RE: 2020 Honda Civic Type R vs. Ford Focus ST

RE: 2020 Honda Civic Type R vs. Ford Focus ST

Sunday 18th October

2020 Honda Civic Type R vs. Ford Focus ST

How do you like your front-drive hot hatch? Buttoned-down or collar up? Dan picks a side...


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Continental's 5000-acre proving ground on the fringes of the entirely forgettable town of Uvalde, Texas, dates back to 1959. It was originally owned by American firm General Tire, but ownership of the facility transferred to Continental when the German company acquired General Tire from its parent, GenCorp, in 1987. Since then, Continental has developed the site into a highly-sophisticated tyre development facility with, as I discovered in 2016, one of the most entertaining dry handling courses anywhere in the world.

It's 12-metres wide and around two miles long. The asphalt surface is so smooth and unblemished you want to rub your face against it. There are gradient changes, at least two properly ballsy corners and a fast, flowing sequence of bends that see you jink left and right with only the slightest steering inputs. Given the very high ambient temperatures that can rise to 40 degrees Celsius in July, the track has been configured to be as kind as possible to a car's brakes, meaning there's just one very heavy braking event around the entire lap.

It was on this dry handling track that I really loved driving a Ford Focus ST for the very first time. It was a third-generation model, but the facelifted one with the more predatory headlights. Until then I'd found earlier versions of the second-tier Focus hot hatch a bit unsatisfying - just a bit lazy and numb, rather than alert and responsive. At Uvalde, though, the ST was adjustable on the throttle, sharp and precise in the way it steered, planted at high speeds and overflowing with traction before it had got to them.


But that handling track may have been flattering. I had already tried a similar car on a frozen Welsh hillside road a few months previously, and in those very different conditions the Focus ST was a long way from its best. For one thing, it didn't put its power down cleanly where rival front-wheel drive hot hatches did; for another, it wasn't anything like as engaging to thread between the hedgerows as its competitor from Renault Sport.

The Ford seemed constricted, as though that platform's true performance potential would instead be realised by a faster and costlier model. The Focus RS, in other words. There will be no Rallye Sport version of the current, fourth-generation Focus though, meaning as far as high-performance variants go, this 280hp, front-wheel drive Focus ST is it. In a sense, it's a pity we've been denied a truly gun-slinging Focus hot hatch this time around, but there is an upside: the ST version need no longer be held back.

The result? The fastest ST yet, but also the most sophisticated. Take the electronically-controlled but very much mechanical limited-slip differential that sits between the front wheels and feeds all that power and torque, a fulsome 310lb ft of the stuff, to even a wet road surface like it's nothing, plus adaptive dampers as standard. The latest ST is at its best when tipped into a quick corner with real commitment, because it's then that you appreciate the agility in the chassis, agility that's twinned with poise and stability quite masterfully. It feels like a bigger faster Fiesta ST - in hot hatch terms, there may be no higher complement than that.


It gets better the faster you go. On the road at least, you never seem to run it out of grip, or body control, or alertness. Even if you didn't already know Ford Performance had junked the idea of building an RS, you'd step out and think, 'Well, what would be the point?'

The 2.3-litre turbo engine is strong and responsive. It even sounds pretty good in an obviously-augmented, pops-and-bangs kind of way. But I do have my reservations. For one thing, the steering felt to me almost entirely devoid of any sense of connection, particularly in the wet. There's an off-putting springy, rubbery sensation about it. That's not so much of an issue in the dry, but on a greasy road I found I couldn't figure out how hard the front tyres would bite on turn-in. Perhaps that comes with time.

Another issue is the lack of a configurable driving mode, which always seems like such an oversight. You can have sharper throttle response and the more vocal soundtrack, but only with dampers that are just a shade too firm for the kinds of back roads UK drivers find themselves on most often. Oh, and then there's the cabin, which is so oppressively bland I wonder if Ford's development budget for the ST ran out with that diff.


Question is, then, do those few shortcomings undermine all the stuff that's really very impressive about the Focus ST, or can you overlook them? The best way to find out is to test it back-to-back with the most capable rival hot hatch there is, which means a phone call to the Honda press office. The Civic Type R was, for my money, already the best front-driven, circa-300hp hot hatch on sale. It's just been updated with a slightly tweaked look, an Alcantara-trimmed steering wheel, some very minor chassis revisions and the kind of teardrop-shaped metal gear knob that should have been fitted all along (this is a Type R Honda, after all).

I won't spoil the outcome here, but whichever direction you go in you really cannot lose. The news from a little while back that Ford wouldn't give us a fourth Focus RS seemed like a real kick in the teeth at the time. Now I couldn't care less.


Author
Discussion

Kawasicki

Original Poster:

7,927 posts

193 months

Saturday 17th October
quotequote all
Great review. Thanks!

Si_man306

428 posts

143 months

Saturday 17th October
quotequote all
As someone who got very close to buying the last focus RS, this latest focus just looks horrible. Were they going to the Koreans in the mid 90's for their inspiration?

GTEYE

1,669 posts

168 months

Saturday 17th October
quotequote all
Si_man306 said:
As someone who got very close to buying the last focus RS, this latest focus just looks horrible. Were they going to the Koreans in the mid 90's for their inspiration?
It’s just as well that the Civic is just the epitome of good taste then...,

While fast Fords normally look good in blue that particular blue does look rather meh.

Liberator65

4 posts

25 months

Saturday 17th October
quotequote all
The Civics looks just kill it for me.

