2015 Honda Civic Type R vs Ford Focus ST, VW Golf R, Mégane Renaultsport 275 Trophy and Seat Leon Cupra 280

Who is the hottest of them all?

2015 Honda Civic Type R vs Golf R vs Megane 275 Trophy vs Focus ST vs Leon Cupra 280

THERE HAS surely never been a better time to buy a high-performance small car – better known as a hot hatch. If you owned a Peugeot 205 GTI or a Golf GTI in the 1980s and haven’t driven a hot hatch since, today’s machines will stand your hair on end, turn your eyes to the size of saucers and scramble your brain.

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In fact, they’re now so gob-smackingly good at travelling fast on a winding road that some say the hot hatch is the new supercar: fast and grippy enough to give any car costing 10 times as much a run for its money and not leaving drivers wincing every time the wheels bounce over a pothole or the wing mirror brushes the hedgerow.

The latest on the market is the Honda Civic Type R. It rolls up to the starting line with a price of £29,995 and a 305bhp turbocharged 2-litre engine. It wants to cross the finishing line ahead of the Volkswagen Golf R, Ford Focus ST, Mégane Renaultsport 275 Trophy and Seat Leon Cupra 280.

Driving put all five through their paces, with a back-to-back test on track and on the road. We were looking for the ultimate all-round performer, a car that would be as happy clipping an apex on a racetrack as it would be negotiating a tight parking spot in the local supermarket car park.

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Honda Civic Type R

Honda Civic Type R group test 2015

Rating: ****

The Type R is unquestionably the Marmite member of this crowd of hot hatchbacks: not everyone is going to be taken with its outlandish body kit, which suggests the driver may be in matching branded anorak, socks and flame-resistant driving boots.

The body kit isn’t only for looks, though. The Civic Type R is pinned to the floor by a flat undertray that acts as a Venturi, sucking the car to the ground. And those wide wheelarches accommodate the wider wheels and tyres and are ventilated at the back, helping expel hot air from the large Brembo brakes

The interior is equally flamboyant; subtlety is not the Type R’s style. Still, what matters most is very well done. The driving position is excellent, the seats grip you tightly and the steering wheel and gearlever – with the signature titanium cap that has been a feature in all Type Rs since the NSX of 1992 – give the impression that this car means business.

It does. The 2-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine with Honda’s VTEC variable valve timing system is an absolute belter. It isn’t very tuneful – emitting a loud, flat growl – but it has performance to spare. Of all the cars on test, this comes closest to pinning the driver into their seat when the throttle pedal hits the floor.

The acceleration from 2500rpm is breathtaking, much quicker than the in the Mégane, which feels lethargic by comparison. Fortunately, the brakes are a match for the car’s turn of speed, with impressive stopping power and a reassuringly firm pedal action.

What this Type R can’t do that past examples could is spin all the way to nearly 9000rpm; the turbocharger means all its muscle is in the middle of the rev range, and the rev limit is set at 7000rpm. It’s fast, but not as furious as Type Rs of old, and therefore doesn’t stand out as much from its peers.

For many drivers that will be a good thing. How often, after all, do you get the chance to rev an engine to 9000rpm?

Honda Civic Type R 2015  interior

The front-wheel-drive chassis is one of the most tenacious we’ve experienced. Its grip, composure and corner-holding are more akin to those of a racing car than a road car. It’s some car that shows up a Renaultsport Mégane – but that’s just what the Civic Type R does.

If we’re being picky – and that is the point here – we’d have to say the Type R’s chassis isn’t playful enough. Volkswagen’s engineers have managed to make the Golf R wonderfully adjustable to the driver’s movements: lift the throttle in the Golf and the tail of the car will swing out a little, helping the car back into a corner. Do the same in the Civic and it simply stays pinned to the road.

If you want to see off the hot hatch competition at a track day, the Civic Type R is for you. But drivers who value a little more intimacy from their pocket rocket should look at the Golf R.

