VW Golf GTI Clubsport vs Honda Civic Type R | Top Gear
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VW Golf GTI Clubsport vs Honda Civic Type R

It's a hardcore hatch shootout: new GTI Clubsport against Civic Type R

Published: 25 Jan 2021
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Clubsport. Good name for a car. If I was Volkswagen I’d have at least written it somewhere on it. Not big, just subtle, a little reassurance for those that know. There are cues if you know what you’re looking for: a new front bumper that’s more gap than tooth to get extra air to the larger intercooler, a rear wing that juts back further, some low-key graphics down on the flanks, altered tail pipes. But I want the badge. And, loathe though I am to admit it, bigger wheels. These 18s are flat-faced and 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 air con and infotainment, but let’s face it, you don’t. Have this £36,320 GT version and you get a 465-watt sound system. And that matters in a hot hatch. Everyday cars, for everyday things. Even if they have daft wings and absent Clubsport badges.

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These two are from the more hectic end of the hot hatch spectrum. For VW 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). For Honda, this is its natural habitat. VW is invading territory Honda shares with cars such as the Renaultsport Megane and Hyundai i30N. Cars that are about driving first, the business of being a hatchback second. All are good but the Civic, especially since last year’s facelift, is downright mesmeric.

It was a facelift which also bought a more toned down Sport Line Type R. Smaller of wing and wheels, it’s designed to make the return journey and establish a beachhead on the regular GTI's turf. It only succeeds in looking unbalanced. VW's move in this direction is the more successful. I’m sure it was part of the GTI model plan from the very beginning. In fact it strikes me as the car the engineers wanted to create in the first place. Not just stiffer and more potent, but 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 a £785 option that also brings access to Nürburgring mode. You don’t need that, but experience of the dampers on lesser GTIs suggests they’re well worth having.

Adaptive dampers come as part of the Type R, their stiffness controlled by a rocker switch on the centre console that flicks between Comfort, Sport and +R. You can’t individually choose the Honda’s settings for suspension, engine, throttle and all the rest. You can in the Golf, and you will. Once. After that jabbing battle through multiple screen menus you’ll never do so again.

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It’s a shame the screen interaction is so hit-and-miss – literally – when the Golf greets you so nicely. The cabin is smart, the darkened screens sleek, materials are faultless, it’s sharp and together and convincingly worth the £37,215 asking price. You get in and the seats are both comfortable and support the length of your back and shoulders, you can see out easily and shuffle people and paraphernalia with ease. There is no practical drawback to having the Clubsport instead of the GTI. None.

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 lower than you do into the Golf, and how good does that seat feel? ‘How on earth does it mould itself to me so well’, you’ll be thinking as you reach forward and grasp the – yes, Alcantara, happy days – steering wheel. And look at that gearlever. Have a check. Yep, it’s as good to hold and move as it is to look at. So what if the view out the back is narrow and cut in two by a bar, or that you don’t have the first idea what any of the buttons on the steering wheel actually do, from the driver’s seat this just feels perfect. And in a way that almost no serious sports car matches either.

Despite the dark, it does feel big inside. And it is. The boot must be the biggest in the whole hatchback class, the rear seats are more than enough too – but only seatbelts for two, mind you. It feels low and long and that means it doesn’t come across as a regular hatchback, but something… more.

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And then we get to the way it drives, and – I’m sorry VW, because in isolation, your 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. It’s there in the way the steering moves, the bite of the clutch, the damping over that manhole cover, the snick from first to second. It’s easy. It’s clean. It’s engaging. It’s super-satisfying. It’s an event. And that’s the case every single time you ever get into it. And that means every time you pull the keys out of the pot in the kitchen you’ll have the same sense of anticipation. And that’s what makes the Civic special.

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 tangible weighting and operation of the controls isn’t as clear and positive. But it’s still good. And if you’re going to be doing long trips, you’ll want the VeeDub. 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. It may be stiffly sprung, but the ride is too professional to be punishing. Just a little jiggle where the surface deteriorates. But the background drone is wearing.

