Sporty com­pact is new king of the hot hatch cas­tle

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - DRIVING -

Wel­come to a spe­cial se­ries de­voted to skew­er­ing the automotive ram­blings of young punk Nick Tra­gia­nis with the in­fi­nite wis­dom of old dude Brian Harper. This week, the duo find out if the Honda Civic Type R’s hype is real by pit­ting it against the ex­cep­tion­ally charm­ing — and loud — John Cooper Works-tuned Mini Cooper.

Nick Tra­gia­nis: Con­sider this a pub­lic ser­vice an­nounce­ment for those who think a front-drive per­for­mance car is an oxy­moron: You’re wrong. Just be­cause it’s the de-facto choice among bor­ing econoboxes and the har­bin­ger of torque steer in higher-horse­power ap­pli­ca­tions, doesn’t mean any­thing push­ing more than 250 hp to the front wheels isn’t wor­thy of a se­cond glance among hooli­gans.

Case in point, the 2017 Honda Civic Type R. It’s the car Honda fan­boys and fan­girls in North Amer­ica have been ea­gerly an­tic­i­pat­ing since, well, for­ever. As for the hype? Oh, don’t get me started. With 306 hp, a six-speed man­ual, ad­justable sus­pen­sion and a whole host of other souped-up bits and bobs, the Type R has a lot to live up to. But you’d be for­given for blow­ing it off, es­pe­cially when its main com­peti­tors are AWD.

You might think the Type R would be the king of torque steer; I’ll ad­mit I did. Well, I’m here to eat a big slice of hum­ble pie, be­cause I was wrong. The Type R is the new king of hot hatches, and I doubt any­thing in the class north of $40,000 holds a can­dle to the per­for­mance. Good luck ar­gu­ing your way out of this one, old dude.

Brian Harper: Oh, I’ll give full props to the Type R. Be­ing old enough to re­mem­ber when the so-called ex­perts said you couldn’t get more than 200 hp out of a front-wheel driv­e­train, to see 306 ponies from the R — with­out torque steer — is a tri­umph of en­gi­neer­ing. And the six-speed, short-throw man­ual it’s bolted to is so pre­cise and slick that it re­minds me of Honda’s late, lamented S2000 sports car. Yes, I said it!

There’s just one prob­lem. The Type R is fugly with a cap­i­tal F. C’mon, is there any­thing from the tuner-boy play­book that Honda’s de­sign­ers didn’t hang on this hatch­back? Talk about a cliché. I felt like some old guy whose grand­kid threw him the keys to the car and said take it out for a spin.

That’s why I brought Mini’s gi­ant-killer John Cooper Works (JCW) small hatch into play. Yes, its 228-hp, 2.0-L turbo-four is puny by com­par­i­son, but it’s a so­phis­ti­cated beastie that also dis­plays lit­tle to no torque steer when pushed. My his­tory with this car goes back to the first-gen­er­a­tion ver­sion, in which I and my co-driver cam­paigned vig­or­ously in the 2004 Targa New­found­land. There might have been faster cars in that rally, but few could out­run it in the tighter, twistier stages. Gen­er­a­tion three is sim­ply more of the same.

NT: When it comes to a Mini, “more of the same” is a very good thing. The three-door JCW is a won­der­ful,

peppy, jump­ing bean of a car. It’s quick, it’s got both charm and at­ti­tude, and the door chime makes me chuckle be­cause it sounds like it’s say­ing, “I’m a Mi-ni!”

But it’s not per­fect. It suf­fers from ex­pen­siv us op­tion it is, a term I to­tally didn’t just make up in ref­er­ence to the fact that, as is the case with many BMW and Mini ve­hi­cles, op­tions can be very pricey. Al­though the JCW starts at $33,740, the one we’re play­ing with hov­ers around $46,000 as tested. That’s $46,000 for 228 hp, fron­twheel drive and an au­to­matic trans­mis­sion.

So, while the JCW isn’t quite a clear-cut Type R com­peti­tor, it can cer­tainly reach Type R territory. The R is a one-size-fits-all deal, start­ing at just un­der $41,000 — and that’s it. No op­tions, no pack­ages. Fully loaded. What you see is what you get. And when you start op­tion­ing out the Mini past the $40K mark, it’s clear the Honda has the per­for­mance-per-dol­lar edge. BH: Ul­ti­mately, I will agree with you: The Type R is for­mi­da­ble, putting the power down like no other pro­duc­tion front-drive car I’ve driven. And it’s not just the ac­cel­er­a­tion; the han­dling is quite ex­tra­or­di­nary as well.

