BBC Top Gear Magazine
Twin test: hot hatches
Honda’s maddest Civic takes on Volkswagen’s hardest GTI – it’s front-wheel drive warfare
Clubsport. Good name for a car. If I were Volkswagen I’d have at least written it somewhere on it. Not big, just subtle, a little reassurance for those that know. There are clues if you know what you’re looking for: a new front bumper that’s more gap than tooth so as to get extra air to the larger intercooler, a larger rear wing, some low-key graphics, altered tailpipes. But I want the badge. And, loathe though I am to admit it, bigger wheels. These 18s look heavy.
But then this new 1,461kg Golf is no lightweight. A whole 2kg shaved off a regular DSG GTI. Many gym visits heavier than the 1,405kg Honda. Not that weight matters that much here. Honda will now sell you a 47kg lighter Limited Edition, if you enjoy being without aircon and infotainment, but let’s face it, you don’t. Have this £36,320 GT version and you get a 465W sound system. And that matters in a hot hatch. Everyday cars, for everyday things.
Still, these two are from the more hectic end of the hot hatch spectrum. This is the Honda’s natural habitat. For Volkswagen, the Clubsport is about broadening the GTI’s repertoire beyond the standard 242bhp model (something it will do again soon with the arrival of the 4WD R) with a carefully considered raft of changes, most notably more negative camber on the front wheels, bigger yet lighter brakes, and a clever front differential that uses a clutch pack managed by a central computer to distribute power to either side.
Passive suspension is standard (and fitted to this test car), adaptive dampers are a £785 option that experience suggests are well worth having. They’re just a pain to actually use, as adjustment only occurs after a jabbing battle with multiple screen menus.
This is the Golf’s weakness, and it’s a big one. The cabin is smart, the darkened screens sleek, materials are faultless, it looks sharp, with good seats and visibility and you can shuffle people and paraphernalia with ease. There is no practical drawback to having the Clubsport instead of the GTI. But, boy, is it a hassle to operate on the move. Very few physical buttons, so you’re straight into endless screen swipes and jabs. And they’re semi-nonsensical. Want to loosen the ESP? That’s six moves, and appears under ‘Brakes’.
Then the Civic. Busy. Dark. Red. The layout, graphics and instrumentation could easily be a decade old. But now sit in it. You’ve dropped low, and how superb does that seat feel? I’m not sure any car, at any price, has a better chair in it. Then an Alcantara steering
wheel and manual gearlever that’s as good to hold and move as it is to look at. Despite the dark, it’s big inside. A 420-litre boot outstrips the Golf by 50 litres, just bear in mind there’s only two seatbelts in the back.
And then we get to the way it drives, and – I’m sorry VW, because in isolation, the new GTI Clubsport is a bloody good car – but the Civic is something else entirely. It’s one of those cars. You haven’t even reached the end of the road and you already know. The Golf is good, but it doesn’t move as well, as memorably, as the Honda. The damping doesn’t have the same gorgeous absorption and return, the weighting and operation of the controls isn’t as clear and positive. Better on long trips though, not only because it’ll happily churn along at 38mpg to the Honda’s 35, but because it does so more quietly and calmly. Tyre noise is the Civic’s Achilles’ heel.
Everywhere else the Honda rules. Brake feel and power is awesome. You know exactly what the front end is doing, how much grip it has, when the diff starts to lock and actively pulls you through the corner. The Civic gives you so much information and detail it makes you want to be a better driver just to keep up with it, to get more from it. It’s aggressive without being harsh, an addictive hoot.
The Golf likes to be driven in a flattering manner. At seven-tenths it’s great – smooth, with good front end bite, little roll, very taut control and the VAQ diff delivers unobtrusive grip and torque distribution. Go quicker or slacken the traction and it becomes scrappier. Brakes are good but they’re not Civic-league and the DSG (no manual option), operated by apologetic plastic paddles, is merely OK. It slurs ever so slightly and makes curious decisions if left to its own devices.
Both have enough power and punchy engines. The VW’s sounds better, brighter and more eager versus the Honda’s duller drone. But the Civic’s power delivery – once you’ve got a bit of low rev lethargy out the way – is superb. It keeps pushing hard towards the top end while the Golf, after a sweet mid-range, gives you no reason to venture past 5,000rpm.
I still struggle with the Civic because of the way it looks. It’s a terrible piece of design while being a breathtaking piece of engineering. It divides me like no other car, but it wins here. Just watch costs. Put £5,000 down on each car, and you’ll pay £520 per month for the Civic against £470 for the Golf. I wouldn’t blame you for choosing the loser, it’s the safer choice and the best MkVIII GTI. Good name, too. If only there was a badge to go with it.