If you're looking for a performance car that can tackle track duty one weekend and a Costco run the next, it's hard to think of a better tool for the job than a high-powered hatchback like the 2018 Honda Civic Type R or 2018 Volkswagen Golf R. The proverbial jack-of-all-trades, these cars blend cargo versatility, passenger space, turbocharged power and sport-tuned suspensions for when you need one car that can do it all.
The Type R is one of the most storied hot hatches and wasn't even available to U.S. car buyers until last year. Based on the 10th-generation Civic, the Type R hatchback transforms the Civic into a track-attacking machine courtesy of a 306-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, a short-throw six-speed manual and a unique suspension with adaptive dampers. With a host of aggressive aerodynamic elements, the Type R looks like it just rolled off the floor of the Specialty Equipment Market Association Show.
In the other corner, with comparatively reserved styling, is Volkswagen's Golf R. It also starts life as a regular hatchback — the four-door Golf — but VW transforms it into a high-performance machine with a 292-hp, turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder, six-speed manual and adaptive suspension; a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission is optional, but we tested the manual for an apples-to-apples comparison with the manual-only Type R. The regular Golf's front-wheel-drive system is out and standard all-wheel drive is in.
The two hatchbacks share some specs yet represent two different takes on what a hot hatch should be. To find out which is best, Cars.com reviewers Aaron Bragman, Joe Bruzek and I judged these cars with both performance and practicality in mind, considering things like handling, street manners, interior quality, cargo space and multimedia system usability. We also measured acceleration and braking performance at Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove, Wis., and enlisted the help of professional driving instructor Hollie Heiser at GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Mich., where she found out which is faster on a road course. After days testing the Golf R and Type R back-to-back, key areas emerged where these two pumped-up hatchbacks stood out the most.
The Civic Type R and Golf R use similar suspension technology — struts up front, a multilink rear setup, and front and rear anti-roll bars — but they felt very different on the 11-turn, 2.14-mile GingerMan asphalt. The Civic Type R provides more grip and great balance while the Golf R was more nose-heavy with more body roll.
Even though the Civic Type R was slower than the Golf R on the straights, reaching 110 mph to the Golf R's 115 mph on the track's long backstretch, the Honda's faster cornering speeds paid off; Hollie's best lap of 1:48.8 in the Civic Type R was about 2 seconds quicker than the Golf R's time of 1:50.9.
Hanley: Wow, is this thing fun on the track; from its steering response and how it sticks in corners to its brake-pedal feel, the Civic Type R is built for attacking apexes. Stickier high-performance summer tires likely helped the Type R's performance (the Golf R's summer tires weren't as extreme), but the Honda also put its power down better when exiting corners, which is shocking considering the Type R is front-wheel drive and the Golf R has all-wheel drive.
Bragman: I really wonder how much closer this would be if the Golf R had the aggressive tires that the Civic Type R had. While the Civic was a riot on the track, the Golf was easily as good in my opinion and came with the added benefit of a better seating position. What it lacked was the Civic's directly connected feel — its boy-racer attitude. The Civic felt hungrier to run than the more refined Golf.
Bruzek: I question whether the difference in tires makes or breaks the two cars. The Continental SportContact 6 on the Civic Type R is simply the next-generation of the ContiSportContact 5 P that was on the Golf R. The Type R's chassis outshines the Golf R's in a big way, with sharper handling and sensory-filled steering that's unlike any other front-wheel-drive car — I may even add rear-wheel-drive cars in there, too. The Type R is so natural and begs to be driven hard, plus it's just as happy off the track bopping around town as it is corner-carving on a track like GingerMan.
There are different schools of thought when it comes to styling a performance car, and the two extremes are on display here with the wild Civic Type R and mild Golf R. We're not about to tell you which design to like — but we'll tell you which approach we like. (Note: Styling didn't count toward overall scoring, but it was too hard to pass up talking about the massive difference between the way these two cars looked.)
MH: On a serious performance car, super-aggressive styling cues make more sense — especially when they're functional, as Honda claims they are on the Type R. Having said that, the Honda's various performance-oriented exterior cues — and there are a lot of them — seem over the top. I wish Honda offered a way to tone it down a bit (a smaller wing, perhaps?) to help it look more grown-up.