Honda Civic Type R (2015) specifications
  • Price: £29,995
  • Engine: 1996cc, 4 cylinders, turbo, petrol
  • Power: 305bhp @ 6500rpm
  • Torque: 295 lb ft @ 2500rpm
  • Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
  • 0-62mph: 5.7sec
  • Top speed: 167mph
  • Fuel: 38.7mpg
  • CO2: 170g/km
  • Road tax band: H (£295 for first year; then £205)
  • Release date: July

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Ford Focus ST

Ford Focus ST takes on Honda Civic Type R 2015

Rating: ****

Freshly revamped and looking resplendent in You’ve Been Tango-ed orange paintwork (Tangerine Scream, for those that like the look of it) the Focus ST is looking sharper than ever, with a grille that, if you squint just enough, brings to mind an Aston Martin.

In this company the ST is the underdog. It brings a flick-knife to a gunfight, with just 246bhp from its 2-litre turbocharged engine. On the road it doesn’t feel underpowered, because Ford’s engineers have been smart and tuned the engine to give plenty of torque from low in the rev range. Flex the throttle pedal and there’s always a substantial and immediate surge in acceleration.

What there isn’t is the angry growl of the Honda and Renault or satisfying snarl of the Volkswagen. It’s a little bit subdued sounding, like the naughty boy in class who’s been told that the next outburst will land them outside the headmistresses’ office.

The ST compensates for this with wonderful steering and exuberant handling. At the track, it was surprisingly good fun, because, like the Golf R, the fast Ford would let the driver’s throttle inputs alter the car’s stance when the tyres start to lose grip in a corner. And the level of feedback through the steering and seat-of-the-pants was surprisingly detailed for a car that’s not as “hardcore” as the rest of this motley crew.

Ford Focus ST 2015 interior

The ST’s case is likely to fall down when the driver climbs inside. Even with the orange seat coverings and ST logos in the door sills, it feels a bit ordinary. What’s more, the dashboard’s layout is the most chaotic here and the infotainment system is too much of a reach and the icons are too small.

This is a much more pleasing and satisfying car to drive than Seat’s Leon Cupra 280 and would give a Golf GTI a run for its money. But arguably, the ST’s trump card is the one that Ford always plays so well: value for money. At this price it’s a steal.

Ford Focus ST-2 (2015) specifications
  • Price: £23,995
  • Engine: 1996cc, 4 cylinders, turbo, petrol
  • Power: 246bhp @ 5500rpm
  • Torque: 265 lb ft @ 2000rpm
  • Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
  • 0-62mph: 6.5sec
  • Top speed: 154mph
  • Fuel: 41.5mpg
  • CO2: 159g/km
  • Road tax band: G (£180 a year)
  • Release date: On sale now

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Volkswagen Golf R

Volkswagen Golf R versus Honda Civic Type R 2015

Rating: *****

We could have brought along a Golf GTI for our comparison test, but that wouldn’t have matched the impressive power output of the new Honda Civic Type R and would have been too cheap. So the Golf R it is – and what a terrific hot hatch it is too.

It’s a good looking car that doesn’t feel the need to shout about what’s under the bonnet. Park it outside a new girlfriend’s house and the parents aren’t going to raise an eyebrow; try the same with the Civic Type R and they’ll start carrying out informal background checks.

Inside, it’s much the same story. The Golf R feels thoroughly civilised and calm, and has the most logical layout to its interior and easiest infotainment system. Heck, any Honda designers reading, you can even see the speedometer.

Unlike the other cars on test, the Golf R came with an automatic gearbox, VW’s six-speed DSG system. This has the effect of turning it into a little World Rally Car; all the driver has to do is pull the right hand paddle and the car will continue to reel in the horizon, as its four-wheel drive system puts down the engine’s impressive power without any drama or fuss and the tyres and suspension are rarely fazed by lumps and bumps in the road.

Volkswagen Golf R interior

It isn’t as stiffly suspended as the Honda or Renault, so even if you’ve got a bad back you could drive this hot hatch everyday without a complaint. Try that in the other two and you’ll run up big bills with a chiropractor.

If the Honda and Renault are more raw in their feel and frenzied by nature, neither the Ford nor Seat can better the Golf’s straight-line speed or surefooted nature around a bend. Like all the front-wheel drive cars in the test, their tyres scrabble for grip and constantly rely on limited slip differentials or electronic traction control systems.

By comparison, the Golf R is keeps its cool no matter what the situation. It’s a wingman, co-driver and personal bodyguard all rolled into one. If you’re looking for the most accomplished hot hatch on the road, look no further.

