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Used test: Ford Focus ST vs Honda Civic Type R

You can save between £5000 and £8000 on these scorching hot hatchbacks by buying them at a year old. But which should you choose?...

Ford Focus ST

The Contenders

Ford Focus ST 2.3 Ecoboost

List price when new £31,995
Price today £24,000*
Available from 2019-present

Following in the footsteps of some legendary fast Fords, the Focus ST is a real hoot

Honda Civic Type R 2.0 VTEC Turbo

List price when new  £31,550
Price today £26,500*
Available from 2017-present

Our reigning Hot Hatch of the Year, but does it make as much sense as a used buy?

*Price today is based on a 2019 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing

Fast Fords hold a special place in the hearts of keen drivers. From the sainted Lotus Cortina through the Sierra Cosworth and right up to the present-day pocket-rocket that is the Ford Fiesta ST, these cars have always been tremendous fun to drive and are usually great value, too.

The latest version of the Ford Focus ST follows in those footsteps by being swift, agile and, if not quite so outlandish to look at as some of the previous hot Fords, at least subtly stylish. 

Ford Focus ST 2019 right side panning

Where it departs from its predecessors is in its pricing, because you’ll need north of £30,000 to put a new one on your driveway. One solution to this is to buy your ST at a year old, when the initial depreciation has done its worst and it suddenly becomes a much more affordable proposition. 

Here, we’re pitching just such an ST against a Honda Civic Type R of the same age. The Type R has won several What Car? Awards as a new car, but which of these hot hatches gives you more fun for your money as a used buy? Let’s find out...


Performance, ride, handling, refinement

Hot hatches aren't all about power, and that's just as well for Ford, because the Focus ST is well down in this area, producing 276bhp compared with the 316bhp of the Civic Type R.

So, how much quicker is the Type R? Surprisingly, not a lot if you look purely at their 0-60mph times. We should mention it was a wet day for our test, with conditions that favoured the less potent ST. But also, while both cars get a limited-slip differential – to help dispense their power more effectively to the road – only the ST was offered with launch control when new (it was part of an optional Performance Pack). Our research suggests that about half of all original ST owners tick this option.  

Honda Civic Type R 2019 left side panning shot

Our test car had it, but even with the system activated, the front wheels spun up like a top and the tyres squealed. The old-fashioned method of feathering the accelerator proved far more fruitful and, once underway, this was helped out further by the ST’s linear power delivery, which is consistent from top to bottom.

The Type R’s engine is far peakier. That makes it trickier to get off the line but also more interesting; there’s a reason to rev it out that’s missing from the ST. Yes, it’s less responsive low down than the ST’s engine, but it’s still a tasty unit. At around 2500rpm the turbocharger kicks in and the Type R starts romping forwards, hard. Then, at 5000rpm, you get Honda’s VTEC engine trickery engaging, producing a final flourish of frenzied revs to the 7000rpm limiter. 

That can all be deciphered from the in-gear figures. The more flexible ST is a little quicker from 30-50mph, but once the Type R’s explosive motor comes on song, it blitzes the ST from 50-70mph.

Speaking of gears, the ST’s six-speed manual ’box is slick, no question, and you can have an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic if you wish. The Type R is manual only, but you wouldn’t want anything else; you'd need to look at Porsches to find anything that changes gear as sweetly.

Ford Focus ST 2019 rear right cornering shot

What about their important tailpipe notes? Ford has livened up the ST’s digitally through the car’s speakers, and it gets louder as you get into the sportier driving modes. It sounds purposeful but perhaps a little forced, so purists might prefer the honesty of Honda’s approach. The Type R has no digital enhancements; all you hear are the delights of mechanical whirrs from the engine, whooshes from the turbo and a bassy beat from its exhaust.

You can’t turn those off, though (whereas you can quieten the ST by selecting its Normal mode), so the Type R’s engine thrums away more boisterously at 70mph, whether you want it to or not. Still, that goes some way to hiding the wind and, in particular, road noise, which is much louder than it is in the ST. 

That said, the Type R’s rowdiness is counterbalanced by its calmer ride. Both cars come with adaptive suspension, which you can switch manually in the Type R, depending on whether you want a hard or soft ride. The ability to set up the suspension as you want in the ST is another feature added by that optional Performance Pack. Softened off, the ST is still firm and fidgety, but not harsh like the smaller Fiesta ST. Generally speaking, it deals with potholes ably and patters along motorways pretty well. 

But the Type R has the better ride. Regardless of the type of bump and the speed at which it’s struck, the Type R manages to dampen the jitters and absorb the impacts better.

Honda Civic Type R 2019 RHD rear tracking

Switch the Type R to Sport mode, and the body is resolutely stable over troughs and crests while containing body lean better than the ST. The ST’s setup is still impressive, but it misses out on some of the Type R’s stability, getting pitched about over uneven surfaces. On the way into corners, that inspires less confidence.

Both cars' limited-slip differentials work tirelessly to manufacture traction from the front wheels out of corners, and neither is short on outright grip. The Type R is grippier, though, and has a more neutral balance that instils further assurance. You can still fine-tune its line by backing off mid-corner, but the ST is livelier, playfully swinging its rear end around if you lift off the accelerator. 

Neither car has ideal steering. The ST’s is more tactile, but its unnatural weighting undermines your ability to affect seamless, flowing turns. The Type R’s steering lacks the delicate communication of its rival, but its better speed and weighting allow subconsciously fluent sweeps of the wheel through every corner.

Both cars offer a firm and progressive brake pedal, but the Type R’s is fractionally more reassuring and delivers a shorter stopping distance from 70mph.

 Next: What are they like inside? >>

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