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Hot hatch shootout: Type R vs GTI

2010-03-10 10:51

Lance Branquinho

What does the hot hatch in your driveway say about you? Mad Oriental fetishist or refined German speed demon?

To answer this question we stacked up Honda's Civic Type R Championship Edition against VW's latest Golf6 GTI.

The traditionalist

Sushi, it would appear, makes a rather apt metaphor for the Honda Civic Type R Championship Edition. All things considered, sushi is a very oriental exercise – the elevation of something seemingly mundane, in this case raw fish, to an art form.

If you crunch the Civic's output numbers, it is seemingly set to fail. Somehow, Honda’s engineers appear to have pooled their collective technical genius in such a way as to render it an outstanding hot hatch.

The company’s local hot hatch heritage (CRX, Civic VTec) has always been differentiated by engines with impressive maximum crank-speeds and three-door bodywork. In many ways, the Type R has stayed truer than most to a brand-specific (in this case, Honda) hot hatch lineage.

Civic Type R is ageing rather gracefully. Championship Edition version could do with some distinguishing exterior styling details. White wheels would be nice.

The Icon

This, of course, brings us to the other half of this shootout comparison – VW’s manual Golf6 GTI.

As a car, the GTI carries a significant burden of heritage. It was, after all, the original hot hatch.

Six generations of class leading performance (well, truthfully, the Golf 3 GTI was a bit of slow) has germinated an intense following. There's also a substantial indifference (some would say hatred) for the GTI moniker - which is one of those contingencies of it being so very successfull.

In its sixth incarnation the GTI is an altogether different car to the original. Levels of refinement are premium, as is the price.

From a design perspective, its engine is turbocharged and the rear wheels are attached courtesy of independent multi-link suspension - two technical details that would have appeared an unattainable dream for Golf 2 GTI owners...

The five-door configuration is exceedingly passenger-friendly, too, and the styling restrained, yet distinctively GTI.

Heavier and more conventionally styled, has GTI pandered too dotingly to urban customer convention?

The issues

Critics say it’s a cynical car, the new GTI.

Allegedly it has too little power to be considered the class standard anymore and boasts negligible changes over the Golf 5 GTI.

Regarding the issues of soullessness? Well, refinement is never a debit with regards to roadcars, as they operate most of the time in urban traffic and on road surfaces of vacillating quality.

Does the evolution from Golf 5 GTI to the current one lack technical credibility? Well, I’d hardly call the addition of a clever pulse-braking actuated front differential lock and adaptive damping negligible improvements…

So the question arises: which is better? The traditional Japanese hot hatch with its mad styling, heroic naturally aspirated engine and mechanical slippy differential?

Or, perhaps the German icon GTI. This car, which defined the hot hatch class (and ostensibly continuous to do so) boasts a thoroughly contemporary engineering suite, with adaptive damping, an electronic slippy diff and forced induction power.

Avant garde versus Bauhaus bland?

Hot hatch styling is a curious art form. In essence the hatchback is a study in utilitarian cuteness.

Redefining line work and crinkling the surfaces to embellish sturdy hatchback exterior architecture with track refugee styling cues can have some rather unhappy consequences.

The Type R’s three-door configuration lends it an infinitely more dynamic side-profile than GTI. Despite being nearly three years old, the Civic hatch’s outlandishly avant garde styling is still tremendously distinctive.

Its rakish nose, the repeated triangular shapes (represented by exhausts at the rear and fog lights up front) and Impreza-like hatch spoiler leave little doubt as to what the "R" moniker denotes.

Admittedly, the Type R’s styling is not perfect.

Around the rear its proportions appear bloated due to large surfaces devoid of any curvature. The transparent trim running from one taillight cluster to the other doesn’t break the rear surfacing’s bulbousness particularly well either, and ends up looking ungainly in itself.

Park up the GTI to next to Type R and it looks terribly underwhelming by comparison.

Although there is an inarguable elegance to the Golf6 styling, in GTI trim it remains questionable whether dual chromed exhausts and some red trim around the grille distinguishes it with enough purpose from its lesser Golf siblings.

Both cars are finished off with stylish alloy wheels, yet these dynamic styling elements are not without contention.

GTI acolytes can be forgiven their frustration at VW's policy of carrying over the Golf 5 GTI’s telephone dial alloy wheels, which do little to help differentiate the two generations of GTI from a distance.

Conversely, a Championship Edition Type R Honda should never be seen rolling off a production line rotating anything but white alloy wheels…

Contrasting cabins

Both GTI and Type R translate their exterior styling languages to the respective cabin architectures.

Whereas the GTI’s cabin is typically dark and sombre, with subtle metal accents (pedal set and steering wheel spokes) the only contrasting elements, Type R’s interior is simply mad.

GTI cabin architecture dark and conventional. New flat-bottomed steering wheel is great, yet multi-functionality an optional extra. Driver's seat needs to be able to adjust lower to the floor.

From the heavily digitised instrumentation to the large engine speed dial taking pride of place ahead in the driver’s field of vision, the Type R’s ergonomics are a study in Japanese design: unparalleled operational ease of use executed with monumentally unhinged Manga style.

It works exceptionally well and you always feel engaged making adjustments at the Type R’s helm.