That’s big rub­ber at all four cor­ners: P245/30ZR20 Con­ti­nen­tal Sport Con­tact 6 high-per­for­mance tires. Scrub­bing off speed are 350-mil­lime­tre cross-drilled ro­tors clamped by four-pis­ton Brembo calipers in front and 305-mm ro­tors with sin­gle-pis­ton calipers in the rear. From a per­for­mance view, I’d love to throw this Civic into Targa com­pe­ti­tion.

The point I have to make about the JCW is that it’s a more so­phis­ti­cated car. I feel young when I’m be­hind the wheel, but I feel fool­ish driv­ing the Type R. But your view on the Mini’s BMW-like pric­ing is well taken; it’s way too pricey as it was equipped. I’d be far more con­ser­va­tive with the op­tions list, start­ing by drop­ping the $1,650 au­to­matic trans­mis­sion (with pad­dle shifters) for the stan­dard six-speed man­ual, which is lovely to shift in its own right. While the car is faster with the au­to­box, it doesn’t of­fer the same car-driver in­ter­ac­tion as the stick. And both of these cars are about the ex­pe­ri­ence.

NT: Oh, for sure. I can’t help but think the Mini would be far more of a hoot with a proper man­ual trans­mis­sion, zero-to-100 times be damned. The rest of the JCW

is just so play­ful, es­pe­cially when you ac­ti­vate Track mode. The ex­tra growl, snaps, cracks and pops are a gim­mick, but it’s a very fun gim­mick and cer­tainly trounces the Type R. Honda re­ally needs to step up its exhaust-note game.

As far as day-to-day liv­abil­ity goes, the two are well-matched. The Type R ob­vi­ously has more cargo space and a func­tional back seat — and the front seats are sim­ply fan­tas­tic — but the in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem needs some fi­ness­ing. Nav­i­gat­ing through the menus can be a bit of a chore, but the fact that Ap­ple Car Play and An­droid Auto are both stan­dard makes up for it. Still needs a vol­ume knob, though. On the flip side, the Mini has better ma­te­ri­als and in­fo­tain­ment, even if the cabin is a bit less func­tional.

BH: Yes, the Mini’s in­te­rior is as bright and bold as the car’s Chili Red paint job, with two-tone black/red Di­nam­ica (a re­cy­cled faux suede) and leather seats (re­ally sup­port­ive, by the way) that will set you back $2,250. And the dash area picks up the same colour theme. There are all sort of cool, all-op­tional play­things, such as the Har­man/Kar­don sound sys­tem, a heads-up dis­play, sun­roof, etc. Still, the Mini is strictly a 2+2 for any­body other than Munchkins. The Type R has all the ne­ces­si­ties of a proper sport hatch, no­tably the in­stru­men­ta­tion, but the cabin lacks the fi­nesse of the JCW.

So, here’s the bot­tom line for me, kid. Though my his­tory with the JCW runs deep — and I feel more at home driv­ing it — I’m cast­ing my vote for the Type R, solely due to its per­for­mance bona fides. Sim­ply, it takes the hot hatch to a new level. And, while I’ll be branded a heretic (or worse) by S2000 fan­boys, I’d love to see Honda drop a nice twoseat con­vert­ible body on top of the Type R’s en­tire driv­e­train. Yes, that would mean a front-wheel-drive sports car, but, c’mon, it would be a 306-horse­power sports car.

NT: See, the Civic Type R is ugly, but it’s a func­tional ugly — all those creases and vents are there for a rea­son, whether it’s im­prov­ing aero­dy­nam­ics, air­flow or cool­ing. But I’m OK with that, con­sid­er­ing the phe­nom­e­nal per­for­mance. The Mini is charm­ing and punchy, but it can get pricey real quick. If you’re pin­ing for a hot hatch and per­for­mance is at the very top of your list, the Civic Type R is tough to beat.


2017 Honda Civic Type R tops the Mini Cooper JCW three-door on the road.

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