New Honda Civic Type R vs new Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years

The latest evolutions of the Honda Civic Type R and Volkswagen Golf R hot hatches promise thrills galore. But which is best?...

Honda Civic Type R and Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years fronts

Our contenders

New Honda Civic Type R 2.0 VTEC Turbo

List price £46,995
Target price £46,995

Latest incarnation of the Type R has more power than its predecessor and a raft of other small improvements, but is it special enough to be worth the huge hike in price?

New Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years

List price £48,095
Target price £48,095

Limited edition marks two decades of Volkswagen’s go-faster division with more power than the regular Golf R and the promise of sharper responses

If you’re a cycling fan, you’ll no doubt have heard of marginal gains theory. Implemented by Sir David Brailsford when he became performance director of British Cycling, the theory goes that if you can make 1% improvements in a whole host of areas, the cumulative gains are significant.

It was, quite literally, his job to sweat the small stuff, so he encouraged the team to bring their own pillow cases from home (in order to make the riders more comfortable), introduced antibacterial hand gel to cut down on infections (before it was popular) and had the floor of the team truck painted white to encourage better bike maintenance. With these changes in place (plus many more), Team GB went from being also-rans to world beaters in the space of just a few years.

Honda Civic Type R rear

Impressive stuff, right? But you might be surprised to learn that this approach, while new to the world of cycling, has been at the centre of Japanese car manufacturing for years. Honda even has a name for it: Kaizen, meaning ‘continuous improvement’. And nowhere is that approach more apparent than with the new Honda Civic Type R.

Now, if you ever had the good fortune to drive the previous generation of Honda’s iconic hot hatch, you might have reasoned that it was irreproachable; it rode well, handled beautifully and had more than enough power for the public road. However, the company hasn’t rested on its laurels. So, while the new car uses the same underpinnings, engine, gearbox and adaptive suspension as its predecessor, a staggering number of small improvements have been made.

The body, for example, is 15% stiffer, with the aim of improving ride and handling. The engine’s air intake is 10% more efficient to help keep it cooler. The exhaust is 13% freer-flowing, helping to boost power (from 316bhp to 325bhp), and the flywheel is 18% lighter to improve accelerator response. It appears the engineers at Honda love percentages just as much as Sir Dave does.

Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years rear

However, the Type R won’t have things all its own way, because back in Europe, Volkswagen has also been extracting incremental gains from it premier hot hatch, the Volkswagen Golf R. Built to celebrate 20 years since the Golf R32 was launched in 2003, the Golf R 20 Years (which we’ll call the R20 for short) aims to ratchet up the excitement of the regular car with an additional 13bhp, a more responsive turbocharger and a punchier setting for its automatic gearbox. Small changes, but, as Team GB proved, sometimes that’s all you need.


Performance, ride, handling, refinement

Both of our contenders are powered by turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engines that produce around 325bhp. However, the way they deploy that power is very different. The Type R puts it all through its front wheels and a six-speed manual gearbox, while the R20 drives all four wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.

Honda Civic Type R side

With the mercury in the single digits and our test track sodden after a sudden downpour, getting the Type R off the line cleanly was incredibly tricky; a touch too many revs would make the front wheels spin like a top through first and second gears. The best we could achieve was a 0-60mph time of 6.7sec – well short of the 5.4sec we recorded in the previous-generation car in dry conditions.

By contrast, getting away cleanly in the R20 is child’s play. Its gearbox has a launch control system that allows even the most ham-fisted driver to make perfect starts, catapulting you to 60mph in 4.5sec. Once they’re up and running and the R20’s traction advantage is negated, the Type R closes the gap, but the R20 continues to have the edge, requiring just 2.2sec to get from 50-70mph, versus 2.5sec (in third gear) for the Type R.

The way the Type R delivers its power feels much more exciting, though. Its engine encourages you to rev it hard and power builds up rapidly to a heady crescendo at 6500rpm. While the R20’s accelerator response is noticeably sharper than the regular Golf R’s and the gearbox punches through shifts with real gusto, its power delivery is more linear and it starts to run out of puff at 5600rpm.

Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years side

There’s real pleasure to be derived from using the Type R’s perfectly positioned gearlever, too; swapping cogs requires the merest flick of your wrist. You’ll find yourself rowing up and down the gears just for the hell of it, enjoying the Type R’s natural soundtrack – the mechanical whirrs from the engine, whooshes from the turbo and a bassy beat from its triple-exit exhaust. The R20 produces lots of pops and crackles from the exhaust when you lift off or change gear, but it sounds less authentic.

You can quieten the R20’s exhaust by selecting Comfort mode, though, whereas you can’t dial down the Type R's mechanical noise, so its engine thrums away more boisterously at 70mph whether you want it or not. There's also more wind and road noise in the Type R at a cruise; there's remarkably little of either in the R20, making it much less wearing on long journeys. 

Considering their sporty natures, both cars ride exceptionally well. Adaptive suspension is standard on the Type R and an £850 option on the R20; with this fitted, the latter is as smooth and compliant in its softest setting as any regular Volkswagen Golf. The Type R is firmer and more tightly controlled in any of its suspension modes, so you tend to feel abrasions more, but it rarely becomes uncomfortable.

Honda Civic Type R and Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years noses

If you're happy enough to sacrifice a little civility for extra fun when you want it, the Type R is the car to choose. Not only does it produce more grip, but it also feels much sharper and more planted through corners, while the steering streams more feedback to your fingertips. And unlike its predecessor, the rear end of the car is quite playful if you lift off the accelerator mid-corner. 

The R20 feels softer and less well controlled generally, but you can have fun in it too, especially if you select Drift mode, which, thanks to 'torque splitter' technology, allows drive to be sent to one rear wheel or the other when cornering hard, causing the tail of the car to swing out under power and the nose to turn in more aggressively. That said, the way it does this feels a bit artificial, and such antics aren't advisable on the road anyway. 

Next: What are they like inside? >>

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