On the debit side Type R's three-door configuration does limit passenger access, and disembarking elegance, for those wishing to travel in the rear seats.

The metal shifter top can become awfully hot to the touch in summer (or positive freezing on a Highveld winter morning), too.

Type R's cabin a triumphant blend of form and function. Driving position perfect. Bucket seats not for suitable for former professional rugby players or those generous of waist individuals. Red starter button a neat touch.

Numbers and figures

Walking around these two thoroughbred hot hatches (and taking a peak through the windows) the Type R is undoubtedly the purer car, purportedly benefiting from a more committed design.

When those two four-cylinder engines ignite, the balance shifts away from the Type R towards a more even judgement.

Although the two engines are diametric opposites in terms of design, they end up factoring virtually similar power-to-weight ratios for the respective cars.

In fact, despite being down 7kW on power (and a rather substantial 87Nm in terms of peak rotational force), the Type R boasts a 1kW per tonne advantage over the GTI…

Obviously the Honda suffers severely in the rarefied air of Gauteng, yet at the coast, it’s a desperately even race. The GTI only exacts any noticeable advantage at lower speeds, when the turbocharged tractability enables better in-gear acceleration.

Both cars run the 0-100km/h benchmark in a shade over seven seconds at the coast - the Type R a whisper quicker at 7.02 seconds compared to the GTI's 7.10 second time. The GTI hits back by besting the frantic Type R's topspeed of 223km/h by fair margin, topping out at 240km/h.

The design differences of these two engines spill over into the entire driving experience. The GTI is swift, yet refined, with a languid and smooth, easy-going shift action.

Type R is frantic, baiting one to chase toward 8 000r/min, especially with the perfectly machined shift action of its six-speed transmission - which remains unmatched by any other front-wheel car.

You routinely find yourself petulantly shifting down for no apparent reason but to revel in the tactile delight and precision of the Type R's shift regime.

Type R engine is docile enough for the daily commute. Less mass to move around ensures it shadows GTI performance on all levels - except at altitude.

Harshness and precision: irreconcilable differences?

Don’t dismiss the GTI as soft due to its effortlessly cocooning high-speed cruising abilities. Its XDS pseudo slippy-diff electronics work a treat, quelling petulant wheel spin and preventing the nose from washing wide.

The damping characteristics (even when set to"Sport") are really golden mean stuff, perfectly rebound not to send you bumping through corners if you’re pushing on a bit, yet taut enough to prevent an unnerving pendulum body roll effect.

Type R counters with a traditional, mechanically actuated limited-slip differential - which is a fraction quicker on the uptake.

Many would question the need for a slippy diff in a car with less than 200Nm, yet if you’ve ever happened upon severe mid-corner undulations during full-bore acceleration (or encountered deposits of building sand on your favourite back road), you’ll know just how beneficial it can be.

As much as I adore the Type R’s proper bucket seats, heel-and-toe pedal spacing and less anesthetised power steering, its handling abilities (outstanding body control and secure front-end grip) are accomplished at a rather severe price – ride quality, or rather, the lack thereof…

I must be ageing rapidly, for the Type R simply rides too harshly in my estimation. This is not the conclusion I would have reached in my mid 20s, when most hot hatches lacked independent rear suspension and we simply didn’t know any better - gleefully accepting touring car damping for road use…

Normally inconsequential surface abrasions are amplified to levels of mechanical reverberation the like of which bounces sunglasses on the bridge of your nose.

There is a good reason for the Type R’s appalling ride quality – it’s relatively unsophisticated torsion beam rear wheel attachment design.

GTI’s dynamic balance and supple ride quality, courtesy of its sophisticated (and more expensive to assemble) multi-link rear suspension carries the day.

As much as it pains me to admit, GTI is simply more accomplished at pace most of the time.

Although fuel consumption is of no consequence to hot hatch owners, the GTI’s turbocharged efficiency enabled it to average just over 8l/100km during its time with us, compare to the Type R’s consumption habits with hovered around 10l/100km.

GTI's adaptive dampers and XDS electronic differential trickery renders better composure at pace on all road surface and in all conditions.

Which one to take then?

Well, purists will find the GTI’s refinement, force-induction powerplant and lack five-door configuration an affront to the original GTI. In reality though, it’s a stupefyingly comfortable car to live with, and sports an enviable level of dynamic talent when road conditions give way to swift exploitation.

Type R stays truer to tradition, yet despite the improvement in traction (my only dynamic gripe with the stock one) the ride quality is simply too harsh for South African roads.

So the GTI wins? Not exactly, no.

There is a simple formula to apply when making a decision between these two very credible hot hatches. If your local motor vehicle licensing department affixes "GP", "NW", "FS" or "L" to number plates in your town, take the GTI.

If your plates carry a suffix reading "ZN", "WP" or "EC",  it has to be Type R.

GTI  (R317 300)                                                                                        


XDS traction security                                                      
Active damping ride comfort                                          
Deceptively quick                                                           


Manual transmission not the sharpest                             
Styling too restrained                    

Type R (R314 900)


Utterly mad styling
Exceptional interior design and ergonomic efficiency
Addictive naturally-aspirated revability
World's best FWD manual shift transmission


Horrendous ride quality
Not light on fuel 


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