Michael SimariCar and Driver
Volkswagen created the hot-hatch genre in 1976 when it spiced-up a Golf hatchback and named it the GTI. There have been many competitors since, but the 288-hp 2019 Volkswagen Golf R and 306-hp 2019 Honda Civic Type R take that time-tested formula to another level as the most potent of their kind currently on sale in the United States, with lofty prices that reflect their added capabilities. As thrilling yet practical performers, they are natural rivals. To find out which has the sharpest teeth and is the easiest to live with, we aimed them both down the road and hit the test track—and discovered a host of surprising things about them along the way.
Both the Civic Type R and the Golf R come fully equipped for battle at their base prices: $37,230 for the Honda and $41,365 for the VW. Both are propelled by powerful turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-fours working through six-speed manual transmission, though a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is an $1100 option on the Golf R. The big mechanical difference between them is that the Type R is a front-driver while the R employs all-wheel drive—a theoretical advantage with power levels this high. Both wear summer performance tires, big brakes, and adaptive dampers. Both have similar touchscreen infotainment systems with navigation and premium audio systems, yet the Golf R comes with a number of standard features not available on the Type R, including power seats, adaptive headlights, and a suite of standard active safety features, including lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control, and automatic emergency braking among them.
Our Golf R test car arrived wearing Magma Orange paint from VW’s Spektrum custom-paint program (40 colors are available) that adds a whopping $2500 to its as-tested price. As cool as that hue looks on the Golf’s body, we’d opt for one of the five standard colors and pocket the difference. Also of note: We drafted our long-term Civic Type R into service for this test.
On the Road
If looks could predict the outcome of a comparison test, then this one would be over before we punched the engine-start buttons. The Civic Type R looks as if it just exited a race track, or at least came fresh from a Fast and Furious movie set. The huge rear wing, roof-mounted vortex generators, and front splitter and winglets low on the body may look ghastly, but they help its mission, as the Type R turned a 3:03.9 lap at our annual Lightning Lap competition at Virginia International Raceway—the quickest lap time ever posted by a front-drive car at that event and more than eight seconds quicker than what the last Golf R could manage at that track. Meanwhile, you need a keen eye to tell that the VW isn’t just another GTI on the road. (Hint: Look for the quad exhaust pipes.) How can it possibly compete?
But the Type R does not deliver the expected beatdown to the demure Golf R. Both cars blast to 60 mph in an identical 5.1 seconds and accelerate as if locked together all the way to 130 mph. The Civic Type R’s tenacious skidpad grip of 0.99 g betters the Golf R’s 0.95-g effort, and its 147-foot stop from 70 mph is 12 feet shorter than the VW’s. But the Honda’s slightly better cornering and braking are probably attributable to its stickier tires, 245/30ZR-20 Continental SportContact 6’s versus the VW’s slightly less-aggressive 235/35R-19 Continental SportContact 5Ps. In day-to-day driving these differences in performance are hard if not impossible to detect, and we’ve already discovered how quickly the Honda likes to chew through its front tires.
In normal traffic neither the Civic Type R nor Golf R is a bone-bruising track rat. They ride smoothly given their handling chops and low-profile tires. They’re both comfortable, docile, and easy to drive around town, with well-coordinated clutches and one-finger shift efforts. The Type R’s steering cuts a little more sharply, its brakes grab a bit more aggressively, and its shifter moves with a touch less effort. But the Golf R counters with more refinement, including better isolation from cracked and patched pavement; a throttle so delightfully responsive it makes the Type R’s feel a little lazy; and an engine that emits a sweetly muted snarl all the way to its 6500-rpm redline. In contrast, the Type R suffers from a grating engine note that pummels your ears even when you’re navigating a parking lot, let alone an interstate. At a 70-mph cruise, our sound-level meter registered a cacophonous 76 decibels, or 4 decibels louder than in the Golf R.
The character of these two hot rods is revealed most vividly when you floor their throttles in first or second gear. The Golf R digs in and races ahead smoothly and strongly without a hint of drama. The Type R pauses as if drawing a breath while its turbo spools up and then lunges forward from about 3500 rpm, its engine howling and front tires juddering and scratching for purchase. It seems even faster than it is, and that’s the essential difference in the way these two cars drive: The Golf R is refinement and grace personified, the Type R is pure adrenaline.
The Inside View
Those contrasting character traits are accurately reflected in both cars’ cabins. The Type R’s passenger cell is a riot of red, with scarlet trim adorning the steering wheel, instrument panel, and large swathes of the deeply supportive, faux suede-covered front sport seats. The seatbelts are red, the instrument cluster is red, the contrasting stitching on the black suede door panels is red. Elsewhere, cheap-looking shiny black plastic is much in evidence. None of the dress-up pieces can hide this Civic’s economy-car roots.
Meanwhile, the Golf R’s cabin is as classy and tasteful as its exterior. Our test car’s seats were covered in rich, perforated black leather accented by gray piping. Delicate strips of brushed aluminum outline the vents and center console. Piano black trim is used sparingly, and the shifter and steering wheel seem crafted for a luxury car. In other words, the Golf R looks like a GTI inside, which means it has the trappings fit for a small Audi.
Even though we don’t expect anyone to choose between these two cars based on their practicality, they are still hatchbacks that can carry lots of stuff when they’re not hauling ass. The Honda is the more practical of the two. Its cabin feels wider, its rear seat is roomier, and its cargo hold is more spacious. By the numbers, the Civic has 97 cubic feet of passenger space to the Golf R’s 93, and 27 cubic feet of cargo room versus the Golf R’s 23. Measured in carry-on size boxes, the Honda will swallow six behind its rear seats, one more than the VW.
The Bottom Line
Cars really don’t come more closely matched in performance yet more wildly divergent in character than the Honda Civic Type R and the Volkswagen Golf R. Deciding which one is best is more a matter of taste than anything measurable by objective testing. Do you like your chocolate gelato straight or with a sprinkle of hot chili pepper? One is creamy and delicious. The other is creamy and delicious and makes your eyes water.
There’s a cross-generational opinion around our office about the Civic Type R. Young and old alike agree that it’s a riot to drive, but no one wants to be seen in it. The Golf R, on the other hand, is just as quick, covers ground just as well in the real world, and delivers its performance with the kind of grace and refinement that the Civic Type R can’t match. Spicy gelato indeed is a kick now and then, but it’s not something we want every day.