Focus ST Track Pack vs Civic Type R vs Golf GTI
Ford has belatedly appealed to the audience it seems intent on abandoning – has it still got what it takes?
By Matt Bird / Saturday, 6 May 2023 / Loading comments
Hard though it is to countenance, the fate of cars like these is already writ large wherever you care to look. The hot hatch, for reasons of legislation and demand and broader product strategies, will soon no longer be the mainstay of compact car ranges. And it’ll be a very, very sad day when it finally arrives because this trio proves just how great the very best can be. Already the Renault Sport Megane is no more and there’s nothing of note from the enormous Stellantis empire; factor into that a Type R that’s the only non-hybrid in the Civic range, a Track Packed Ford ST of a car that’ll cease production soon, and a 300hp petrol Golf from a company hellbent on electrification, and the future looms large. Hot hatches with petrol engines and, if you’re really lucky, manual gearboxes, just don’t have very long left on sale. For new customers, we really are approaching now or never.
They’re going out in style, at least. Fast Focus, Golf and Civic are more expensive than ever, sure, but they’re more capable than ever as well. There have been many very good Type Rs, STs and GTIs in the past, but none of the old stagers has packed quite so much ability, technology and performance into the front-drive concept as these three. So much so that it feels like this era might be quite fondly recalled in years to come, a few hidden gems carrying the torch while the industry ambles towards a very different future.
Let’s begin with the Focus, the newest of the bunch. Well, sort of. The Track Pack may have only been announced last year, but the spec is broadly familiar from the old, pre-facelift Edition, with the same flow-formed wheels, KW coilovers adjustable through 12 steps of compression plus 16 of rebound, and stiffer springs. That car was very good, and the Track Pack promises more still, now with Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres on top (the Edition kept the standard Michelin Pilot Sport 4S) and upgraded brakes, the front discs now 30mm larger at 363mm. Certainly, it looks the part, optional Mean Green (£825 surely well spent) contrasted very nicely with the black accents that also come with the £3k add-on. As with the Edition, a 10mm ride height drop onto snazzier wheels works a treat for the stance, lending it the attitude arguably lacking from the standard ST.
It drives absolutely brilliantly, too. The benefits of expensive suspension components are abundantly clear from the first metre, the Track Pack boasting incredible composure over demanding roads. Not incredible composure for a hot hatch – incredible composure, full stop. The upgraded dampers go a long way to conjuring the nonchalant wheel control usually restricted to motorsport; throw seemingly any surface at them, at seemingly any speed, and they cope admirably. Which, of course, plays perfectly to the Focus’s character, the hyper-alert steering and super sharp throttle goading you into a little less caution and rather more mischief with your inputs, all of which it laps up.
As well as consummate control and admirable purchase, there’s fantastic balance. A hint of stability-bias understeer bleeds into predictable, yet still exciting oversteer, topped off by the excellent traction from the stickier tyres and limited-slip diff. But with just enough fight to let you know the front axle is working hard. It’s everything you’d want, really, from a vaguely grown-up hot hatch. Though it would need a back-to-back comparison to be sure (because it could well be setup related), the Pirelli tyre also seems to have helped the low-speed ride compared to the earlier Edition. Even the weightier Track mode steering makes more sense now. Maybe its looming demise has provoked a last hurrah among its developers, but, whatever the reason, the grin from behind the wheel is undeniable. As is the willingness to do one more cornering run for the camera. And the reluctance when asked to hand it back.
It’s a hoot in the best (i.e. recent) tradition of fast Fords. Moreover, its giddy acceptance at being driven on the door handles everywhere doesn’t mean it has lost sight of the kind of old-school charm and character at more realistic, everyday speeds. The warbling 2.3-litre motor and burly manual gearbox are the perfect foil for one another. The brake pedal is firm (and the performance strong), the driving position is great, and it’ll still do comfortably more than 30mpg at a cruise, too. With a big boot. It’s a familiar old trope, but the SUV equivalents – even those as good as Ford make – simply aren’t anywhere near this enjoyable.
Despite that, it takes all of three gear changes to recognise where the latest Civic Type R is better. For all its surface charm, the Ecoboost engine has never been the greatest four-cylinder turbo in the world, and the Honda K20C1 – somewhat inevitably – shows it up. There’s just less inertia, the Civic being much more willing to rev and less obviously reliant on hair-trigger mapping to make the throttle seem sharp – there’s a tangible step-up in enthusiasm and performance at every revolution. In the Focus, you’ll merrily barrel along on the chunky torque reserves and never trouble the shift lights as there feels little to gain; the Civic offers that same mid-range muscle (to the pound-foot), with both a more thrilling rush to 7,000rpm and less lag. In any situation, it’s the superior engine, married to (predictably enough) an even more tactile shift, making it one of the most rewarding powertrains in any sector.
The steering of the Type R is preferable to the ST’s, too, its more natural rate of response sacrificing little for turn-in agility and precision. It’s palpably more communicative, relaying exactly the messages desired from a powerful front-drive car and does without the Focus’s preoccupation with returning to centre. Remarkably, it is the least affected by torque steer. However, the Civic doesn’t have everything its own way against the Ford. Even with smaller 19-inch wheels against the previous Type R’s 20s, the FL5 can’t compete with the bump-smothering ability of the Track Pack. The ST is cushier virtually everywhere, and makes the Civic seem weightier and needless firmer by comparison. To call it tiring would be a stretch, but Ford emphatically proves that abruptness isn’t obligatory. At everyday road speeds, nothing beyond Comfort makes much sense in the Honda.
