Front-wheel drive has been part of the classic hot-hatch formula since the genre was ignited in the 1970s. The layout would dominate any all-time-greats list for the category, featuring the likes of the Peugeot 205 GTI, Renault Megane RS, and of course Volkswagen Golf GTI (Marks III and IV excepted!).
Yet, there have long been exceptions, of course. There were the all-wheel-drive Ford Escort RS Cosworth and Lancia Delta Integrale, for example, while even the rear-drive camp had a member: the Renault 5 Turbo.
Decades later, the hot-hatch mix has changed little – despite the huge advances in power outputs that provide even greater challenges for the turning wheels.
Among today’s contrarians, there’s a descendant of the Escort in the form of the latest-generation Ford Focus RS – complete with all-wheel drive after two generations of front-drive. And RWD has its exclusive proponent with the BMW M140i.
They’re here to battle a model that has ambitions to join the FWD heroes in that Hot-Hatch Hall of Fame: the Honda Civic Type R. It may be Japanese in terms of brand and development, but it hails from Western Europe just like its rivals. Like other Civics, it’s built by Brits, in Swindon.
With the Focus RS keeping out the not-quite-as-thrilling VW Golf R to wear the Team AWD badge, let’s find out if front, rear or all wheels is the way to go for your $50–$60K hot-hatch…
There’s a pricing misalignment spanning $8000 here, though each of our contenders sits in the $50–$60,000 bracket that can still be described as ‘relatively affordable’ for most.
The most expensive car is also arguably the Performance Bargain of Our Time. The BMW M140i is the successor to the M135i that, in 2012, cost $72,400. Today, you can have more power and more features for $59,990 – with the manual version we’re testing a no-cost option.
Poverty spec to get to that price? Hardly. Standard feature highlights include adaptive M suspension, M Sport brakes, M Aerodynamics Package, jet-black 18-inch M light-alloy wheels, adaptive LED headlights with anti-dazzling Selective Beam, keyless entry/start, front and rear sensors, signpost recognition, electric front seats, and Harman Kardon audio.
No wonder that between the M140i’s LCI price drop in September and the end of 2017 it outsold every other 1 Series variant.
Australia missed out on the first Ford Focus RS, and the same was set for the second version before a 315-strong shipment originally destined for Ireland ended up being diverted to Australia. And it was a cracker, notwithstanding the low-rent cabin and rather cheeky $59,990 price tag.
Focus RS Mk III was a shoo-in from the start in 2016, the first proper global model. That helped bring a more agreeable $50,990 sticker, though an extra six-grand is now needed for the Limited Edition version introduced in late 2017.
The LE, as we’ll call it, adds the formerly optional ($2500) Performance Wheel Package as standard, bringing 19-inch forged alloy wheels and stickier Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. Nitrous Blue is the only exterior colour offered, but is free rather than a $450 option. Gloss black is used for the roof spoiler, side mirrors and roof, the rear passenger windows gain privacy glass, and the Recaro bucket seats receive a Nitrous Blue leather application.
On the safety front there’s autonomous emergency braking (AEB), and on the performance side a Quaife limited-slip differential is added to the front axle.
At $50,990, Honda’s first Civic Type R in Australia since 2012 presents as Australia’s costliest front-drive hot-hatch – a smidgen ahead of even a JCW-badged Mini. It’s offering more than just performance, however, as the Honda is loaded with features.
It matches the BMW for LED headlights and front/rear sensors, for example, whereas the RS uses bi-xenon lamps (but shares LED daytime running lights) and has rear parking alert only. All models feature a form of AEB, but only the Focus misses out on driver aids such as lane departure warning and an alert for a potential front collision.
The M140i exclusively brings signpost-reading Speed Limit Info, but ultimately can’t match the Type R on the safety-tech front. The Honda adds adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist (corrective steering), blind spot detection, and road departure mitigation (counter steering and braking to help keep the car on the bitumen if an unintended excursion is detected).
The Honda misses out on the high-beam assistance of its rivals, as well as navigation more surprisingly – though the latter is at least fixed with the availability of Google Maps via Apple CarPlay/Android Auto compatibility.
The Type R has the smallest turbocharged motor in our group (and a single- rather than twin-scroll turbo), opting for the traditional small-car four-cylinder capacity of 2.0 litres. Honda engineers have extracted plenty from it, though: 228kW and 400Nm.
