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2017 Ford Focus RS vs. 2017 Honda Civic Type R

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 11/23/2017 ERIC TINGWALL

2017 Honda Civic Type R and 2017 Ford Focus RS
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.

2017 Honda Civic Type R and 2017 Ford Focus RS© Charlie Magee 2017 Honda Civic Type R and 2017 Ford Focus RS

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.

2017 Ford Focus RS© Charlie Magee 2017 Ford Focus RS

2017 Ford Focus RS
Second place

HIGHS Big output, seamless power delivery, and all the right noises.
LOWS Pogo-stick ride quality.
VERDICT A riot on a twisty road and a nuisance on the highway.

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.

You don’t buy an all-wheel-drive car for its ability to drift, and the Focus RS is no exception. Drift mode only makes momentary overtures at sustained tire-decimating slides. The RS’s torque-vectoring rear differential does help the 3465-pound Ford dive into corners with a playful eagerness. The Focus’s 0.99 g of lateral stick and 160-foot stopping distance can’t match the Civic’s performance, but the precision in the Ford’s controls and the reckless abandon the car invites make every squiggle of pavement just as remarkable.

You pilot the Focus from a tall and upright seating position similar to a crossover’s, and from this perch, you’re well aware that both the Focus’s roof and its center of gravity sit substantially higher than the Type R’s. The snug Recaro buckets—too snug for some—are endlessly supportive with enough adjustability for all-day comfort. Deep cutouts on the back side of those front seats make for decent rear legroom in a car with a two-inch-shorter wheelbase than the Civic’s, and the Focus delivers more rear headroom than the Honda. We’ve complained about the busyness of the audio and climate controls in prior Focus RS tests, but that’s a bluff. We’d happily spin plywood knobs if it meant fewer controls migrated to touchscreens. Compared with the Honda, the Focus offers more tactile controls for the crucial functions.

The Focus RS only met its defeat on the five-hour drive from Pennsylvania to our Michigan home office. Forced to choose a winner, we docked the RS another point for its spirit-sapping ride. Stiffly sprung, the car pogos over expansion joints, making pecs jiggle like B-cups and heads bob like cheap baseball-game giveaways. Tapping the end of the turn-signal stalk activates a stiffer damper setting that only harshens the already rough ride. Driving a Focus RS is a never-ending party. Maybe we’re getting old, but we’re not sure we could do it every day.

2017 Honda Civic Type R© Charlie Magee 2017 Honda Civic Type R

2017 Honda Civic Type R
First place

HIGHS Corners, steers, and rides with poise.
LOWS Aftermarket styling installed from the factory.
VERDICT Yes, front-wheel drive can be fast.

Don’t interpret a one-point spread in this comparison test to mean that the Focus RS and the Civic Type R are similar. They’re not. These two cars arrive at hot-hatch greatness by different roads. While the Ford powers in on the merits of its engine, the Honda owes its win to its chassis. Just look at the numbers: The Civic Type R hauled itself to a stop from 70 mph in 146 feet and stuck to the skidpad at 1.03 g’s. A minimally optioned stick-shift Porsche 911—a $96,650 Porsche 911—musters 1.00 g and stops in 145 feet.

Building on the competence of the 10th-generation Civic chassis and the potential teased with the Civic Si, the Type R completes the package with the full 306-hp might of Honda’s new turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four. This is a freakishly quick front-wheel-drive vehicle when thrown down a challenging road. No other automaker sells a car like it.

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.

This being a Honda, even this hottest Civic could reasonably pull double duty as a family car. The Type R delivers the legroom of a mid-size car and, because it’s 2.1 inches wider than the Focus RS, the rear seats feel significantly more airy. That sensation is helped by Honda’s inexplicable decision to remove the middle seatbelt from all Type Rs and place shallow cupholders where the fifth passenger’s butt normally goes. Despite the sloping hatch eating into cargo space, the Civic offers more cargo capacity than the Focus, with a lower load floor and more space behind the rear seats. And the ride is grandma-friendly.

Pragmatism and performance endure as the hallmarks of the hot hatch. While the trend toward all-wheel drive builds on both virtues with all-weather usability and performance-enhancing grip, Honda’s Civic Type R proves that the original formula still holds as much potential as it did in 1983. The front-wheel-drive performance car isn’t dead yet.

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