The best of both worlds
A reader recently asked why we weren’t going deep into the technical as much lately. He was referring to what I wrote in the Inquirer but also in our car magazine C!
The answer is basically that while many deep enthusiasts want the really detailed stuff, most readers don’t seem to feel the same way.
Since it is our job to suck you deeper into the abyss, we shall now see what we can do about that.
We will be discussing a simple manual transmission. Well, manual yes, but simple no.
The six-speed shifter on the Civic Type R is controlled by a sound metal ball with the shift pattern engraved in red on its matt finish. That’s basically where “simple” ends.
We have often spoken lovingly of the best dual clutch transmissions in the world, of which the Porsche PDK (Porsche DoppelKupplungsgetreibe) system tends to be our favorite.
It moves smoothly, and blips the throttle when you downshift, making onlookers think you are a true dancing racecar driver.
What the transmission is doing is what we used to have to do with multiple operations of hand and foot.
Basically, when you are shifting, you want to match the revs of the engine so things go in smoothly.
Shifting to a higher gear isn’t that hard; you just do it quickly so the engine speed doesn’t drop. You get off the gas with your right foot, you press the clutch pedal down with your left foot, you use your hand to change gears, you get off the clutch pedal (left foot) and you hit the gas (right foot). Relatively simple.
Now things get busy when you try to do this going from a high gear to a lower one. Say, you are going into a corner or approaching a curve. You want to be in a lower gear, which allows you to come on the gas more quickly. But the revs are dropping (the engine speed is slowing) because you are braking and slowing the car right now (which one foot is doing, either left or right depending on how good you are at this).
Ideally what you want to do is the following, all pretty much at the same time and smoothly: depress the brake, turn the steering wheel, push the clutch pedal in, change gears, press the gas pedal down to keep the engine speed up, let the clutch pedal back out, press the gas pedal down even more, and unwind the steering wheel.
So basically, you need to use foot pedals, a steering wheel and a gearshift at the same time, and with finesse, while you are diving deep into a corner.
Now, how many feet do you have? This used to be done in various very ballet-like ways. You would brake with your left foot (takes a long time to learn to do that smoothly), and rock your right foot, staying on the brake hard while giving it a little gas at the same time.
You would “heel and toe” where basically one end of your right foot is on one pedal, while the other end is on the other.
While this is all happening, your left foot is concentrating on just the cloth pedal. Your hands are shifting and steering. When this is done right, it is a beautiful thing to behold whether inside the car or out.
Viewing it from the outside, you see the car slow down and turn while you hear the engine rev a bit, then have the car come out of the corner smoothly and on the power fast.
This is also very important because if you don’t match those revs on a downshift, you unbalance the car and pitch it forward (or back, weightwise), which can really mess up your day.
I have launched an open-wheel racer twice doing this incorrectly (same track, same car, same changing-elevation corner), so it really isn’t hard to mess up.
The first time I flew backwards the length of a football field, I scared myself to death.
The second time, I was just mad at myself for doing it again.
The third time, I destroyed half my undercarriage.
So more than anything else, you need smoothness. The Porsche PDK dual-clutch system answers this by doing most of it for you. It brings gears down once or twice as it decides what you want to do, blipping the throttle to bring the revs where they should be.
Porsche really needed to do this, as their rear wheel drive 911 turbos were notoriously evil in suddenly swapping front for rear if you weren’t perfectly smooth and seriously committed.
I am a massive fan of the Porsche PDK systems. I truly love manual mixers, and my first-generation Mazda Miata MX-5 is still the one to beat hands down. But the Porsche PDK is just way better and way more consistent than any human being can be.
Which brings us to the simple-looking six-speed in the Civic Type R.
The decision to commit to a manual in this track-ready machine initially makes you think things need to be tuned down.
It is the modern electronic intervention, after all, that makes these insanely-powerful cars survivable, and a key component of that is the ability of the computers to work with the transmissions fully—which you can’t do when all the human pilot has to do is mess up a shift. Which again, is not hard to do. And which, again, I did with the Civic Type R on the racetrack.
Happily, no drama though.
What the Civic Type R does is use a very interesting rev-matching control system to do what the dual clutch systems do.
This was considered pretty impossible before because you had one completely uncontrollable variable in the driver.
Honda achieves the result by sensing everything and prepping, gathering information from sensors monitoring the clutch pedal, the position of the transmission gears and the revolutions of the transmission itself, in addition, of course, to the engine rpm. It then sets the engine rpm accordingly, and quickly.
This all happens surprisingly smoothly. In the beginning, I was messing up the system because I was doing what we usually do, which was to blip the throttle as we go into the lefthand uphill curve off the straight at the Clark International Speedway.
This had the effect of adding revs onto the already-perfect level that the car had decided, which threw me off completely.
I had to unlearn the habit to truly see how smooth the car was. I felt the effect of the engine rev drops and gear downshifts was far less than on even many double-clutch systems.
This means the car isn’t shifting weight forwards or backwards, which means the car stays balanced. Plus because the revs are already where you need them, you can get on the power very fast when you exit a curve. You maximize your ability to accelerate.
A few important things to note. This is essentially a car halfway between steerable and track-oriented. There are some compromises, but they are worth it.
You can choose between three drive modes—Comfort, Sport and +R—and the engine attitude adjusts accordingly.
Yet, this clutch pedal is always easy. Most cars with this power, especially the smaller hot sedans based on street models, have very tough clutches to compensate for the amount of power tuned in.
But the Civic R clutch is soft and smooth, possibly deceptively so. Yet it handles over 300 horses and 400 Nm of torque from its 2-liter turbocharged engine.
Wheelspin should be insane, clutches should be shredding, but it’s extremely drivable even at its highest level of play.
What Honda has done here is create something very unique. It went manual but highly technological where everyone else went either one or the other.
There are many things it could do better to be more sport-oriented (noisier exhaust, tougher suspension) or more real-world oriented (nicer rear seats).
But the Type R is a very unique product that arguably straddles the edges at levels of cars that cost multiples more, yet still exact further cost.
It was extremely sad that the track tests allowed us to understand the full potential of these cars only after all 100 allotted to the Philippines were sold.
That is, until Noriyuki Takakura, president and general manager of Honda Cars Philippines Inc. said, privately before the event, then publicly, that we should still be able to get one. Maybe.
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