Volkswagen Golf R (2014) specifications
  • Price: £30,820
  • Engine: 1984cc, 4 cylinders, turbo, petrol
  • Power: 296bhp @ 5500rpm
  • Torque: 280 lb ft @ 1800rpm
  • Transmission: 6-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
  • 0-62mph: 5.3sec
  • Top speed: 155mph
  • Fuel: 39.8mpg
  • CO2: 165g/km
  • Road tax band: G (£180 a year)
  • Release date: On sale now

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Mégane Renaultsport 275 Trophy

Renaultsport Megane 275 Trophy versus Honda Civic Type R 2015

Rating: ***

This is the car that’s closest in concept and character to the new Honda Civic Type R. Its maker has tried to create a hot hatch that’s as thrilling as they come, a car that’s as comfortable pounding round a race track all day long as it is tackling the Monday morning commute to work.

It’s the most raucous of the bunch, because Renaultsport’s engineers have fitted it with a rather cheeky Akrapovik exhaust system. It lets off small explosions that set off large smiles on the driver’s face.

There are plenty more things to feel good about with the feisty French hatchback. Such as the thin, lightweight Recaro sports seats, thick-rimmed steering wheel, and RS driving mode, which unleashes the full 271bhp when flicked to Sport or Race modes. Which, in a car like this, means every time the driver climbs aboard, no?

It’s at ease around the test track, where its tyres cling to the road through a bend like a round-the-world sailor holds their ground on deck in a storm. Then there’s the way the steering and front tyres feel so responsive and the chassis carries so much speed through corners and finds so much traction accelerating out of them again.

2014 Renaultsport Megane 275 Trophy interior

Its “Cup” chassis is standard and includes a limited slip differential as well as stiffer suspension springs and dampers and anti-roll bar – all of which combine to make a car that feels happiest when being taken by the scruff of its neck and driven until the brakes start to smoke and tyres wilt.

In this company, however, there are issues. The engine feels gutless low in its rev range. Floor the throttle below 3,000rpm and time and time again the motor is found taking 40 winks. It’s gutless compared with the Ford and VW.

What’s more, the interior is pretty dated and is the least practical here. And then there’s exterior, with its special Trophy colour scheme and graphics, which, frankly, make it look like you’re driving around in a giant packet of condoms.

Mégane Renaultsport 275 Trophy (2014) specifications
  • Price: £28,930
  • Engine: 1998cc, 4 cylinders, turbo, petrol
  • Power: 271bhp @ 5500rpm
  • Torque: 265 lb ft @ 3000rpm
  • Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
  • 0-62mph: 6.0sec
  • Top speed: 158mph
  • Fuel: 37.7mpg
  • CO2: 174g/km
  • Road tax band: H (£295 in first year; £205 thereon)
  • Release date: On sale now

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Seat Leon Cupra 280

Seat Leon Cupra 280 versus Honda Civic Type R 2015

Rating: ***

We’d love to say it was a case of saving the best until last, but as the star rating shows, it’s not. The Leon Cupra felt out of its depth in this company.

It’s a handsome-looking car, although the White Line package, a £505 option that turns the wheels, wing mirrors and grille surround white, makes it look as though someone has attacked the car with several pots of Tipex.

It appears to offer plenty of power and performance for the price, and like the Golf R there are three driving modes to select from – Comfort, Sport and Cupra – as well as an individual setting that lets drivers fine tune the suspension’s damping, engine sound, electronic front differential lock and steering weighting.

Seat Leon Cupra 280 interior

However, whichever mode you pick, the engine sounds flat and uninspiring and when the going gets tough and the corners get twisty, the Leon Cupra 280 feels like a runner that’s been made to wear lead shoes. The car feels heavy, the nose washes wide under power and there’s not enough harmony between the front axle and back axle.

What does this mean? Put simply, it’s not exciting enough against such formidable competition.

Seat Leon Cupra 280 (2015) specifications
  • Price: £28,210
  • Engine: 1984cc, 4 cylinders, turbo, petrol
  • Power: 276bhp @ 5600rpm
  • Torque: 258 lb ft @ 1700rpm
  • Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
  • 0-62mph: 5.8sec
  • Top speed: 155mph
  • Fuel: 42.8mpg
  • CO2: 154g/km
  • Road tax band: G (£180 a year)
  • Release date: On sale now

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