Can we get something out of the way first? Yes, the Honda Civic Type R and the Ford Focus ST are two hot hatches that compete in much the same category, but let's just avoid any confusion.
These are two very different cars and which one you prefer very much comes down to what you expect from a hot hatch.
It's amazing that two cars featuring four-cylinder turbocharged engines driving the front wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox could feel so divergent, yet the character of these two rivals manifests through the subtleties.
The suspension tuning, the gearing, the power and torque deliveries of their respective engines all combine to send the Ford and the Honda on very different paths.
Ford first. Now that the Blue Oval has stated that no new Focus RS is planned, the ST has to fulfil the position of sporting flagship.
Get over the initial disappointment that the sharp creases that once characterised the Focus have given way to more adipose body surfacing and there's a lot to like here. The stance over its handsome 19-inch alloys is purposeful and there are just enough go-faster cues.
The Ford’s 2.3-litre four is defined by its torque. Generating a massive 420Nm at anywhere between 3000 and 4000rpm, it's seriously brawny.
It also means that marshalling that amount of grunt off the line can be tricky, as we discovered at a damp and chilly Heathcote test track. In the interests of professional curiosity, we decided to engage the launch control and lean on the software to see what sort of time that would generate. This resulted in manic axle tramp and wheelspin and 7.6 seconds to 100km/h. Don't ever do this.
Rely on a bit of judgment and it'll step off the line a bit more crisply, the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S boots digging in and getting it through 100km/h in a more than respectable 6.1 seconds, helped by an ability to flat shift through the gears without lifting off the loud pedal.
The 400m mark comes and goes in 14.2 seconds at 164km/h. By way of comparison, the last Focus RS managed the same feat in 13.3 seconds at 171km/h.
The Civic is an odds-on favourite to better those numbers, but given the iffy conditions, it's hard to gauge by how much.
We don't have to wait very long for an answer. The ContiSport Contact 6 tyres require a little warming through, but once they're up to temperature, the Type R reels off some consistent runs.
It's got 22kW more than the Focus but 20Nm less torque and just pips the fast Ford to 100, registering a best of 6.0 seconds and then flexes at the top end, breaking 400m in 13.8 secondss at a terminal speed of 170.2km/h. It's also a huge 1.9s quicker between 100 and 200km/h than the Focus (14.7 seconds vs 16.6 seconds).
Another oldie for perspective? The Civic's 400m time is exactly the same as what the original NSX achieved. How’s that for symmetry? On a warmer, drier day the hatchback would have eclipsed the supercar. Progress, eh? Time to head for the hills.
If there's one word that sums up the Type R on a challenging road it's 'urgent'. It never misses an opportunity to let you know that you're not trying had enough, to cue you in to the fact that it's better than you. That's a bit unsettling. We're up in the forests outside of Healesville and it's here that the Honda lays down a true marker of its talents.
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These are perfect hot hatch roads: tight and medium radius corners, inconsistent cambers, poor sight-lines, lumps and ruts and just about every other combination of nastiness that would make something with more power and less clearance feel fighty and overmatched. Up the ante and the Civic comes alive, making the Focus seem lumpen in comparison.
The low cowl, low seat, and slick dual-pinion variable-ratio steering let you position the car perfectly. The harder you go, the better it gets. It's the sort of car that prompts you to hover around at the bottom of the best hill route you know, waiting for something with twice the Honda's power to amble by.
Power pours in between 2500 and 6000rpm, each gearshift bringing a bird-like chirp as the turbo bleeds off excess boost. Body control is excellent across the camber of the road, and while the brake pedal feel is initially a little vague, it firms up nicely just in the right height in the pedal arc for clean heel and toes.
It won't be for everyone though. You’re required to be willing to put up with its sophomoric styling excesses, its klutzy cabin ergonomics, its four seats rather than five.
You’ll pay extra for bigger 20-inch tyres and more expensive insurance. But you’ll do that because you want the angriest, most dynamically gifted front-drive hot-hatch on the market.
