Hot hatches are the giant killers of the automotive world. Wild styling, huge power and sharp handling mean they have the speed to trouble exotic machinery down a country road but can cope with a supermarket trip. The Ford Focus RS, Honda Civic Type R and VW Golf R are all hotter than a recalled smartphone, but which should you choose? We drive the trio on road and track to find out.
Ford Focus RS vs Honda Civic Type R vs VW Golf R prices
The Ford Focus RS is quite rightly considered a performance bargain. Little else on the market can match its performance for £31,000. That figure places it in the midst of its closest – but less powerful – rivals.
The VW Golf R costs from £31,685 for a three-door version, but you’ll need to add another £655 for the five-door model. There’s also a big-booted Estate version that costs £34,455.
The Civic Type R is offered in two versions – the base model costs from £30,000 while, for £32,300, the GT model adds an eight-speaker stereo, satellite navigation, parking sensors front and rear.
Ford Focus RS vs Honda Civic Type R vs VW Golf R styling
One quick glance shows the RS is worlds away from a regular Ford Focus. It’s a wild clash of huge wings, deep bumpers and a set of beefy 19-inch alloy wheels – there’s no mistaking it for anything other than a bonkers piece of kit. Some might think the end result is a little chavvy – but a hot hatch isn’t meant to be for the shy and retiring.
If the Focus is a little crazy, the Civic Type R is a raving lunatic. The front splitter appears to scrape inches from the ground, while a picnic-table-sized rear wing and four exhaust tailpipes signal its unhinged intent from the back.
The Golf R also has a quad exhaust setup but, apart from that, the Golf looks rather sensible in comparison. Other sporty touches lifting the R above a regular Golf include a set of 18-inch wheels, a deeper front bumper and silver door mirror caps.
Ford Focus RS vs Honda Civic Type R vs VW Golf R interior
Of the three, it’s the Focus that’s the most disappointing inside. With only subtle changes – a boost gauge on top of the dash, a stubby gear lever and a flat-bottomed steering wheel – the rest is the same, slightly fussy design of the basic Focus. The standard sports seats are brilliant though, and the optional Recaros would be even better if it wasn’t for the fact that they’re mounted a little too high.
The Civic Type R looks the most exciting inside. Even the regular Civic has a wacky dashboard design, but there’s plenty to make it clear this isn’t any basic Civic. The seats, seat belts and the steering wheel all get a bright red finish to lift it into hot hatch territory, and a titanium gear lever looks cool and feels great to hold. Overall build quality is excellent, too. The main downside is that the infotainment system is poor – the menu layout is illogical and is hard to use on the move.
Inside, the Golf feels the most expensive but, like the outside, it’s possibly a little bit dreary by hot hatch standards. As with the others here, fabric seats are standard and while they’re supportive, they look a little bland and do little to lift the car’s overall style.
Ford Focus RS vs Honda Civic Type R vs VW Golf R practicality
Around the back, the Focus loses out to the other two with the smallest boot here. It’s a similar story in the back seats – they’re okay but aren’t as spacious as those you’ll find in either the Golf or the Civic.
The Civic hatchback boasts one of the biggest boots in the class thanks to a fuel tank placed below the rear seats. Rear head and legroom are plentiful, and the cabin floor is completely flat so even the centre seat feels generously proportioned.
The Golf R’s cabin is just like any other Golf – spacious, practical and sensible. A 380-litre boot is standard for the class – if smaller than the Civic by more than 100 litres – the back seats are comfortable, and there’s plenty of storage space in the cabin.
Ford Focus RS vs Honda Civic Type R vs VW Golf R engines
All three use 2.0-litre turbocharged engines, but each offers different outputs and puts it to the road in different ways.
The Focus is the most powerful of the bunch, pumping out 350hp and 325lb ft of torque. A four-wheel-drive system deploys that grunt to the road surface via a six-speed manual gearbox. It’s covers the 0-62mph dash in 4.7 seconds and goes on to a top speed of 165mph. The soundtrack sounds the most aggressive here, with the exhaust popping and banging on the overrun.
The Civic loses out to the Ford in a straight sprint for one reason – every one of its 306hp is sent to the front wheels only. As a result, the Civic struggles to get off the line as smoothly as the Ford, so its 0-62mph time is a second slower. The benefit of ditching a complex four-wheel-drive system is weight – or rather a lack of it. At 1,382kg, it’s a whopping 165kg lighter than the Focus so, despite being down on power, it feels hardly any slower once on the move.
The Golf’s 4.9-second 0-62mph time – or 5.1 seconds with a manual gearbox – falls between the two. Like the Ford, it has a four-wheel-drive system, so traction is strong. At 296hp, it’s the least powerful here, though.
Ford Focus RS vs Honda Civic Type R vs VW Golf R driving
The Ford’s ballistic straight-line performance is matched by the way it takes a corner. The four-wheel-drive system fires it out of bends at an incredible rate with almost no fuss and, on the right road, there’s little else that can keep up. Unlike many four-wheel drive cars, understeer is almost non-existent – most of the time it feels more like a very reassuring rear-wheel drive sports car.
‘The right road’ probably won’t be a bumpy one. For the most part, the suspension setup is beautifully controlled when pushing hard but, on really bumpy stuff, it skips and hops along in a way that’ll force most drivers to back off. If your idea of fun is a narrow, twisty B-road, the more compliant Golf R is likely to cover the ground as quickly. It’s only a minor criticism though, because most drivers won’t notice this at sensible speeds.
What immediately impresses in the Civic is how well judged all the basic controls are. Precise steering, a firm brake pedal and one of the best manual gearboxes in any new car means that, even at low speeds, it feels special. The Civic Type R feels less lairy than the Focus… until you press the ‘R’ button on the dash. This sharpens the throttle response, gives the engine a more sporty tone and the dials glow a menacing red. The biggest change though is to the suspension, which is firmed up so much that it’s barely usable on anything more rippled than a racetrack.
Leave it in the regular mode and the Type R is incredibly exciting, in particular the low weight helps it feel more agile than the other two. Despite missing out on two driven wheels, it deploys its power impressively smoothly – but the sort of lairy antics possible in the Focus are out of the question here.
Just as the styling suggests, the Golf R feels the most understated and civilised on the road. Spec the optional adaptive dampers and it’s genuinely smooth and refined – set in ‘comfort’ mode, it isn’t any less relaxing to drive than a regular Golf. It has something of a split personality, however – when you’re in more of a hurry it comes alive in the sportier driving modes. The Golf R can really flow along a difficult road and feels more special the faster you drive it. The driving purists will prefer the six-speed manual gearbox, but the dual-clutch automatic is quick, smooth and easy to use.
Each of these monster hatchbacks delivers huge thrills and amazing performance, but each goes about their business in a different way.
The Golf is the easiest to live with day-to-day – there’s times where you’ll almost forget that you’re driving around in something so serious. To some that will be a downside – it doesn’t feel that special when you’re driving slowly so won’t feel any different from a basic Golf most of the time. On the flip side, the Golf R’s usability singles it out as a hot hatch which will suit most people, most of the time.
The Honda Civic certainly doesn’t feel ordinary. The firm suspension setup and tight feel of the controls makes the Type R feel like it’s constantly straining at the leash on every single drive. If you’re going on a track – or just want to feel excited on a quick trip to the shops – it’s the one to have.
Overall, though the Ford Focus RS nicks the win. There maybe one or two niggles, but it’s the most fun to drive, comfortably the fastest, and competitively priced.