chance to really push the CTR thru the 2 corners. Frustratingly after I finally understood the meaning of the cones layout, my alloted time slot with the CTR was over and I had to get back to the pits to pass the car over to someone else.
I found the steering wheel to be nicely weighted for my preferences and the car nicely responsive to inputs to the steering wheel. However, I wasn't able to completely get used to the steering ratio (i.e. how much the car turns in relation to how much I turn the steering wheel) of the FD2 CTR over so little laps. So most of the time, and especially into turn 1, I wasn't turning the steering wheel enough and so tended to drift out too far. Rubens of course wouldn't know this and kept telling me I had overcommited into the 1st corner (too high a speed and understeering outwards).
The Sepang track has been resurfaced in conjunction with the SUPER GT race earlier in June this year and while it had off-camber corners, the track surface was always almost perfectly flat. So I could not check out how really bumpy and hard the suspension was, but it was very nice for track driving if actually a little bit 'soft' as the CTR still had noticeable roll at the tight corners. This is despite the fact that I did not have a chance to really push it to the max.
The FD2 CTR seats are no longer RECAROS but Honda's own in-house design, developed to provide better drivers and passengers support. On the track, the seats were indeed very nicely supportive though again from the extremely short use, I did not really notice much difference between it and say the Recaros of the DC2R, except that I thought the FD2 CTR seats felt more comfortable ! Note however that actual owners of the FD2R felt that the seats are ultimately not as good to sit in as the Recaros of previous Type-Rs, especially during spirited driving.
I have always praised the design of the new Civic's dashbord. The placement of the digital speedo readout really shines on the track as the peripheral vision of the eye really do keep it clearly noticeable. Conversely, even when my eyes were firmly on the digital readout instead, the track itself was also very noticeable.
The special VTEC display is very nice and it actually compensates for the comparatively low placement position of the tacho. On the track, I was using it more or less as a shift-light. So I was timing my upshifts using the VTEC display and without having to take my eyes completely off the road due to its placement just beside the speedo display. Rubens told me to upshift when the 2nd red LED turns on. I followed this instruction during the test-drive though I actually feel I was shifting just a bit too early. I think after getting used to the timing of the LEDs in comparison with the rev-cut, the owner of an FD2 CTR will shift slightly later after the 2nd LED lights up which will take him or her right to the onset of the rev-cut. This will extract the last bit of performance from the car.
While this FD2 CTR media drive was the shortest proper test-drive I have attended, it was probably the most exciting one. Of course with just '4' laps around half the Sepang circuit, whatever I have discussed here can at best be considered only 'impressions'. Nevertheless, I do have the good fortune of experiencing a good number of different cars around the Sepang circuit, both as passenger and also driver. And the FD2 CTR is easily one of the best I have experienced.
After sampling the CTR, it was the turn of the regular FD2 Civic 2.0 i-VTEC for the track experience. The test-drive takes the same format, 1 out-lap followed by 2 proper laps and a final in-lap. Because I have properly settled in mentally after the CTR drive, including a better understanding of what all those cones lying around the track wanted me to do, the 2.0S test-drive was a lot more relaxed. This is why I noted at the beginning of the article that it would have been preferable had the order been reversed - i.e. I get the drive the 2.0S first and then the CTR (and misunderstand the cones layout during the 2.0S test drive instead of the CTR one). Nevertheless, to its credit, the Civic 2.0S was quite enjoyable to drive, a testimonial to the relative excellence of the Civic 2.0S that it doesn't feel hopelessly uninspiring even after just hopping off the CTR.
As before, I started out with some caution but steadily pushed the 2.0S harder and harder. Without worry about interpreting what the cones wants me to do, I was pushing the 2.0S hard shortly after getting into the in-lap. Eventually I was right at its limit through parts of the circuit, especially through the high speed corners of turns 5 and 6, screeching the tyres softly through the turn. The 2.0S I drove in the media drive was the latest specifications. So it comes with 17" wheels shrodded in 215/34/17 Michellin Pilot Precedia tyres. The suspension of the 2.0S though is of course a lot softer than either the CTR or my DA6 (which uses HKS Hiper Max). Nevertheless as some sort of comparison, especially for owners of the 2.0S who wonders how much they 'give away' to the CTR, on my first proper lap, I was going at around 96-98kph through turn 5. That was done without any drama. On my 2nd proper lap, and knowing I won't get another chance after that, I pushed the 2.0S to its traction limit and ended up with around 100-105kph before the tyres started screeching. By comparison, when my good friend Singapore A1-GP racer Denis Lian took my own DA6 through the same turn, we were going at over 140kph. I was using 195/55/15 tyres Yokohama Neova Advan AD07 at that time but they were already half-worn (the insides were actually already bald). So in theory, I should be losing out due to the narrower and worned out tyres. Of course the AD07s are higher grip compounds plus my suspension is tuned for the track.
