Both of these hot hatchbacks claim to be R-rated. Indeed if the Honda Civic Type-R and Volkswagen Golf R were cling-wrapped magazines on newsagency shelves, kept away from young eyes, an adult would immediately know which suited them.
After all, tastes vary in the bedroom probably as much as they do with vehicles. The Golf R is classically good looking, understated and perhaps even sensual with a lick of matte-silver trim here and a subtle stream of sequential LED indicator there.
Meanwhile the Civic Type-R looks almost masochistic, as though it would whip its driver after hitting every road bump. Many will be scared off by that wings-and-things body, yet others may well love those manga lines that are unashamedly Japanese.
For all those contrasts, though, both are 2.0-litre turbocharged five-door hatchbacks priced from just over $50K. The question is, can the Volkswagen can rise above its formal roots to properly draw a driver in? And, conversely, is there greater depth to the Honda that what its blatant beefcake body would indicate?
Just maybe, we shouldn’t judge a book (or a magazine) by its cover.
Honda Civic Type-R ($50,990 plus on-road costs)
228kW/400Nm 2.0-litre turbo 4cyl | six-speed manual
Fuel use claimed: 8.8L/100km | tested: 9.8L/100km
Volkswagen Golf R ($52,990 plus on-road costs)
213kW/380Nm 2.0-litre turbo petrol 4cyl | six-speed manual
Fuel use claimed: 8.0L/100km | tested: 10.1L/100km
The Civic Type-R is priced from $50,990 plus on-road costs, $2000 below its rival. With 228kW of power and 400Nm of torque, it also makes 15kW/20Nm extra,
Where the Honda distances itself from this Volkswagen is with its front-wheel drive configuration, and the inclusion of a traction-enhancing limited-slip differential (LSD), a set-up that mirrors a Golf GTI Performance at under – rather than over – $50K.
Given that this Golf R instead adds all-wheel drive, some may wonder why we picked it over the Golf GTI Performance, and the answer is simple: for price, power, torque, performance and manual gearbox availability, this is the one to best go into battle.
It will also place harsher scrutiny on the Honda’s ability to channel even greater torque through the front wheels only. From the off, and despite lower outputs, the R claims a 5.2-second 0-100km/h – thank AWD – versus 5.7sec for the testier Type-R.
And where is the Ford Focus RS? Almost finishing up its production run, that’s where. It’s now available solely in final-run $56,990 (plus orc) Limited Edition specification, placing it closer to $60K than it probably should be.
The last time we compared the Golf R it challenged the Focus RS in pre-facelift guise, equipped with its optional dual-clutch automatic. But like the Ford this Honda is also a manual-only proposition, so best see Volkswagen if you need an auto…
That said, the R auto is priced from a hefty $55,490 (plus orc) and, despite receiving an extra gear inside its now-seven-speeder, it isn’t a sporty enough gearbox. This time we have the R at its finest, in six-speed manual guise to tackle Type-R head-on.
However, where the Golf took an easy win against the Focus for interior quality in that previous comparison test – as though Usain Bolt merely jogged his way to achieve a world record, that is – the Civic instantly puts up a stronger fight inside.
Honda’s driving position is superb, its front seats comfortable yet supportive. You sit low, with the console and stubby alloy-topped gearlever plumped up beside you, and the pedals near-horizontally ahead.
The leather-wrapped steering wheel falls perfectly to hand(s) and the switchgear is tightly damped. There are some hard plastics, but fit-and-finish is expectedly superb for a Japanese-badged (but UK-built) model.
Then you notice that adaptive cruise control is standard, as is a blind-spot monitor and lane-keep assist that works brilliantly to remain lane-centred on the freeway. Sophisticated technology in a car with that wing? Indeed. And for that trio of active safety features its already pricier rival needs a $1300 Driver Assistance Package.
Swap to the Volkswagen and its dashboard feels shallower than its coupe-like rival. Ultimately, there are richer plastics and its 9.2-inch touchscreen and 12.3in driver display oust the 7.0in equivalents in the Honda – but not by much, really.
Both get Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring technology, but the R exclusively gets integrated satellite navigation and a 10Gb hard drive, while the Type-R exclusively adds a digital radio tuner and twin (versus single) USB ports.
Where the German contender really surges forward, and most justifies its $2000 premium, is with the standard inclusion of supple leather trim and electrically adjustable and heated front seats. The Honda misses out on all three.
And the Golf continues to make ground further back in the cabin.
The Civic is pretty much a medium-sized car, its 4557mm-long body stretching a huge 294mm – or a 30cm ruler’s length – further than its small hatchback rival. Yet although legroom is competitive, the rear bench is positioned too low, air vents are lacking and the sloping roofline affects headroom even for this 178cm-tall tester.
The Volkswagen is plush and airy by comparison, a proper four-seater with comfort and under-thigh support to spare.
That said, its 343-litre boot is hobbled by the inclusion of all-wheel drive, which raises the boot floor. And indeed if luggage volume means more to you than back seat comfort, then the Honda returns a rearmost serve with a capacious 414L cavity.
ON THE ROAD
Honda has seemingly gone all out to make its latest hot hatch hardened for battle. Compared with the regular Civic, flared wheelarches leave the body 78mm wider to house front and rear tracks up 52mm and 30mm respectively.
A new variable-ratio steering system teams with a ‘dual axis’ front suspension design to isolate torque steer, while front spring rates are twice as stiff and the rear springs are 1.6-times harder. The front stabiliser bar moves up by about the same degree, while the rear pushes ahead by double-and-a-half.