AB: I have to admit it: Honda knows its market. And the people who buy the Civic Type R will absolutely love the way it looks — and in fact probably will buy it because of the way it looks, so I can't really fault Honda for making it a little nutty. I can fault them, however, for the execution of this styling; you see all those hexagonal mesh panels in the front and rear bumpers? They're not vents, they're solid plastic, which means they're purely decorative.
JB: The Type R is a car I love to drive but hate to look at — I blame the "Fast and Furious" rear wing. But I'm conflicted, because the rear styling without the wing looks disproportional to the wild front styling, yet with the wing, it's too much. Honda, why don't you just meet me in the middle?
Manual transmissions are something of a dying breed, but we still appreciate the level of control and connected feeling they offer — especially in performance cars. The Civic Type R's stick shift includes a bit of modern-day tech wizardry, too: It has a selectable rev-matching feature that automatically adjusts engine speed for pro-quality downshifts.
MH: The Type R's six-speed manual is one of the best I've driven in a long time. Its throws are incredibly short, and it moves between gears with an uncommon — but incredibly satisfying — mechanical precision. Meanwhile, the light clutch pedal is a boon for everyday driving. There's something special about a good manual transmission, and the Type R's stick is better than most.
AB: Honda has always done good manual transmissions in their sports models, and the Civic Type R is no exception — it's a genuine joy to drive, one of those pieces of equipment that reminds you why you learned to drive a stick in the first place. It provides a much greater sense of involvement with driving the car than an automatic or a dual-clutch or paddle shifters, and I'm glad that you can only get a Type R with a stick. It'll keep the manuals alive for just a little bit longer.
JB: I'm not as much of a diehard "save the manuals" guy as Mike and Aaron, but mostly because not all manuals are as good as the Type R's. The Golf R's manual transmission is one of those I could do without, mainly because the car's available dual-clutch gearbox feels like it harnesses the engine's power and torque so seamlessly. With clutch and shifter vagueness, the VW's manual doesn't stand out as a high-performance car's stick shift, but most high-performance cars' shifters pale in comparison to the precision piece in the Type R.
The suspension tuning that's right for the track usually doesn't make sense for the daily commute — especially if the streets you drive (like ours) aren't in the greatest repair. The adaptive shock absorbers in the Civic Type R and Golf R aim to bridge this divide with varying levels of firmness — and with varying levels of success.
MH: Both hatchbacks have adaptive suspension technology, but the Golf R's street manners are superior to the Type R's thanks to its more forgiving Comfort mode. It's another way the Golf R's greater overall refinement plays out in relation to the Type R's comparative rawness.
AB: Honda's shown that "Civic" is not really a play on "civilized," but again, I can't fault it for being what it is: exactly what its customers demand. The Golf R is a much more pleasant, refined and easy-to-live-with hot hatch. Unlike the Civic, the VW's firmness can be dialed down a lot further, allowing for downright pleasant-but-still-sporty around-town ride comfort.
JB: The Golf R is the comfort king, which is appropriate considering it's not as visceral as the Type R when the dial is turned up. The Type R isn't unlivable, but it's noticeably tauter and louder with more wind, road and engine noise.
All-Wheel Drive Versus Front-Wheel Drive
More and more all-wheel-drive systems are of the rear-biased variety for better handling, but the Golf R's standard AWD system is more conventional; under light loads, the rear axle is decoupled to save fuel. The system can engage the rear wheels quickly when needed, but it won't send more than 50 percent of engine torque to them. The Civic Type R's front-wheel-drive setup, meanwhile, includes a helical limited-slip differential to get the power to the ground.
MH: A lot of AWD systems do a good job mimicking the handling characteristics of rear-wheel drive by sending more power to the rear wheels, but the Golf R's 4Motion system isn't one of them. The car feels nose-heavy when driven hard. Perhaps the system gives the car an edge in the rain, but in dry conditions, the Volkswagen's extra weight and less aggressive tires put it at a disadvantage that the disappointing AWD system couldn't overcome.
AB: Agreed that it's hard to see the advantage the Golf R's AWD brings to a dry track. It's a heavier car to begin with, and AWD doesn't help. Again though, I can't help but think that this more mature take on a hot hatch would be far more pleasant to live with on a daily basis — and AWD for all-weather functionality just furthers that idea.
