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Honda Civic Type R vs Ford Focus ST vs Volkswagen Golf R: which should you buy?

We’ve picked three of the best hot hatches currently on the market to see which is worth your money

If you’re looking for the practicality and everyday usability of a family hatchback combined with the performance and fun of a sports car, look no further than one of these hot hatchbacks.

Choosing the best hot hatchback can be a tough decision, but we’ve narrowed it down to three of the most enticing pocket rockets on the market – the upcoming Honda Civic Type R, Ford Focus ST and Volkswagen Golf R. We can't wait to get behind the wheel of the Civic Type R  – and will update this article when we do – but our in-depth specs comparison of these hot hatchbacks will give you all the information you need in the age of pre-orders and long delivery waiting times.

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Read on for our specs comparison of the Honda Civic Type R, Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus ST…

Which is the fastest?

We’re yet to get our hands on the new Honda Civic Type R and performance specs haven’t been announced. For perspective, though, the outgoing generation of the Civic Type R is capable of a 0-62mph time of just 5.8 seconds onto a top speed of 168mph. Its 2.0-litre 316bhp engine provided this rapid performance, and the upcoming Civic Type R promises to improve these numbers using an updated version of the same unit. 

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Although it was also offered as a diesel before, the current Ford Focus ST is now petrol-powered only. Its 2.3-litre 276bhp ecoboost engine is capable of a 0-62mph time of around 5.7 seconds, but can’t quite keep up with the outgoing Civic Type R’s top speed – the Focus ST will go on to 155mph. With the upcoming Type R set to be even faster, the Focus ST will likely fall further behind. 

The Volkswagen Golf R’s unique all-wheel-drive system means it blows the competition out of the water in terms of acceleration, with a rapid 0-62mph time of just 4.7 seconds. It has the same power figure as the outgoing Civic Type R at 316bhp, but top speed is limited to 155mph unless you go for Volkswagen’s ‘Performance Pack’ which ups this to 168mph.

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On paper, the Golf R’s four-wheel-drive acceleration makes it the fastest of the three, but will feel very different to drive.

Which is the most fun?

The outgoing Honda Civic Type R is one of the best-handling hot hatchbacks we’ve ever driven, and the upcoming model looks to build upon that success. Honda is also sticking to the traditional front-wheel drive hot hatch setup for the upcoming model, which makes it arguably more raw and engaging for an enthusiastic driver than the tied-down (comparatively stale) all-wheel drive Golf R.

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Ford has long been a master of building cars that feel fun to drive, and that’s not merely limited to its ST performance models. The Focus ST offers barrels of fun. Pushed through corners the Focus ST feels alive, and Ford did this intentionally to give the car character, but it’s not as confidence inspiring as the more-focussed Honda.

The Volkswagen Golf R is the only all-wheel-drive model of the three. This makes it grippy and secure in harsher weather conditions, and while the latest model is better to drive than the previous generation, that doesn’t necessarily translate to a fun drive. Unlike the Honda Civic Type R and Ford Focus ST, the Golf R is only available with an automatic DSG transmission, which isn’t the most engaging to use for fans of a manual gearbox.

Which has the best design?

The outgoing Honda Civic Type R was polarising in terms of its looks, but the upcoming model is much more restrained, broadening its appeal. That said, there’s still plenty of design cues to let people know it’s a top-of-the-range performance model – it’s arguably more striking to look at than the other two here thanks to a large rear spoiler and air intakes on the bonnet. 

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The interior is where the Civic Type R shouts the most with its bright red bucket seats and red carpet. The steering wheel is covered in suede and there’s a fairly large central infotainment screen through which you can choose from multiple driving modes and display in-depth information about the car’s performance. Other than that, though, the actual design of the interior is rather minimalistic and not overly fussy.

The Focus ST has been with us for a few years now, and while its design is unquestionably attractive, the abundance of lesser Focus models on the road means it blends in more than its rivals, although a recent refresh has helped somewhat. A small rear spoiler, large rear exhaust pipes and subtle changes to the body styling are the only things that give it away as a performance model, although this is part of the appeal for some drivers.

On the interior, the Focus ST comes with Ford’s excellent Sync 4 infotainment system on a large 13.2-inch screen. The interior is similar to the standard Focus, which is much more sophisticated and well-made compared to previous generations. The ST gets sportier carbon-fibre-look trim pieces, body-holding sports seats, and a chunky flat-bottomed steering wheel with the ‘ST’ logo.

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The Volkswagen Golf R’s design is subtler than the Civic Type R’s but gives a more upmarket feel from the outside than the Focus ST. A small spoiler and a tweaked body kit help it stand out from the standard Golf, as do its quad-exhaust pipes at the rear.

Its interior is similar to that of the cheaper GTI models, albeit with blue-coloured finishes instead of red. The sports seats are supportive and the driving position is good, but the car’s infotainment system isn’t the most user friendly. Some owners have also been disappointed with a drop in build quality and perceived cost-cutting on the current generation.

Which is the most practical?

The Golf R offers the least room in terms of boot space with 374 litres – that’s down by around six-litres on the standard Golf due to the all-wheel-drive system under the floor. The Golf R is also offered as an estate version which has 611 litres of boot space which increases to 1,642 litres with the rear seats folded down.

The Focus ST offers an additional litre of boot space than the Golf R hatchback, with 375 litres available, but doesn’t have the excuse of having to accommodate an all-wheel-drive system. The estate version has 608 litres of boot space with the seats up – not quite as much space as the Golf R estate, but with the seats down the Focus ST estate’s boot space increases to 1,653 litres. 

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Boot space specs for the Type R are yet to be confirmed, but in standard form the new Honda Civic boasts a  410-litre capacity. While that’s more than the Golf R and Focus ST hatchbacks, the Civic Type R is very unlikely to be offered as an estate version.

Verdict: Which should you buy?

It used to be much easier to recommend the Ford Focus ST thanks to its fun-to-drive nature, but a recent increase in price and lacklustre performance figures when compared against rivals means it’s not as great value as it used to be. The Golf R may appeal to those looking for a slightly more upmarket image and easy-to-drive option, but questionable build quality reported by some owners of the most recent model means it might not be as upmarket as it looks. The outgoing Civic Type R was a great car, and the upcoming version promises to deliver much of the same with added performance and less polarising looks. A garish interior might not appeal to everyone, but the new Civic Type R is shaping up to be the best pick of the bunch.

Want a cheap, fun-to-drive car but don't need hatchback practicality? Check out our list of the top 10 best cheap sports cars...

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Charlie writes and edits news, review and advice articles for Carbuyer, as well as publishing content to its social media platforms. He has also been a regular contributor to its sister titles Auto Express, DrivingElectric and evo. As well as being consumed by everything automotive, Charlie is a speaker of five languages and once lived in Chile, Siberia and the Czech Republic, returning to the UK to write about his life-long passion: cars.

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