RichardDastardly

92 posts

21 months

Saturday 17th October
quotequote all
Si_man306 said:
As someone who got very close to buying the last focus RS, this latest focus just looks horrible. Were they going to the Koreans in the mid 90's for their inspiration?
I’m very much a fast Ford fan, and want to like the new ST, but the comments above summarise my thoughts perfectly too. Just horrible styling. Such a shame.

jl4069

137 posts

60 months

Saturday 17th October
quotequote all

That’s a very nice review. I’m glad that piston heads is allowing some of their writers to write about how these cars drive in more adverse conditions, as opposed to the bone dry roads with sun filled skies we usually hear about. I have never read before that the new Focus ST had such feel-less and confidence sapping steering in the wet, and I’d bet I have not due to typical politics in auto journalism. This is exactly the type of journalism we need, in an age when most articles appear little more than infomercials about how nearly everything about every product is super above average.

About the Civic r..Dan made its steering out to be rather better than anyone before has, have to wonder if this civic really steers as well as a 911 or a Lotus, or if only it does in context to the Ford. Maybe the recent changes Honda made to the suspension had some significant effect? Indeed this Civic sounds like it handles as well as any front driver in history, seems like a upcoming test of the best front wheel drives of all time is in order. As well it would be nice to see a test with the civic up against something with all wheel drive, like an Amg a45s or the upcoming golf r, in the wet to see if front drive really can keep up. Thanks

CrgT16

998 posts

66 months

Saturday 17th October
quotequote all
When launched I didn’t like the Civic X looks... know I live it. Got a 1.5T in red and like the fact it is not bland.

One excellent surprise is how nice it is too drive! Nice steering and controls, certainly engaging. So I suspect the Type R takes it a step further. I wish it sounded better on the exhaust though.

Ultrafunkula

790 posts

63 months

Saturday 17th October
quotequote all
I've had a Focus ST for the last two months. I also found the steering a little odd to begin with, the feedback was fine but it has a rather aggressive self centering which takes getting used to - I think a trait of the quick rack. I have no problems with wet weather now though, in fact it feels as secure as my old S3 which is a bit spooky with half the driven wheels. Drive modes are well judged and where as personalisation is always welcome, you get used to switching and it starts to become a natural part of the experience. Ride quality in track mode is about the same as my previous Cayman S 987.2 on passive suspension.
Good video though, would have looked at the Type R but for it's design.

chelme

1,069 posts

128 months

Saturday 17th October
quotequote all
Great review once again. Personally, the Type R's aesthetics are growing on me, however not enough for me to consider buying one, even in GT/Touring mode with the lower spoiler and the reason is the "cut off short" rear wheel arch. It just does not match whats going on at the front end at all and then you have the rear, which has been improved somewhat by the optional lower spoiler, BUT still, its still not a looker.

Otherwise a great car, no doubt.

Xanda73

5 posts

97 months

Saturday 17th October
quotequote all
The steering feels the same as the Mk8 Fiesta ST this Focus ST replaces for me, but neither are a patch on the mk3 Megane 275. They are both fine though, when acclimatised, being super fast.

The cabin is the same as the Fiesta, more or less (and so is the boot space). Still running it in, and the engine feels incredibly tight, but so far I'd advise getting the Fiesta to be honest, rather than the Focus. It's smaller footprint makes it faster and more entertaining on the roads I use.

The other half wouldn't entertain a Civic. I don't mind the looks, but to a none petrolhead, they are an unsurmountable hurdle.

tommy1973s

543 posts

129 months

Saturday 17th October
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2 seriously ugly cars. Imagine the flak if VW ever made anything as ugly as either of those ...

G.Fraser

189 posts

84 months

Saturday 17th October
quotequote all
I came from a Mk2 ST and the steering feel is a bit disconnected, but I think I am getting used to it now and certainly I can trust and lean on it with more confidence. Oddly I actually prefer driving mine in the wet!

I came close to ordering a CTR and would happily have one. In the end family obligations won and I needed an estate.

I think the estate looks nicer than the hatch but I’m biased smile


ZX10R NIN

18,937 posts

83 months

Saturday 17th October
quotequote all
I have to agree the Estate for me looks the better proportioned out of the two.

lee_erm

978 posts

151 months

Saturday 17th October
quotequote all
tommy1973s said:
2 seriously ugly cars. Imagine the flak if VW ever made anything as ugly as either of those ...
To my eye, the Focus looks good!

SidewaysSi

7,857 posts

192 months

Saturday 17th October
quotequote all
The Civic looks like it crashed into Halfords
God that Civic is so ugly. I would never be seen dead in the Civic. Yada yada.

Yep, the Civic for me.

Haltamer

1,432 posts

38 months

Saturday 17th October
quotequote all
jl4069 said:
About the Civic r..Dan made its steering out to be rather better than anyone before has, have to wonder if this civic really steers as well as a 911 or a Lotus, or if only it does in context to the Ford. Maybe the recent changes Honda made to the suspension had some significant effect? Indeed this Civic sounds like it handles as well as any front driver in history, seems like a upcoming test of the best front wheel drives of all time is in order.
A number of the changes to the suspension were explicitly intended to further improve the steering feel; To be honest I'd say the steering is perfectly good on my 2019.

I note in his review he mentioned sport mode being a little too much; There seems to be a bit of oddness going on with reviewers saying it's now too firm (Compared to the previous car), but FK8 owners who've upgraded saying it's much more comfortable? - Personally, I'd say that sport mode is perfect for any British roads, with +R Being usable on nearly all "fun to drive" roads where there's a decent surface.


rjfp1962

256 posts

31 months

Sunday 18th October
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The ST is just bland, and not helped in that dreadful blue colour..!

tubs

59 posts

165 months

Sunday 18th October
quotequote all
Nope.....

Demelitia

351 posts

14 months

Sunday 18th October
quotequote all
tubs said:
Nope.....
Thanks for your input. Very illuminating.

Elatino1

830 posts

19 months

Sunday 18th October
quotequote all
Depite what they say, Ford will bring out an RS model in the last 2 years of its life cycle.