The 300-mile test: Honda Civic Type R vs Volkswagen Golf GTI MK8
Finally, all the frantic prodding in a layby – in combination with some WhatsApp messaging – yields a result: I find the screen that lets me choose the sweet spot, Sport, in the new Golf GTI’s three-position traction-control system. (FYI, and with questionable logic, it’s under Brakes, which in turn is under the Vehicle tile on the iPhone-laid-flat home screen.) Would a button be easier? It would, but let’s not condemn the Mk8 Golf for being too digital for its own good just yet.
The turbocharged 2.0-litre engine’s been idling for the best part of a quarter of an hour, so there’s no doubt its fluid temperatures are ready for action. It’s the familiar EA888 motor, mildly tweaked for the Mk8 GTI with increased fuel-injection pressure for marginally improved efficiency. Peak power is unchanged over the Mk7.5 GTI Performance at 242bhp, though new mapping means a cleaner, crisper response to both the throttle pedal going down and coming up, abruptly perhaps, the better to let you adjust the Golf’s attitude mid-corner. A little of that sometimes cloying VW polish – which can, like a furball in the gears of a fine watch mechanism, get in the way – stripped out in favour of dynamic interactivity? Promising.
Volkswagen Golf GTI MK8
Clutch in, waggle the slightly reluctant lever on the six-speed manual into first, clutch out. (The manual is somewhere between fine and good; a twin-clutch seven-speeder is the other option.) The front seats, while comfortably stuffed and very, very handsome, like a future George Clooney when he finally lets himself go, don’t crank quite low enough, nor really hug you. And the steering wheel rim’s too fat and too fussy in your hands, and the gearknob just weird. It’s a complicated shape, implying hours of painstaking ergonomic research, but awkward to use. Might an old-fashioned sphere with golf-ball dimples work better? Without doubt. Disappointing.
But there’s absolutely nothing disappointing about the way the Golf GTI glides down the road, the car alert but stable beneath you, alive with a confidence-swelling blend of quick but controllable responses. We’ve no place to be, let alone a particular time to be there, so instead the GTI and I just head west on the best B-roads in Rutland, the tarmac deserted in the no-man’s land between school drop-off and lunch. A modest 242bhp may not look like much – and surely isn’t when the likes of the Renault Megane RS and Focus ST are closer to 300 – but, in glorious isolation, rust-specked autumn hedges streaking past your side windows and your foot to the floor in third, the GTI doesn’t feel slow. (Zero to 62mph takes 6.4sec, versus 5.8sec for the 316bhp Civic Type R.)
It’s not a charismatic engine, the VW four. The soundtrack’s an unthreatening growl, overlaid with a little turbo whistling, but it’s difficult to argue with its effectiveness, the torque-rich delivery giving decent drive from 3000rpm and a proper wodge of shove beyond 4000rpm. Ultimately it’s an engine more likely to engender respect than love, not least because there’s little to be gained by heading close to the rev limiter – the mellowing rate of acceleration over the last 1500rpm makes it pretty clear you would have been better off grabbing another gear.
Through medium-speed, unsighted turns the Golf and I leave plenty in reserve – every other vehicle coming the other way is an 8ft-wide tractor, sleep-deprived teenager in the cab sawing at the wheel like Fangio making up time. The VW changes direction with real enthusiasm and fluency, the rear end neither ponderous nor confidence-erodingly hyperactive. Bleed the brakes off into the corner, pick up the power early and then, sensing the way the differential actually tightens your line rather than washing the nose wide, instantly wish you’d brought the throttle in earlier and with more conviction. The diff, previously fitted only to Performance Golf GTIs, is now standard and with an increased locking rate.
In the dry torque-steer is all but non-existent, traction mighty and the slick damping’s ability to render mid-corner bumps benign most welcome. Then you’re out and onto the next straight, engine piling on enough speed to pass a dawdling pick-up effortlessly, and your finger inevitably reaching for the drive mode menu looking for a little, well, a little more. Because so far the GTI’s impressed rather than enraptured. Is there a Type R beater lurking within?
VW reckons so. ‘The main set-up focus was the rear of the car – we wanted the new GTI to rotate more easily and understeer less than the previous car,’ development driver Benjamin Leuchter tells me over Skype. ‘And we didn’t want to rely only on the electronics [primarily the brake-based torque vectoring and adjustment of the adaptive dampers at a rate of 200 times per second, unified under a single control ‘brain’ for ultra-rapid responses] – we wanted to define the car via the suspension.’