As noted earlier, I did not have a chance to push the FD2 CTR anywhere near its limit through turns 5 & 6, due to my misunderstanding of the cones layout. But I believe the FD2 CTR should be capable of going very fast through the same turns - faster than my DA6. This is because I think the Bridgestone Potenza RE070 tyres fitted on the CTR are even grippier than the Yokohama AD07s on my DA6 plus they are in very good condition whereas as noted, my tyres are almost totally worn out. So I seriously believe the FD2 CTR should be able to negotiate turns 5 & 6 at over 140kph, near or maybe even over 150kph. Note that a car's speed through high speed corners while highly dependent on its tyres, is also influenced by several other things, like the car's suspension for e.g. In this case, the regular Civic 2.0S had very noticeable body roll in corners and this causes a lot of weight transfer to the outside tyres causing them to lose traction earlier than the inner tyres. The FD2 CTR on the other hand tracks corners quite flat (my DA6 corners even flatter due to the HKS coilovers) so the weight transafer is much better controlled. This factor also has a very big influence over the ultimate cornering speed of the car. In the case of the FD2 CTR, several TOVA readers who now owns the car are hardcore track-drivers and eventually I should be able to find out the FD2 CTR's limit through turns 5 & 6, once they have driven their cars at the Sepang circuit. For me at least, it is a good indicator of the high speed cornering limit of the car.
As a function of its softer suspension, the 2.0S was noticeably more twitchy when I had to do sudden steering corrections, as happened on the last proper lap when I got carried away and was heading for turn 7 before I remembered that the drive was only on the north track. So, at the last minute I had to 'flick' the steering sharply right when in the midst of 'unwinding' the steering in preparation to charge into turn 7. And the Civic 2.0S had quite a 'big reaction' to this sudden steering correction.
Engine wise, the 2.0S fared relatively OK on the track. I never had a chance to get into 4th gear at all, the only place where I could have done it being slowed down by the slalom. Nevertheless, I got to nearly redline in 3rd at a couple of place. In 2nd the engine pulls relatively well but as expected, once into 3rd gear, the pull was somewhat lack-lustre. However, I need to highlight that the instructor for this Civic 2.0S had the air-cond running all through the laps as it was getting truly hot and stuffy outside so that put some extra load on the engine as well.
For a summary on this short test-drive, I will highlight that I quite enjoyed the drive. So if I had to do it, I think driving the FD2 Civic 2.0S on the Sepang track can be an enjoyable experience, as long as one does not expect Type-R levels of performance out of it. Actually I think the 2.0S can be faster than quite a lot of normal cars at Sepang, such is its relatively good performance. Of course it is crucial to get into sequential shifter mode because of the superior control of gear selection especially in corners.
While I do not dare claim myself to be a very good track driver, I cannot deny that I am hopelessly addicted to driving on the track. It's just the sheer exhiliration of being able to push the car to its maximum without undue worries about breaking traffic laws, and that the race-track is a controlled and relatively safe environment to do it (of course 'safe' is a relative term as driving fast even on the track has its dangers as well). So I think regular TOVA readers and supporters, especially those who knows me, will understand how ultimately frustrating this Civic Type R test drive event has been for me. For one thing, the Sepang circuit was the best environment to test-drive the FD2 Civic Type R. Unfortunately, logistical reason and also the desire to expose this experience to as wide a media audience as possible also meant that the actual track time was way too short. Imagine how much 'hunger' I had and how utterly unwilling I was to cooperate when Rubens Wong told me "you'll have to turn here, to get back to the pits". I had more than half a mind to continue onwards to the main straight but of course it would have been very rude to do so. And so, it was with a heavy heart that I arrive back at the Honda Malaysia pits to pass the car to the next eagerly waiting media attendee. Nevertheless, Rubens did sweeten the departure a lot for me when he gave me some tips on what I did wrong during the drive and suggestions how I can improve my driving. Very nice person indeed.
A final note. Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed the dead give-away title of this article. As suggested by the title, this is but the 1st part of a series on the Civic Type R. I have quite a bit more to report so stay tuned. Coming up in Part Two of this series would be (yes I really did it !) dyno-results and standing-start acceleration test results, PLUS MORE. Coming soon, over the next few weeks. YES, TOVA is really back this time.