Spend any time in the 2017 Honda Civic Type R and you’ll quickly realize that it’s probably the best sport compact car money can buy.
However, not all of my esteemed colleagues at AutoGuide.com were so easily convinced, quickly pointing out the proverbial gauntlet of dual-purpose rides that came before it. And, of course, it would be unfair to overlook the Subaru WRX STI, Volkswagen Golf R and Ford Focus RS, three competitors in a segment that can never have too many entries.
And in truth, it would be easy to give all four of these sport compacts gold stars and call it a day. But we’re not in the business of handing out participation trophies; no, just like you, we want to know which one of this quartet is worthy of your hard-earned dollars. And that’s why we brought them together to take part in AutoGuide.com’s ultimate showdown for sport compact supremacy.
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We Love Sport Compacts
What makes sport compacts so great is their combination of everyday usability and performance ability. Built on the bones of commuter-friendly compacts, these cars are predicated upon practicality first and foremost, with plenty of power added to increase their outrageousness. Muscle cars are cool and all, but there’s something about an amped-up econobox churning out 300 horsepower that’s downright ridiculous in the best way possible.
It goes without saying, then, that our scoring system was built around both practicality and performance. From cargo room and creature comforts to the engine, transmission and overall driving engagement, we devised a weighted scoring system that prioritized certain characteristics without neglecting others. With a total of 100 points up for grabs, we put all four contenders through their paces on both winding roads and a twisting track — the two places they’re supposed to be.
Once the AutoGuide.com team was done laboring over the details (just kidding; this comparison was about as fun as they come), we put pro driver Dave Pratte behind the wheel of each car at Toronto Motorsports Park to see which could circle the 1.9-mile (three-kilometer) track the fastest. With the final tallies in hand, there were as many predictable results as there were surprising ones. So without further ado, here’s how they all stacked up.
4th Place: 2018 Subaru WRX STI
Final Score: 53.5 Points
Sometimes the score sheet doesn’t tell the whole story. Such is the case with the WRX STI. According to the results we reached on paper, the hottest Subaru on the market finished this four-horse race in a distant — and dismal — last place. But that’s awfully misleading and doesn’t give credit to what’s still an awesome offering that’s an absolute riot on the racetrack. The problem is everything leading up to the track.
The STI’s chassis and suspension are by far the stiffest of the bunch and can make a travel mug full of coffee a treacherous proposition on the morning commute. While the Civic Type R and Focus RS can be almost as rigid when called upon, their adaptive dampers make them that much more suited for daily driving. Other trouble spots include the car’s six-speed manual gearbox — the only one available — that features mile-long throws, and a tall and vague clutch pedal that make smooth shifts a challenge. Over-revving off the line is all but unavoidable, while gear changes at city speeds are often on the jarring side. Making matters worse around town is the turbocharged 2.5-liter boxer engine that’s all but gutless in the low end.
ALSO SEE: 2018 Subaru WRX STI Review
Those complaints fade away fairly quickly at the track, however, with the car’s performance prowess becoming abundantly clear. With 305 horsepower and 290 lb-ft of torque to play with, the STI isn’t the most powerful of the lot but feels equally as fast as any of the others when hustling from turn to turn on the track. It also features the most satisfying steering setup of all four contenders, with the hydraulically assisted system needing a bit more muscle to negotiate a corner. The car’s torque-vectoring system also comes in handy here, helping quell most — but not all — of the understeer we encountered on the track. It also had the best brakes of the bunch, with the four-wheel Brembos outlasting the rest.
But back to where the WRX STI goes wrong. Despite a recent refresh, the Subie seems like a dinosaur compared to its counterparts in this contest, especially when it comes to amenities. The interior lacks most of the modern conveniences offered in the others — a problem only compounded by the limited features offered on our base tester. Add in the downright deplorable fuel economy, and the sedan stood little chance of competing with this trio of hot hatches. “Subaru’s WRX STI is a car that would have been incredibly cool in 2005,” according to AutoGuide.com’s Craig Cole, “but it’s far behind the pack today.”
3. 2017 Volkswagen Golf R
Final Score: 64.25 Points
If this sport compact shootout was about which of the four makes for the best daily driver, the Volkswagen Golf R probably had a shot at winning. And, indeed, the hopped-up hatch was comfortably in the lead through the design and interior scoring, with its subtle styling and ample space for passengers and their stuff helping the Golf R along. But its lead all but evaporated as soon as the asphalt begins to twist.
While the 2.0-liter turbo under the hood is as refined as any of the others, its 292 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque lag noticeably behind its adversaries. In short, it simply felt slow, a surprise given how quick this Golf really is — and even more surprising given it was the only one of the four cars to feature a quick-shifting dual-clutch automatic gearbox. But beyond sheer speed, the Golf R was easily the least exciting. It never felt quite as nimble or responsive as the Ford, Honda or Subaru, and suffered from some ill-tempered brakes that didn’t stand up like the rest.
