Making power is but one variable in going fast. The upper echelon of performance—occupied by the mega-output Germans, big-muscled Corvettes and Hellcats, and, of course, Italian exotica—now depends on automatic transmissions, launch control, track-bred tires, and often all-wheel drive to generate stupefying performance.
That same phenomenon is just beginning to play out in our beloved hot-hatch segment, a first step on the factory-hot-rod ladder onto which go-fast technology slowly but surely trickles. With the spiciest hatchbacks making roughly 300 horsepower, the major players have turned to all-wheel drive to provide some relief to the front tires. In our May 2016 issue, the Ford Focus RS claimed the belt by defeating the Volkswagen Golf R and the Subaru WRX STI (okay, the Subaru isn’t a hatch, but it should be one).
Honda, however, still sees merit in the original front-wheel-drive formula. The company’s new Civic Type R, imported to the U.S. for the first time in the nameplate’s 20-year history, suggests that lighter weight and a lower price are enough to offset the straight-line traction advantage of all-wheel drive. To see if that notion has merit, we’ve pitted the Type R against the reigning champ in a battle of turbocharged four-cylinder hatchbacks. The Honda’s 2.0-liter produces 306 horsepower to the 2.3-liter Ford’s 350.
The single-spec Type R goes for $34,775; its equipment list includes satellite radio, a proximity key, and dual-zone climate control. Navigation, audio, and some climate controls run through a standard seven-inch touchscreen, while the only transmission, a six-speed manual, keeps the turbocharged Type R tethered to the analog world. Honda’s Type R adheres to the simpler, original hot-hatch formula with just one modern assist: a rev-matching algorithm that will blip the throttle on downshifts. We prefer to turn it off for the challenge and satisfaction of heel-and-toe downshifting.
Ford’s Focus RS will soon end its three-year production run with 1500 special-edition 2018 models that add a limited-slip front differential and a black roof among other cosmetic tweaks. Our tester is not that car. Instead, we have a $36,995 Focus RS with the $2785 RS2 package, which adds heated seats, a heated steering wheel, a power driver’s seat, and navigation. RS buyers can also spend $1990 on Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires that are best reserved for track use. Our comparo contender is shod with the standard street-friendly Michelin Pilot Super Sport rubber.
We relocated to Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest—due north of the Westmoreland factory where Volkswagen sparked the hot-hatch movement 34 years ago by building the first GTIs for the United States—to pick a winner, and then struggled to do exactly that.
There can be no draw in a Car and Driver comparison test. To the editors who weighed in on this particular face-off, this unwritten rule now seems as arbitrary and unjust as the one that says we can’t bring pet parakeets into the office. Because after we crunched the test numbers, cast our ballots, and topped the fuel tanks for the final time, the scorecard showed a dead heat, a conclusion that fittingly captured our affinity for both cars.
Ford’s Focus RS rides to near victory on the strength of its 350-hp inline-four. The 2.3-liter is equal parts raucousness and polish, a four-pot Ric Flair. Even though torque peaks at a relatively high 3200 rpm, the Focus lands at its 350-lb-ft plateau on a steady swell rather than the laggy bog-and-surge that’s common with high-output boosted four-cylinders. This steroidal Focus launches from its 6700-rpm fuel cutoff with graceful clutch engagement and a light chirp of the front tires, resulting in a 4.5-second zero-to-60 slingshot. On overrun, the engine sounds like Satan’s own popcorn maker. And as proof that Honda’s resurgence is not yet complete, the Ford has the more satisfying shifter with fluid movements. The heftier clutch gives better feel through the friction point, too.
That the Type R, on its sticky 30-series tires, sweeps our chassis tests is no big surprise. That it also rides much more comfortably than the Ford is impressive.
In a straight line, our comparo car cracked 5.2 seconds to 60 mph and 13.9 seconds through the quarter-mile. We hit 4.9 seconds and 13.5 seconds, respectively, with the first Type R we tested. That car, though, was also almost a full second quicker in both of its top-gear passing tests, suggesting it may have been packing more ponies.
The Type R drives its 295 pound-feet of torque through a helical limited-slip differential and Continental SportContact 6 summer tires that deliver dogged traction at a price. Replacements cost $321 each and the Type R’s window sticker warns that they may wear out in less than 10,000 miles. Honda’s traction control can be a bit heavy-handed, perhaps in consideration of the tires’ capability. The system preemptively cuts power any time the car gets light over a crest. Of course, if you turn the electronic minders off, no front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive car will be as hilariously fun as a rear-driver when you abuse the right pedal.
While still palpable, torque steer is well damped thanks to a strut-type front end that separates steering and suspension geometry, similar to Ford’s RevoKnuckle in the prior-generation (and not-for-U.S.-sale) front-wheel-drive Focus RS. The steering weights up perfectly—a touch lighter than the modern Ford’s—and the brake pedal’s action matches the immediacy of the binders. After flogging the Focus (and the Focus flogging us back), we always found welcome relief for compressed spines in the Type R’s compliant ride.
The Type R’s flaws are plain to see for anyone over the age of 19. The designers appear to have drawn inspiration from fly swatters, anime hairstyles, and suspicious growths. And the interior team must have used their year’s allotment of red Sharpies coloring the seats and the lower half of the steering wheel, because they all but stopped at the B-pillar, dressing the rear only with perfunctory red stitching and belts. On the upside, think of all the money you’ll save when you can’t find a more garish fiberglass body kit for your Honda.