Engineer Jan-Oliver Hamborg: ‘While we have done a lot of work on the electronics side, the Driving Dynamics Manager to control all the car’s electro-mechanical systems, we also wanted to give the sense that you’re driving a mechanical car, and not just a digital controller – that was very important.’
To that end the new GTI enjoys some classic, time-honoured anti-understeer chassis tuning. At the front there’s a lighter subframe (by 3kg) and the variable-ratio steering rack’s been tweaked to increase agility (Hamborg describes the steering as five to seven per cent more direct). The rear subframe, borrowed from the old Golf GTI Clubsport S, is lighter and, while the front spring rates are five per cent stiffer, the rears are a significant 15 per cent stiffer, promoting rotation (changes to the suspension kinematics do the same).
All of which points to the Mk8 being a true GTI, and not simply a fast, generously-optioned Golf wearing a GTI badge. Key to that is the Individual drive mode, which lets you combine Sport engine responses with more natural Comfort steering (Sport adds unhelpful treacle) then endlessly tweak your damping and chassis neutrality on a sliding scale from super-soft and safe to track-ready and drifty. Now, this is more like it, and just in time, for a Honda – bafflingly resplendent in a very Ford shade of blue – just arrived in my mirrors…
You remember the Civic Type R, the hot hatch that’s as fast as a Porsche Cayman, looks like a Gundam on wheels, offers some 75bhp more than the Golf for the same money, boasts one of the finest manual ’boxes currently on sale and shamelessly sports a bodykit so BTCC it’s crying out for you to stick your surname in the side windows in big white letters.
Honda Civic Type R
It’s easy to mock the Honda for its less-than-subtle aesthetic. But to do so is to miss the point entirely. Since 2016, when we first tested this generation of Type R, the Civic has won every single Giant Test we’ve put it in. Less a hot hatch and more a sports car that just happens to be front-wheel drive, it has a cohesion and depth to its driver appeal that’s both instantly mesmerising and deeply satisfying over time and miles.
‘I remember now: drive it on the front axle; show the front tyres no mercy; have a blast,’ says wingman Adam Binnie as he climbs out of the Honda smiling like the cat who just found the keys to an entire reservoir of cream. ‘It was good on the A1 up here too; quiet and pliant in Comfort with the noise-cancelling cabin tech, and the new infotainment’s an improvement.’
Sliding behind the wheel,the Honda feels like home; the seat lower, firmer and huggier than the VW’s, the better to plug you into the car, and the set-up and weighting of the wheel, clutch and ’box just so. Get moving, tyres still gummy-warm from Adam’s efforts and, in the default Sport drive mode, just a dozen miles carving south-east towards Market Harborough is all it takes to remind me of the Honda’s dazzling brilliance.
Like a great Porsche or Ferrari, there is no standout feature. The engine’s strong – fizzy, soaring and vital after the Golf’s – but not overwhelming. If the gearbox had been around in the Middle Ages it’d have been celebrated in song and tapestry. But it too is matched in turn by the genius of the chassis, which combines accurate, taut if slightly numb steering with awesome grip, wondrous damping and body control, and a rear axle that feels usefully – rather than waywardly – mobile.
Swapping back, the Golf isn’t embarrassed by the Honda but neither can it best it in any area. Trying harder now, the VW arcs into corners with a delicious neutrality, dreaded understeer never materialising, and can stomach such early throttle openings it makes you wonder why anyone bothers with four-wheel drive. But the Civic pulls harder, feels even better on the brakes, turns in more quickly and effortlessly and carries corner speed like a thoroughbred. What’s more, the smile it puts on your face is broader (the odd hysterical squeal is a possibility, too), the Type R’s frenzied yet controlled nature and sheer potency several orders of magnitude more intoxicating. We need to make a decision. Happily the road ends in a village with a pub on a stream. And for once there are no arguments, perhaps because only shandies are involved.
The Mk8 is one of the very best Golf GTIs, a car that balances the often contradictory traits of performance and refined comfort as deftly as the standout Mk5, and effectively brings much of the magic of some recent rare-groove GTIs (specifically the TCR and Clubsport S) to the mainstream GTI. If you want a VW Golf GTI – and who can blame you – the Mk8 gives you no sound reason not to buy one.
But Honda does. Its Civic Type R remains a supreme automotive achievement, and the best fast hatchback Ј32 can buy. The Golf’s a great GTI – fast, refined, fun. But the Civic is a supreme Type R; focused, frenetically fast, majestically malleable and shot through with Honda’s performance engineering spirit.