JB: Typically, an AWD car like the Golf R has a traction advantage by being able to lay down power earlier when accelerating out of a corner, but that wasn't the case in these hatches. I could get to the gas in the Type R just as early — sometimes way earlier than I thought I could — and it simply stuck, dug in and ripped away. The Type R is at no disadvantage on the track with "only" front-wheel drive. Perhaps most surprising is that I felt more tendency for the AWD Golf R to understeer than the FWD Type R.
We like a nice cabin as much as the next guy, and with as-tested prices of $35,595 (destination charge included) for the Civic Type R and $40,870 for the Golf R, an upscale, refined interior should be part of the deal in addition to exceptional performance. But is it?
MH: Slip behind the wheel of the Golf R and one of the first things you notice is its nice cabin. From the appearance of the dashboard touchscreen to the feel of the leather-wrapped steering wheel, the Golf R's cabin has an upscale vibe that wouldn't be out of place in an entry-level luxury car. Whereas the Civic Type R's cabin is functional but relatively basic, the Golf R's is worthy of the car's nearly $41,000 as-tested price.
AB: In category after category, I keep thinking the Golf R is what the Civic Type R would be after it grew up. "Mature" is the key word for me — and that carries over to the interior. In its design, execution, materials quality and assembly, it's a step above the Civic. Maybe two steps, even. From the simple, clear gauges to the excellent soft-touch materials, it's definitely a more pleasant (if not quite as exciting to look at) place to spend some time.
JB: At retail prices, the Golf R's interior commands a proportionate amount of extra dough for its finer experience. Like the regular Golf and Civic, the interiors of the two almost feel like they're in different classes, with the Golf having plusher materials and a quieter cabin. The Type R's interior styling is racier with its prominent tachometer and bright-red seats, while the Golf R's interior is reserved and not considerably more performance-oriented than the regular Golf.
Touchscreens have proliferated in recent years and are now an important interface in many cars, including these. In the Civic Type R, the 7-inch touchscreen multimedia system includes navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity, and satellite radio. The Golf R's 8-inch touchscreen system also includes those features, but there are some key differences between the systems that significantly impact usability.
MH: The Civic's touchscreen multimedia system has been a drag on the car since its 2016 redesign, and it's still as frustrating as ever. Unintuitive menus and a lack of volume and tuning knobs make the system harder to use than it should be — to the point that you end up relying heavily on the limited functionality of the steering-wheel audio controls.
AB: It still boggles my mind that any Japanese company, from a land known for its supremacy in advanced personal electronics, could get a multimedia system so very wrong. While this system has been remedied in newer Hondas and now actually works a lot better (see: the Honda CR-V), the old Display Audio system prevails in the Civic and it's well past time for it to be retired.
JB: Honda listened to consumers about its wonky touchscreen and is slowly rolling back the touch-only interface — well, in just about everything except the Civic. The Golf R has a few quirks with its capacitive buttons that flank the screen, but traditional volume and tuning knobs keep usability a breeze.
At the Drag Strip
At Great Lakes Dragaway, the Civic Type R edged out the Golf R with a zero-to-60-mph time of 5.63 seconds and a best quarter-mile time of 13.9 seconds at 104.74 mph. The Golf R, meanwhile, accelerated to 60 mph in 5.84 seconds and did the quarter-mile in 14.09 seconds at 101.92 mph.
Though the two cars' acceleration times were close, the experience of launching them was quite different. Bruzek was at the wheel for these tests, and he noted that it was hard to get the Golf R to leave the line aggressively, with it feeling like the engine management system was holding the car back. The Civic Type R, meanwhile, made smooth launches with little wheel hop and it was easy to get its fastest times.
In the 60-to-zero-mph braking tests, the Civic Type R came out on top again, stopping in 107.74 feet versus 114.69 feet for the Golf R.
In the end, the Golf R scored higher in most non-performance categories, while the Civic Type R was ahead in most of the subjective performance categories and all the measured performance tests — albeit slightly in some instances. That performance advantage helped give the Civic Type R the win with a total of 285 points to the Golf R's 274 points (out of 340 points total).
If you want ultimate hatchback performance, the Civic Type R should provide years of fun. That said, the Golf R's greater refinement makes it a well-rounded choice if track days are few and far between.
Cars.com's Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com's long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don't accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com's advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.