Two radically different approaches to hot-hatch bliss.
Friends, it’s a good day to be alive. Not only are 400-plus horsepower cars common and reasonably affordable, but 300-plus-horsepower hot hatchbacks are everywhere and definitely easy to afford. Two of the best are the Honda Civic Type R and Ford Focus RS.
The Focus RS is the old boy, the car that arrived to kick the former horsepower champs – the Subaru WRX STI and Volkswagen Golf R – in the teeth with oodles of power, standard all-wheel drive, and a frikkin’ drive mode dedicated to sideways funny business. The Civic Type R is the Rookie of the Year and a car that takes a hardline approach to driving performance in a way that few in the mid-$30,000 range ever have.
But which of these firecrackers is the better buy? The Ford has the edge on power and an undeniably attractive style, but the Civic is arguably the most entertaining front-wheel-drive car since John Cooper got his hands on an Austin Mini. Read on to see what’s tops: the Ford Focus RS or the Honda Civic Type R.
Ford: If you want the most powerful hot hatchback on the market, your search will start and end with the Ford Focus RS. Its (relatively) big 2.3-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder belts out 350 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque, and thanks to standard all-wheel drive, it's almost too easy to deploy the speed those numbers provide.
In a vacuum, this is a genuinely quick car from a standstill and while accelerating at speed. Torque is constant up to about 5,000 rpm and there isn't a big falloff in the final 1,500 revs. But there is some turbo lag.
It's not that the short delay is disruptive. Rather, today's cars have largely eradicated turbo lag, so cars with this particular quirk tend to stand out more. If anything, it makes the Focus RS a little more involving, asking more of drivers than today's point-and-squirt turbocharged cars.
But the deeper you dive into the Focus RS' powertrain, problems do arise. The standard all-wheel-drive system is great, providing sure-footed grip off the line and curbing bad behavior with the sharp throttle. But the standard six-speed manual is difficult to use. The clutch is heavy and the catchpoint is vague. The bigger issue is the rubbery gates that the gear lever goes into – the short shift lever isn't satisfying, requiring some strong arming to drive quickly. The 13,000 miles of abuse on this tester could have something to do with it, as third gear was particularly mushy.
This is also a portly car, owing to its all-wheel-drive system. It's over 300 pounds heavier than the Honda, and its chassis isn't anywhere near as smartly tuned. The Focus has oodles of grip, but it rolls much more through bends, and its steering lacks the telepathic feedback present in the Civic. It's still fun to barrel through a corner in the Focus – grip from its 19-inch Michelins is constant – with the dual-exhaust popping and banging, but the Ford lacks the precision, feedback, and aggressive attitude found in the Civic.
Honda: The Civic Type R is down on oomph with its 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder pumping out 306 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. But ignore the on-paper argument – the Civic Type R feels very nearly as quick, and more enthusiastic. This 2.0-liter, like so many high-performance Honda engines before it, is quick to climb the tachometer.
But it's the character of these engines that is their biggest distinction. The 2.3-liter Focus RS engine is fun and charming, but the Civic Type R's 2.0-liter is genuinely potent in the way it accelerates. It just revs so willingly, and the power is so constant that the Civic always feels like it's on the boil.
Front-wheel drive is only a small issue. The Civic requires more careful throttle application off the line – it will happily bake its front tires – but there's little-to-no torque steer. And around turns, a mechanical limited-slip differential curbs understeer and produces a catapult-like effect on corner exit. It's absolutely addicting.
The Civic's six-speed manual is fantastic. The clutch is light, predictable, and a joy to squeeze after the leg press that is the Focus' left pedal. The gear lever is light and buttery – typical Honda – and slipping it into the gates is remarkably satisfying.
And goodness, does this car handle well. Dollar for dollar, the Civic Type R is one of the best handling cars on the market. The suspension tuning is perfect so that, confusingly, it's both more agile than the Focus and more comfortable in daily driving (thanks in large part to its active dampers). There's very little body roll, and the level of feedback through the chassis is sublime. The steering is telepathic, perfectly modulated for around-town cruising but an absolute chatterbox with spot-on weighting in corners.
Unlike the Focus, I've driven the Civic on a track. Among a Porsche, an Alfa Romeo, and a Lexus LC, it was the only car I wanted to continue flogging.
Styling and Interior
Honda: The Civic Type R would look really good if Honda's designers had spent about half the time styling it. They didn’t, and so the CTR is overstyled and needlessly complex. How many wings and spoilers are on the back end? The answer varies from person to person based on their definition of what constitutes aerodynamics.
There's just so much going on with the Civic Type R, and even our tester's subdued Polished Metal paint isn't enough to mute the busyness. Wildly flared wheel arches, the triple exhaust system, the red stripe around the car's bottom, and the carbon-fiber accents create a character that's too extroverted.
And that's obvious driving around town. People don't know what to make of it, while some motorists seemed openly disgusted by the angriest Civic.
But Honda claws back points in the cabin. Sure, the red fabric seats and red seatbelts are a bit kitschy, but the Type R's cabin is every bit as nice as the standard Civic's. That means an all-digital instrument cluster; a prominent touchscreen infotainment system and smart, premium-feeling controls with solid fit and finish.
The Civic's seats are also far more comfortable everyday than the Focus' Recaro thrones. While the Focus’ seats are undeniably sporty, I sighed in relief every time I switched to the Honda. The padding has more give, and while the bolsters on the seats are smaller, they don't compromise support during aggressive cornering.