Everywhere else the Honda rules. Let’s discuss third gear corners, because they encapsulate the difference in these two cars. Honda first. At its facelift last year it gained two-piece discs in order to take 15mm of dead travel out of the pedal. Brake feel and power is awesome. Rev-matching can be on or off, but downshifts are a complete delight. Maybe you’re doing a bit of left foot braking now, as the Civic rewards that, allowing you to build turbo pressure up against the brakes for a swift exit. 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. You can break down the corner into sections, work out what you can do better, because the Civic gives you so much information, so much detail. It makes you want to be a better driver, just to keep up with it, to get more from it.

The Golf likes to flatter you, and will, up to a point. Our test car didn’t have the adaptive dampers, but the standard suspension is well chosen, stiff but crisp and never losing control of itself. The brakes here are very good too, more travel and less sense of how much there is in reserve, but reassuring and powerful. You fingertap a couple of downshifts through the DSG gearbox. They happen a heartbeat later than you wanted and those tiny plastic paddles are so disappointing. The front end bites very well though, and the steering, although not as full of feel, is positive and accurate. There’s plenty of grip and roll is well judged. It’s quick into corners and provided you don’t overdo it, quick out of them too.

I still struggle with the Civic. It’s a terrible piece of design while being a breathtaking piece of engineering

Leave the traction alone and it works well with the VAQ diff to deliver unobtrusive grip and torque distribution. Slacken the stability control and it’s a different story on tight, wet roads. You’ll get understeer and wheelspin first, followed too late by a reaction, and not one that delivers the same bite and apex-grabbing ability as the Honda. This is the limitation of the VW’s electronically controlled clutch-pack. It’s effective up to a point, but you’re still at the mercy of electronic decisions being made behind the scenes.

The advantage of VW's set-up comes when accelerating hard in a straight line on a bumpy road – the kind of thing more of us are likely to experience. The Honda torque steers through its mechanical LSD. Not much, but enough that you might have a quick wrestle to keep the car on track. The Clubsport is cleaner, less sensitive to camber, away with barely more than a flicker of the traction control light.

Both have enough power and punchy engines. The VW's sounds better, brighter and more eager versus the Honda’s dull drone that at the top end blends perfectly with the build-up of tyre roar. But the Civic’s power delivery is superb – it keeps pushing hard even as the 7,000rpm limiter approaches. The Golf? Really sweet, muscular mid-range, but no real reason to venture past 5,000rpm. Both are capable of 0-62mph in about 5.5 seconds, but in the manual Civic you’ll have worked harder to achieve it. The Golf’s gearbox isn’t bad, but is probably its least impressive aspect. Besides the pathetic paddles the shifts are slightly slurred and if you don’t take manual control, you get unnecessary kickdown and untimely upshifts. Neither suffers undue lag, although the Civic is the less responsive at lower revs. Change down a gear – you’ll enjoy the process as well as the result.

But as I said earlier, there’s more to these hardcore hatches than dynamics alone. I still struggle with the Civic because of the way it looks, the crass, clumsy angles and overwrought vents. It’s a terrible piece of design while being a breathtaking piece of engineering. It divides me like no other car. It does the job I want a hot hatch to do better than any other. And yet…

No, I’d still have it over the Golf, although my family wouldn’t thank me for it no matter how much bigger its boot. Especially not when having put £5,000 down, I’d be in for three years of £522 monthly Honda PCP payments against £470 for the Golf. I’d stick with it because of the knowledge of what’s sitting outside, how special it is and those moments of anticipation and reward.

The Civic may win, but I wouldn’t blame you for choosing the loser. Better image as well as better residuals – and a crisp, communicative chassis. It’s the safest choice at this end of the market and will probably – and deservedly – cause Hyundai and Renault some sales trouble. It’s a Golf with more depth and talent, a more satisfying edge. Nothing fundamentally new or different to what VW has done many times before, but it feels a very complete and polished car. The 4WD R will have to be exceptional to stop this being our default hot Golf.

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