There’s extra underfloor and underbonnet bracing to increase torsional rigidity, while the bonnet itself turns from steel to aluminium, saving 5kg.
Indeed the 1393kg Type-R is 36kg lighter than the R, its 245mm-wide tyres are 10mm wider, its 20-inch alloy wheel diameter is an inch up, and its engine can run on regular unleaded rather than a mandatory premium brew (while also using 0.3 litres less of it per 100 kilometres on-test, despite a 0.8L-higher combined-cycle claim).
Both get adaptive suspension with three modes, which Honda labels Comfort, Sport (which it infuriatingly defaults to on each start-up) and R+, and Volkswagen tags Comfort, Normal and Race.
It takes mere metres to realise that the Civic is more polished than what its exterior suggests. This is no crude WRX STI rival, but is instead almost Porsche-esque in its duality of character.
Honda’s 2.0-litre turbo seems a bit wound-up, buzzing noisily into the cabin with an industrial growl that is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It fizzes feel through to the fabulous manual, but is easy to get off the line despite a weightiness to its clutch.
It also rides astonishingly well given it rolls on liquorice-thin 30-aspect tyres. Comfort can be too springy, like a po-go stick, but Sport is superbly judged, keeping the body immaculately level while rounding off big hits. Even R+ is no back-breaker.
A problem arises not in the tuning, but rather the available settings. While Sport might be perfect for damping, it forces onto its driver a heavier steering weight that makes it feel dull around town. Comfort steering is lovely and light, by contrast, but packaged with springy damping. Meanwhile the drivetrain needs to be in R+ mode to make the throttle so crisp that the whole car comes alive.
But Sport damping, Comfort steering and R+ throttle cannot be mixed and matched like the equivalents can in the Volkswagen via a separate Individual setting.
It isn’t a deal breaker, though, because you emerge from the Type-R regularly delighted and rarely disappointed. It feels special, and superbly engineered.
When you swap to the Golf R, though, you also realise that it’s possible to have several cakes and eat them all at once. Its 2.0-litre turbo has pull everywhere, backed by a smoother and sweeter zing to the ear. Around town it’s the better engine, and its six-speed manual is just the most delightfully well-oiled unit.
In any of its modes there’s a bit more lateral movement, the body never keeping quite as level from side to side as its rival, but this is offset by marginally greater compliance and wheel isolation at all speeds.
There’s nothing in it for ride quality, though.
Instead the Volkswagen’s Individual drive mode set-up proves to be its greatest advantage, allowing the steering to be light and slick, the suspension a bit firmer, and the throttle sharp. And, joy of joys, it doesn’t reset itself on each start-up to a default. Take note, Honda, because around-town the German hatch gels to a greater degree.
Conversely, however, Japan attacks back once freed of urban constraints.
The way this Civic handles 400Nm through its front hoofs is staggering. It doesn’t merely handle it, actually, but in R+ model with near-semi-slick Continental ContiSport6 tyres it thrives on extracting everything from that configuration.
The immediate steering connects with a front-end that sports cat-like reflexes. Through corners the body remains perfectly flat and it encourages the early application of throttle. The LSD locks with a vigour that bests any front-driver, clamping down wheelspin on an inside tyre and ensuring an express exit.
And the manual boasts close gear ratios to tap into the best of an engine that feels like a turbo version of a Honda VTEC unit should, winding aggressively to 7000rpm.
Some will bemoan hot hatchbacks with too much grip and not enough back-end play, and indeed the Honda doesn’t dance through its rear as much as other models past and present do. But it’s also tough to complain when it instead delivers exhilarating Focus RS-equalling pace without feeling as heavy and hard.
If at this point you expect the Golf R to disappoint, though, then grab humble pie.
Immediately the Volkswagen presents itself at a corner with much slower steering and less grip from its Pirelli P Zero tyres. Even in the hardest Race mode it delivers far greater bodyroll than its rival, feeling lazier and less focused (or less Focus RS).
It does have a couple of (rear-wheel) aces, though. Earlier understeer encourages the driver to lift the throttle, at which point the rear passively swings around and the all-wheel drive system allows the throttle to be pinned again for a squiggle on exit.
You’ll never be going as quickly in the Golf R – and its engine gasps towards 6800rpm where the Civic Type-R warps its digital tachometer needle there – but as for grabbing a hot hatchback by the scruff of its neck, it is stacks of fun. And whether it be the engine or chassis, it just keeps on giving to its driver as you play and push.
If this test included a DSG-equipped Golf R then a clear half-star would be wiped from its scorecard. The virtually flawless manual just brings this model alive, a finishing touch on probably the most well-rounded hot hatchback in the world.
Here, ‘well-rounded’ isn’t code for boring, though. Yes, the Volkswagen is great at all the mundane things such as accommodating passengers and being smooth. Yet it is also brimming with flavour from a zingy engine and playful chassis.
It is delightfully suited to any situation anywhere, while never annoying its driver, and it would be cruel to deny it the same score as its rival just for separation’s sake.
The Civic Type-R wins this comparison test, though, because it combines qualities – such as ride comfort and a low driving position – that have eluded hardcore hatchbacks such as the Focus RS. Yet that it can also deliver the speed and aggression of that Ford is something truly special indeed.
Yes, the Honda has detail flaws, not least those finicky drive modes and that challenging styling. But it’s also wild, yet sophisticated, and it hits higher highs without being entirely highly strung. This is one book not to be judged by its cover.
Honda Civic Type-R – 4.5 stars
Volkswagen Golf R – 4.5 stars