That said, even against the fab Ford, the Civic’s ability to put down power through its Michelins is sensational, and seemingly unfazed by any changes in surface, corner radius or driver input. You’ll only really know a traction control input with the briefest flash of the light. The braking performance is scarcely believable, too, and it all adds up to an experience more akin to one of the all-wheel drive mega hatches than a traditional front-drive hero. There’s tenacious grip, sublime balance and intensity to spare – which is fairly awesome when you factor in the sheer size of the thing. But while the Civic is a joy to interact with, it’s not long before you’re dreaming of a track – or even just a bigger road – to sample the car at its very best. The Focus is easier to rub along with, well sorted for a circuit by all accounts and a slightly less stern prospect in the real world. That feels worth noting.
So where does that leave the Clubsport? It’s a car that’s impressed in isolation, and proved its worth in tests against both mechanically similar alternatives and the best that Hyundai and BMW can offer. Despite quirks and frustrations, it’s undoubtedly a decent hot hatch. Yet here it can’t compete at the level set by either of its front-drive rivals, even with all the time and effort that was laudably invested in making a GTI into a Clubsport.
The EA888 still does the numbers, mind, and manages to still seem more eager (and probably faster) than the Focus despite what feels like about 20 years in production. For a car without the mechanical locking diff of the other cars (and less focused Hankook tyres), traction is pretty good as well. And there’s balance, for sure, the car reluctant to collapse into understeer or spike into oversteer. But the traits that elevate the others – the clarity of communication, a rampant desire to entertain and a lingering ability to rise to the occasion – never consistently materialise in the Golf. Which is a shame.
Most notably there’s a looser sense of connection from the wheel, a deadness to the turn-in that becomes all the more noticeable because of how keyed-in and tied-down the other two feel. Once loaded up, it unequivocally can’t deal with mid-corner bumps as well, regardless of which of the 15 DCC damper settings are selected. And traction is soon compromised once you ask too much of the driven axle with lock applied. Often it’s about fine margins, but when the going gets tough – i.e. where its rivals demonstrate their class – the GTI flounders. Where Honda and Ford really feel to have poured considerable effort into their respective offerings (despite what must be more pressing and profitable concerns elsewhere), the Clubsport never really starts to convince you that it’s the best a Golf can be. And while we half expected its opponents to overshadow it in some scenarios, the fact that they outperformed the GTI across the board seemed endlessly significant.
The DSG does it no favours, either. If an automatic must be mandatory (and Volkswagen cannot be blamed for building a car its customers prefer) then it must surely be better than this. The transmission is merely adequate – which means it is no match at all for the sort of involvement being meted out as a matter of course by the slick, three-pedal action available in the Honda or Ford. And, without wishing to return to old ground, this lapse in charisma is buried six feet deep by the internal groan that accompanies every sight of the dashboard. All of which seems especially unfortunate when we’ve been provided with glimpses of just how good the Mk8 Golf can be – and there’s hope yet for the kind of send-off that befits its storied legacy – but for now, the Clubsport is a minnow surrounded by basking sharks.
Choosing between Focus and Civic is obviously trickier. The Type R is one of the best-sorted driver’s cars that £50k buys, no question; it could be compared to an Alpine A110, BMW M240i xDrive or Porsche Cayman and its quality would shine through. Because it’s ostensibly a hot hatch and because it’s called a Civic, there are expectations and assumptions about what it should cost and what it should do. It says an awful lot that it defies many of them, being faster, more capable and more practical than virtually anything else with five doors and a hatch. It seemed a formidable achievement at launch, and this test has done nothing to diminish that verdict. For a car to tackle commuting, family use, road trips and track days, there can’t be much better out there short of an M3 Touring.
But it comes with a necessary caveat. If you’re not allocated one now, it seems unlikely you’ll get a Civic Type R unless you’re willing to pay more than £50k for a used one. Set against it is a Ford that requires no special favours to get in, costs thousands less and readily offers up more fun away from a track. In more muted colours, it’ll slip more readily under the radar than any Civic, too. The Type R is a front-drive phenomenon – the complete package, in many ways – and deserves all the praise which has been heaped on it. It has the best engine, gearbox, steering, front axle and, not for nothing, the best interior. But it’s tough to persuasively argue that it adds up to £10k’s worth of superiority in light of its Mean Green competition. Despite the odd shortfall, the Track Pack is the finest fast Focus your correspondent has driven, a fitting send-off for a long-standing lineup of great hot hatches. We suggest you get one while you still can – and thank us when the Explorer ST turns up.
SPECIFICATION | 2023 VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI CLUBSPORT (MK8)
Engine: 1,984cc, four-cyl turbo
Transmission: 7-speed DSG auto, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@5,300-6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,000-5,200rpm
0-62mph: 5.6 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,461kg (VW ‘unladen weight’)
MPG: 38.3 (WLTP)
CO2: 167g/km (WLTP)
Price: £41,890 (price as standard)
SPECIFICATION | 2023 FORD FOCUS ST TRACK PACK
Engine: 2,261cc, turbocharged four-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 280@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 310@3,000-4,000rpm
0-62mph: 5.7 secs
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,534kg (lightest kerbweight with 75kg driver, full fluids and 90 per cent fuel)
Price: £39,950 (£36,950 as standard plus £3,000 for Track Pack; this car £40,775 with £825 Mean Green paint)
SPECIFICATION | 2023 HONDA CIVIC TYPE R GT (FL5)
Engine: 1,996cc, four-cylinder turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 329@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 310@2,200-4,000rpm
Top speed: 170mph
Price: £46,995 (as standard)
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