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Used test: Honda Civic Type R vs Volkswagen Golf GTI

Two of the most iconic names in hot hatch history go head-to-head in used form, but should you buy a Honda Civic Type R or a Volkswagen Golf GTI?...

Honda Civic Type R vs Volkswagen Golf GTI fronts

The contenders

Honda Civic Type R

List price when new £34,820
Price today £32,000
Available from 2017-present

The Type R was updated for 2020 and gets tweaked suspension, upgraded brakes and a better gear knob (yes, really).


Volkswagen Golf GTI

List price when new £33,460
Price today £28,000
Available from 2020-present

Volkswagen says its eighth-generation Golf GTI is even more driver focused than its predecessor.

*Price today is based on a 2020 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing


Most hot hatches fall somewhere between smooth jazz and heavy metal. Where one lands depends on its blend of everyday usability and exciting driving dynamics – two attributes the Volkswagen Golf GTI is renowned for balancing excellently. From the iconic original to the latest model, it's always owned the middle ground. 

But is that all you want out of a hot hatch – an equal blend of the sensible and silly? Many would argue they would want more silliness than sense, seeing as it's a (if not the) key reason for soaring above the regular family car ranks and opting for a performance-oriented variant.

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2020 Honda Civic Type R rear

For an even louder blast of AC/DC, there's the Honda Civic Type R. This winged machine is about as mad as they come, as you can probably tell from its raucous looks. It's thrilling to drive too, which is why we named it our Best hot hatch for more than £30,000 in 2018. 

In its defence, the GTI might argue that the Type R is overkill – and we're here to put that to the test. What's more, to save you around £3500 of your hard-earned money, we've chosen used, two-year-old examples of each. Which is best? Read on to find out... 


Driving

Performance, ride, handling, refinement

Right, let’s get down to brass tacks first, and look at these cars' performance. Both have 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engines and a turbocharger each, although the Type R has 316bhp while the GTI has 242bhp. Putting their power down through the front wheels, acceleration is punchy in either, but despite the fact that the Type R has a 74bhp power advantage, their 0-60mph figures aren't as different as you might expect. The Type R completes the sprint in 5.8sec, compared with the GTI’s 6.2sec.

Volkswagen Golf GTI rear

One of the reasons these two cars are so close in terms of acceleration is that the GTI’s engine is more linear in its power delivery, making it a little easier to get off the line. The Type R has less low-down grunt, with its maximum arriving 500rpm later than in the GTI – but that actually makes it the more entertaining engine on the road. 

Once you hit 2500rpm, the Type R really punches hard and maintains that vigour all the way to its 7000rpm red line – some 500rpm higher than the GTI's. So, while the GTI almost matches the Type R from 30-50mph (2.3sec versus 2.2sec), once the blue touch paper is lit, the former is blitzed from 50-70mph (3.3sec versus 2.6sec).

The GTI can be had with either a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. While the former (fitted to our test car) has a shorter action than you’ll find in a regular VW Golf, it still feels a little too rubbery and indirect – a situation not helped by a square, awkwardly shaped gear knob.

2020 Honda Civic Type R front

Conversely, the Type R can be had only with a six-speed manual, but trust us, you wouldn’t want anything else. As part of the 2020 facelift, Honda has reprofiled and carefully weighted the aluminium knob, and this makes for an even sweeter shift action. It’s about as tactile as it gets this side of a Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 and has you rowing up and down the ’box just for the hell of it. 

The Type R’s engine sounds better than the slightly gravelly GTI’s when you work it hard, which is great when you’re driving enthusiastically on your favourite country road. But at a cruise on a motorway, the Type R’s engine thrums away quite boisterously, whereas the GTI’s is relatively hushed. Wind noise and, in particular, road noise are much more noticeable at high speeds in the Type R too. 

Things are more evenly matched around town – especially when it comes to ride quality. In the GTI, you can either control the adaptive suspension through a dashboard button, which cycles through fixed settings such as Comfort and Sport, or you can tailor the ride using a sliding scale in Individual mode. Individual mode lets you go softer than Comfort for maximum pliancy, or firmer than Sport if you want to hit the track. In Comfort mode, the GTI is fractionally more compliant than the Type R, but both cars are very comfortable by hot-hatch standards.

Volkswagen Golf GTI front

When you put both contenders in Sport mode, the Type R finds a slightly better compromise between ride quality and body control, with the suspension remaining pliant enough to ensure you’re not kicked out of your seat over sudden troughs and crests, while containing body lean better than the GTI's. That gives the Type R incredible stability, which in turn imbues you with massive confidence to push harder.

That’s not to say the GTI is miles behind the Type R when it comes to handling. There’s buckets of grip and a neutral handling balance that allows you to tailor your line with a brief lift of the accelerator. You can even alter it from neutral to more playfully loose at the rear by fiddling with the adjustable suspension’s numerous settings – a first for a GTI. 

Still, the GTI’s steering isn’t quite as feelsome as the Type R’s, the GTI is less stable under braking (the Type R’s racing-inspired brakes have an even more positive initial bite and feel far more progressive) and its electronic differential doesn’t pull you out of corners as aggressively as the Type R’s mechanical one. All of this means that you feel more comfortable driving the Type R fast – and that's reflected in its lap time around our 0.9-mile test track (which is designed to simulate a meandering B-road). The Type R was more than a second quicker than the GTI – although it’s worth pointing out that the latter was 0.3sec quicker than the old GTI TCR, a hardcore version of the previous-generation model.