Ford: The standard Focus, despite its age, is still one of the best-looking compact cars you can buy. That fact extends to the Focus RS, which wears flared wheel arches, unique front and rear fascias, a hearty rear wing, bigger wheels, and stunning Nitro Blue paint.
Although the Volkswagen Golf R is still the cleanest, most attractive of today's hot hatches, the Focus RS is better balanced between the conservative Golf and the I'M-SO-SPORTY-EVERYONE-LOOK-AT-ME Civic Type R. From every angle, this is an attractive car. Each of the changes to the body feels like it was made out of necessity rather than an obsessive desire to look interesting or sporty.
Despite its advanced age, the Focus' cabin looks and feels up to date. Sure, some of the plastics aren't as nice as you'll see in the Honda, but they still pass muster. The seats aren't nearly as comfortable every day, but the leather and Alcantara upholstery feels more expensive and satisfying than the all-fabric Civic.
I wouldn't normally acknowledge this bit, but with the Focus, I have to. The Nitro Blue RS shown above is a model year 2016. The Ford had over 13,000 miles on it during this test. That's 13,000 hard, journalist-driven miles. And yet, the cabin still felt tight as a drum. There was the occasional odd rattle, but nothing out of the ordinary for a first-year production car that's been beaten by uncaring writers all its life. And unlike the Civic, which was a 2018 model-year baby with only a few thousand miles on the clock, the rear-view mirror in the Ford didn't jiggle.
Honda: The Civic Type R's tech advantage starts in the cockpit. Its infotainment system is quicker and easier to use than the Ford's Sync 3. The standard digital instrument cluster includes all the normal goodies, like trip data and audio information, but it also packs a set of Formula 1-style shift lights, so you can pretend you're driving a Honda F1 car without fearing the engine will suddenly let go.
The Civic is mechanically smarter, too. As mentioned in our first drive, its standard three-mode adaptive dampers are revelatory, allowing the Type R to go from track-devouring five-door to family friendly school bus at the flick of a switch. Combine that with the aforementioned limited-slip diff, and it's not hard to see why Honda earned the win here.
Ford: The Focus RS puts up a fine fight. Sync 3 is at least prettier than the Civic's infotainment system, and importantly, the Ford is available with heated front seats and a heated steering wheel. Those two features may not seem like a big deal on their own, but taken with the RS' standard all-wheel-drive system, the Ford is far easier to drive year around in a place like Detroit, Chicago, or… all of Canada.
There's also something to be said for Ford's gimmicky Drift Mode and our test car's Drift Stick. They're silly features, but at the very least, drift assistance is innovative technology for the class.
Ford: The numbers don't lie. The Focus RS' 19.9 cubic-foot cargo hold is a good bit smaller than the Civic's. Space in the cabin is also at a premium, with the Ford offering up less passenger volume, at 90 cubic feet, than the Type R.
For passengers in the front seat, the aggressive Recaro racing chairs make ingress and egress a challenge, as well.
Honda: The Civic Type R is easier for front-seat passengers to get into; offers more second-row leg, shoulder, and head room; 97 cubic feet of passenger volume; and at least 25.7 cubic feet of cargo space. The only real mark against it is a rear hatch that is on the heavier side.
Honda: With a smaller, less powerful engine in a lighter vehicle, is it really any surprise that the Civic Type R's fuel economy is superior? Look for 22 miles per gallon city, 28 highway, and 25 combined.
Ford: Despite its extra power and weight, the Ford isn't too far behind. It returns an EPA-estimated 19 mpg city, 26 highway, and 22 combined. As with the Type R, though, driving the Focus as intended will have a serious impact on those figures.
Honda: The mono-spec Civic Type R starts and ends at $35,595, which includes an $895 destination charge.
Ford: While the test Focus is from model year 2016, there's no point in comparing the price of a car that's almost certainly sold out. The 2018 Focus RS, though, starts at $41,995, including an $875 destination charge. And unlike the Civic, there are goodies to choose from.
The beautiful Nitro Blue paint costs $695, and is one of only two colors on offer (Race Red is the default). A winter tire and wheel package is available for $1,995 and is a smart purchase for northern drivers, since it includes a separate set of wheels. That means do-it-yourself tire swaps rather than visiting your local tire shop and paying to get your winter rubber mounted. A sunroof is $695 and forged 19-inch wheels are $550. As for the Drift Stick, it costs $999, although some retailers, like Ford performance parts manufacturer Mountune, are listing it for $899. And then you’re still on the hook for installation, unless you’re the handy sort.
Despite looking like a lopsided fight, this battle was far closer than the categorical results would indicate. Ultimately, the Civic Type R takes the prize. It’s dynamically superior, it’s a better everyday car, and it’s more affordable. It is objectively superior in nearly every way.
While the Civic won... I went home in the Focus RS.
But subjectively, the results are far murkier. Let’s put it like this – while the Civic won, when given the choice of which car I wanted to drive for the weekend, I went home in the Focus RS. It has an air of the hoon to it and is fully willing to embrace its ridiculous and occasionally obnoxious attitude. Its character, that automotive X-factor, was attractive enough that I passed on the dynamically fantastic Type R for a weekend in an uncomfortable chair, driving a Smurf blue car, with an aluminum girder sticking out of the floor. On paper, arguments are a hell of a thing, but sometimes, having fun with what you have is what counts.
Winner: 2018 Honda Civic Type R
NOTE: We caught an error in our video after the fact. The Civic's fuel economy is 22 City / 28 Highway / 25 Combined and its as-tested price is $35,595.