You’ll choose the Type R for the same reasons 911 GT3 owners don’t want a 911 Carrera – because dynamic excellence matters to you. That it also delivers the best damping suppleness in its class only underscores the fact that the engineers at Honda R&D Co are chassis alchemists.
Step out of the Honda and you know that the Ford can't match it. Would it have been fairer to drive the Focus first? Probably not. We're here to see how this newcomer measures up against the Type R, so refreshing our memory on where the dynamic bar is set seems apposite.
What's surprising is how far off the Honda the Ford is. I refer to my notes. “The ST seems tall and narrow. The gearbox has the longest travel. The side bolsters on the Recaro’s cushion collapse beneath your thighs mid-corner. The deep engine note with the five-pot sound-symposed warble is monotonous and makes it harder to drive by ear and sounds unrewarding to rev. The steering is hefty yet ultra-pointy, the brake pedal is hard and yet the throttle pedal feels as if it has very light springing to it. Needs customisable drive modes.” I'm not initially sold, it's fair to say.
What's even more surprising is how the Focus then manages to worm its way into your affections. The abundance of low-end torque makes it a joy to drive around town. It seems almost impossible to stall. The pedal set-up that initially feels so weird allows you to trail brake into the apex and then gently angle your right foot onto the throttle, easing out of the middle pedal and onto the gas all in one roll of the ankle.
It gives the Focus the most beautiful balance on corner exit, helped by the grip offered by its lightning quick clutch-actuated Borg-Warner developed e-LSD. This can lock to a 50:50 ratio of torque split across the front axle and do so predictively, making it faster in real-world scenarios than a traditional reactive helical mechanically locking differential. Doing everyday stuff like punting the Focus ST out of junctions, point and squirting it between turns and jinking it through roundabouts paints a huge grin on your face.
There's almost something muscle car-like in its persona. On the face of it, this is a ludicrous assertion to make about a front-drive four-pot hatchback, but such is its amenable point-and-squirtiness, its barrel-chested acoustics and its subjective feelings of heft that there's definitely something to it.
The Focus’ stability control calibration makes the Honda’s set-up feel a generation behind and the value of investing in the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyre pays back in spades, wet or dry. The damping is well-judged but one aspect of flicking the car into its Sport or Race Track modes is that the steering, which has a faster ratio than a Ferrari 488GTB, can feel a little contrived in its weighting. Yes, the ST has some flaws, but its playful personality, sensible ergonomics and accessible skillset makes it an endearing thing to live with. Editor Inwood's discovering this, having recently taken delivery of an automatic Focus ST.
This, then, leaves us on the horns of a dilemma. The Honda Civic Type R is clearly the better hot hatch in all the classically defined criteria of go, stop and steer. It's quicker, lighter, more alert and just more capable. The Ford counters with a personality that doesn't take itself so seriously, a more characterful engine, a more affordable price tag, a plusher interior treatment and, importantly, it offers something to the driver when you're not totally balls-out.
The Focus and the Civic emerge as two very different propositions and it's hard to see an informed buyer cross-shopping them. They'll know what they like and it will be one or the other. Personally, I'd buy the Ford, but I'd know that if I ever encountered a Civic Type R hovering around near the base of Chum Creek Road that I'd make my excuses and leave. It pays to pick your battles.
FORD FOCUS ST SPECS
Engine: 2261cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max power: 206kW @ 5500rpm
Max torque: 420Nm @ 3000-4000rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual
Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B): 4388/1825/1458/2700mm
Kerb weight: 1508kg
0-100km/h: 6.1sec (tested)
Economy: 10.9L/100km (test average)
On sale: Now
HONDA CIVIC TYPE R SPECS
Engine: 1996cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max power: 228kW @ 6500rpm
Max torque: 400Nm @ 2500-4500rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual
Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B): 4557/1877/1421/2700mm
Kerb weight: 1396kg
0-100km/h: 6.0sec (tested)
Economy: 9.9L/100km (tested)