Zazzle Shop

Screen printing

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Honda's GT R takes the Civic to the Limit

Our first sight of the rarest and probably most desirable Honda Civic on the planet is a flash of blood-red paint and a glint of black wheel spokes a couple of hundred yards away, parked in a roadside turn-off in the middle of England. Even at this range, we know it's the real thing, and up close the 2008 Honda Civic Mugen RR is even more striking.

When the Mugen RR went on sale in Japan last September, all 300 examples were snapped up in just 10 minutes. This is the only example in the U.K. and is likely to remain so, as RRs are now changing hands at a premium in Japan. While the standard Honda Civic Type R costs $25,600 in Japan, the Mugen RR went for $43,900.

That's a premium of $18,300 for what appears at first glance to be a gentle massaging of the already impressive JDM Civic Type R sedan. The more you delve into the details of the 2008 Honda Civic Mugen RR, however, the more plausible becomes Mugen's claim to have built the ultimate front-drive car.

The Mugen Way
Mugen, of course, is the Japanese word for "Unlimited," and it began when Hirotoshi Honda built a racing car in his father's workshop back in 1965 while he was still a student at Nihon University. And, yes, his father was Soichiro Honda, the patriarch of Honda. Mugen has specialized in high-performance and motorsports with Honda products since it was formally established, although the company was restructured in late 2003 under the ownership of M-TEC.

Mugen is well known for offering tuning and styling parts for Hondas, but everything on the RR is unique and will not be on sale separately. Take a chunk out of one of the forged-aluminum 18-inch wheels and you'll have to prove that you own an RR to get another. The same goes for the carbon-fiber front airdam and rear aero diffuser, the aluminum vented hood and the adjustable carbon-fiber rear wing.

Despite these lightweight pieces, the RR is only 22 pounds lighter than the Honda Civic Type R upon which it is based, even with the lightweight carbon-fiber Recaro racing seats inside the cabin.

You won't find a substantial power uplift either. In prototype form, the RR was said to have a 256-horsepower, 2.2-liter version of the Honda K20A engine, but the production version sticks with the standard displacement of 1,998cc. Mind you, the 237 hp it does produce is more power than the stock 222-hp Type R unit. The improvements come from a ram-air intake, a larger cold air box, new intake and exhaust camshafts, stiffer valve springs, a 4-2-1 exhaust manifold, a low-restriction catalyst and dual exhaust.

Track Record
Now, we're big fans of the Honda Civic Type R, even though its appearance in Japan as a four-door sedan instead of a three-door coupe caused something of a scandal (Honda U.K. even built its own Type R coupe in response).

The Type R's grooved, street-legal slicks, limited-slip differential and a K20A with a 9,000-rpm redline make it pretty impressive. The Mugen RR sets out to be even more focused, but we can't help but cynically imagine that this will be like the difference between a four-blade and a five-blade disposable razor, i.e. largely imaginary. After all, the Civic Type R's own K20A spins out 225 hp at 8,000 rpm and 158 pound-feet of torque at 6,100 rpm.

Nevertheless, the Mugen RR is 2 seconds quicker than the Type R around the Tsukuba Circuit, the 1.3-mile road course that Japanese car manufacturers regard as an important standard of speed just like the Nürburgring Nordschleife (only, you know, shorter). So the RR does the business.

Road Worthy
First, though, we're going to find out what the 2008 Honda Civic Mugen RR feels like on the road. Climbing into the lairy red-and-black interior, we find that the seat is a snug fit across the back even for us, and we're pretty slim. Above the slot for the radio sits a trio of auxiliary dials from Mugen, while down on the center console is a simple aluminum plate embossed with the number 178, marking this car's place in the total production run of 300 cars.

Twist the key, push the red starter button and the 16-valve inline-4 fires and settles into an idle that's smooth and actually rather timid. The Mugen's short-throw shift action feels notchy although light, and stroking gently down the road there's still no hint that the engine has another side to its personality.

What gets your attention is the firmness of the ride on this country road. The RR feels a fraction stiffer than the already tough standard set by the Type R, first because it offers five-way adjustable dampers and also because the RR's ride height is lower. It's a tightly controlled chassis setup, but it's still resilient and never crashes into the bump stops.

The steering is surprisingly light and tugs gently as the large tread blocks of the 225/40R18 Bridgestone RE070s register the bumps in the road and respond to camber changes. The brake pedal is terrifically responsive right from the top of the pedal travel, a function of the Mugen RR's braided-steel brake lines plus the standard Type R's Brembo calipers and slotted discs (12.6-inch rotors in front and 11.1-inch rotors in the rear), not to mention the Mugen carbon-fiber cooling ducts.

Torque is thin down low but this suddenly seems of no consequence as the tach needle swings through 6,000 rpm and the total of 160 lb-ft at 7,000 rpm is within reach. The exhaust note gains weight, the shove in your back hardens to a punch and the whole car seems to come into focus. The peak output of 237 hp comes at 8,000 rpm but this engine seems to deliver useful urge right up to the limiter, a gnat short of 9,000 rpm. As ever, the K20A is an engine you have to keep on the boil, even if it's still odd to be tacking through a series of unsighted bends at a frantic 6,500 rpm in 2nd, waiting to nail it when the road opens out.

Speed Chills
There are, of course, no such issues once we get this car to the track at the Bedford Autodrome. We really can't detect much difference between the RR and the Type R except that the Mugen feels a bit stiffer, so we're not expecting to see the Type R's standard of 1:31.0 at this track get beaten. Yet it takes just a few laps for the Mugen RR to get right down to that time, even though its front end is dealing with just about as much power and torque as it can.

The Mugen RR has only around 500 miles on the clock, but so did the regular Type R we tested not long ago, so it's all even. After a couple of laps to cool it down, we go for it again and the RR pulls out a 1:29.3. Amazing. Analyzing our onboard telemetry, the Mugen RR attains fractionally higher speeds on the straightaways (150 mph is possible, though not here), but it gains most of its advantage over the Type R by carrying more speed into the fastest corners.

Is the Mugen RR the ultimate front-drive car, then? On lap times, we suspect it lays down a marker that will stand for a very long time, and because making the Civic faster on track has been one of Mugen's objectives, its job is done.

Personally, though, we prefer the feel of the slightly more compliant Honda Civic Type R on both road and track, but there's no question that the 2008 Mugen RR is untouchable as an object of desire.

The Mugen Cult
For the moment you can't buy a 2008 Honda Civic Mugen RR. As we said, all 300 were sold in less than 10 minutes last fall. But there's a strong possibility that more might follow as Mugen establishes the RR as a Honda-powered answer to the Nissan Skyline GT-R.

Mugen even organized a track event at Tsukuba Circuit for owners of the Mugen RR and 20 cars appeared for a day of driver training and track testing. Mugen has a long tradition of motorsports, notably recent efforts with the midengine NSX in Japan's national championship for GT cars, and the Type RR reinforces the link.

We'll see if other manufacturers take up the challenge of a 1-minute lap at Tsukuba.

Portions of this content have appeared in foreign print media and are reproduced with permission.