None of that, however, makes the Golf R a bad car — even out on the track. While some editors quickly grew bored of its predictability, that calculable approach made it a perfect companion to turn off traction control and take to the next level. Even with all its nannies on, though, it was still enjoyable for yours truly, and easily carved twisting tarmac corners, especially out on the road.
And, again, it’s out on the road where the Golf R truly shines. Once the fun was over, it was especially easy to appreciate what it brings to the table. The ride quality is superb, the drive is relaxed, and the fuel economy isn’t half-bad either. Add in a decently appointed interior, and the Golf R is a great choice for the discerning buyer who prioritizes weekday over weekend enjoyment. “The attributes that make it suffer on the track are the things that make it better on-road, so you really have to look at what your plans are for a car like this,” according to AutoGuide.com Editor-in-Chief Jodi Lai.
2. 2017 Ford Focus RS
Final Score: 72.5 Points
It’s hard not to love the Ford Focus RS. It’s definitely the hot rod of the group and is a beast that’s fairly easy to tame. With 350 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque being sent to all four wheels, the Ford is also easily the most powerful of the four — at least on paper — and packs a serious punch all the way through the rev range. The result is a ride that seems like it’s always fixing for a fight.
It starts with a suspension setup that, while not quite as rigid as the Subaru’s, can be back-breakingly stiff — especially when the adaptive dampers are set to Sport mode. The problem is that even in Normal mode, the Focus’ ride falls on the stiff side. While that’s great when pushing the Ford on the track, it’s far less so around town and leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to ride comfort.
ALSO SEE: 2017 Ford Focus RS vs Volkswagen Golf R
With a six-speed manual transmission the only one offered, the Focus RS features a spectacularly mechanical shifter with smooth and short throws and a nicely weighted clutch that’s easy to modulate. While not quite perfect, it’s a special setup that is satisfying to use and allows the four-cylinder’s full potential to be tapped. And back to that motor. While the Subaru’s boxer offers a unique sound in its own right, none of the other three cars can compare to the Focus’ special exhaust note. It’s certainly not afraid to burble and backfire when called upon, though that’s only true when driven hard.
And when it’s driven hard the Focus RS is hard to beat. Not only is the powertrain up to the challenges encountered on the track and the street, but so do is the dynamic package offered here. Without much torque steer to worry about, the car pulls hard as it charges into turns, while the torque-vectoring system reduces understeer to a point that it’s all but negligible. That helped the Focus RS hustle around the track in a respectable 1:22.81 — roughly three seconds faster than both the Subaru and VW could muster.
It would appear, then, that the Ford had a clear path to victory. A few roadblocks did, however, get in the way when it came to the cabin. While benefitting from being a hatchback, the cargo area gives up more than a few cubic feet to both the Golf R and Civic Type R. Likewise, the cockpit is a little cramped, while the bolsters of the Recaro seats make driving a cozy affair for anyone with more meat on their bones than Craig Cole.
1. 2017 Honda Civic Type R
Final Score: 88 Points
Which brings us to the Honda Civic Type R. It, too, has bolstered front seats, though they can accommodate people of most shapes and sizes with relative ease. Open the tailgate, and there’s a shade less than 26 cu-ft (730 liters) of space available — the most of the bunch. Dare I say the Type R is exceptionally practical. And if that weren’t enough, it has the performance chops to back it up.
Despite being the only front-wheel drive car in the contest, there’s absolutely no torque steer to speak of when the hammer drops. And the hammer can drop with plenty of fury. Output from the turbocharged 2.0-liter is rated at 306 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, though there’s good reason to believe those are underrated figures. The motor is an absolute fire-breather from top to bottom and helped the Civic to a lap time of 1:22.45, the fastest of the four.
ALSO SEE: 2017 Honda Civic Type R Review
Of course, top-level performance is about more than power, and the Honda benefits from a well-executed package that features a properly dialed-in, well, everything. The transmission, with its short, precise throws, is a marvel to row, while the adaptive dampers work well to handle weight transfer without upsetting the balance of the car. Add in yet another awesome torque vectoring system, and understeer never even enters the equation as the Civic heads into turn after turn at full tilt. A big nod goes to the brakes, which slow the car in a hurry without pulling in any particular direction.
Honda also managed to make this Super Civic a pretty economical one, with the combined 25 mpg average easily to not only match but exceed. If all that weren’t enough, it’s also the most affordable of the four. Stickered at $33,900, it undercuts its rivals by a healthy margin while offering most, if not all, of the creature comforts one would want. If there was one nit to pick with the Type R it would be its exterior styling. “Who designed this car?” Craig Cole wonders. “It looks like a Picasso painting rendered in three dimensions, with all those weird angles and surfaces.” But then again, you don’t have to look at the outside when you’re sitting behind the wheel.