That torque figure – more than double that of the last fast Civic – is the biggest clue to a big change in character for a Type R engine. Although the ingenious VTEC (variable valve timing and lift) technology Honda pioneered in the late 1980s continues here, this Civic is no 8000rpm screamer like its predecessor.
It still feels like a mad rush of addictive revs if you take the Type R to its 7300rpm cut-out, and its maximum power is developed at the highest point here (6500rpm), though Honda has jumped on the driveability bandwagon to put greater emphasis on mid-range oomph.
Tractability off idle isn’t perfect, but the result is a Honda hot-hatch that’s vastly easier to live with than before – where being acutely aware of which gear you’re in is far less of a factor. While it’s easier to keep this Type R engine on the boil, peak torque is produced relatively late, at 2500rpm, and response can be occasionally found wanting below two-grand.
Still, that’s just another excuse to use one of the best DIY cog-swappers available today. The Type R’s slick, quick-throw six-speeder continues the Japanese brand’s fine form in the area of manual gearboxes. Its spherical, alloy gear lever also feels like ergonomic perfection, as does the beautifully weighted clutch operation.
The Traffic Light Grand Prix has only two contenders here, mind you. Whereas the Type R limbos just under the 6.0-second tape for the 0–100km/h sprint, the Focus RS and M140i will accelerate to three figures in under five seconds.
With its all-wheel drive and launch control system, the RS would be expected to be quickest, and it is. Yet the heaviest-by-far kerb weight here (1575kg) allows the M140i to be just a tenth slower (and even a tenth quicker if you opt for the eight-speed auto.)
While just seven kilowatts separate the 257kW Ford and 250kW BMW, the 3.0-litre six-cylinder M140i makes its bigger-capacity engine count for torque – developing 500Nm from 1620–5000rpm compared with the RS’s 440Nm from 2000–4500rpm.
The Ford can temporarily halve that gap with 470Nm available on overboost, though the M140i is the in-gear champ.
Our stopwatch – in the absence of GPS data-logging equipment – revealed the BMW to be a few tenths quicker than the RS from 60–100km/h in third gear, and from 80–120km/h in fourth gear. The Type R was a similar gap behind the Ford.
The figures reflected the seat-of-the-pants feel of our testers, and serve as punctuation marks for what is a stunningly versatile BMW engine. Trundle along an urban street at 40km/h in sixth gear? No problem. Rev towards 7000rpm while delivering pervasive silkiness and a joyful soundtrack? Tick. Best official fuel consumption of our trio? Yup.
The RS’s engine is impressively linear, though only the BMW’s B58 modular six-cylinder could fool people into believing its induction was natural rather than forced.
The only downside is the rubbery shift of the six-speed manual, which left it last in our testers’ list of preferred stick-shifts. It’s rare we would recommend an auto over a manual, but that’s the case with the M140i, such is the excellence of the ZF eight-speeder.
The RS’s clutch can feel heavy and springy after sampling the BMW and Honda, but feels spot-on once you’ve got used to it. The M140i and Type R both offer rev-matching systems on their manuals, and both can be turned off if you prefer to heel-and-toe.
Aural entertainment is another close battle between the Ford and BMW, and the RS just about edges it – if simply for its extra theatrics.
The Mustang-sourced 2.3-litre four-cylinder can sound a tad artificial and can’t match the wonderful, off-beat warble of the former RS’s Volvo-sourced 2.5-litre turbo, yet it still pleases the ear before you take into account the exhaust’s pops and crackles that take you back to Focus RS WRC cars of yesteryear.
The Type R? It’s pleasingly raucous as the engine’s induction roar and vivacious top end encourage you to regularly hunt the redline, though the Honda’s brutal performance can sometimes be more enjoyable than its noise.
Good dynamics is a prerequisite for any hot-hatch that wants to be worthy of the term. If it doesn’t handle well, it’s almost irrelevant how good the drivetrain, practicality or value may be. We’re not even close to having any disappointments here – all three five-doors are capable of entertaining its driver.
The BMW M140i, constantly energised by that fabulous straight-six, feels light on its feet and provides enjoyably fluid progress through twisty sections as well as more flowing, open roads. It’s important to be in Sport/Sport+ mode to keep the drivetrain at its liveliest, but more importantly to get some weight into the steering – removing some of the lumpiness and dullness that exists in Comfort.
The absence of the M140i’s optional limited-slip rear differential had little impact on our road-only, bone-dry drive, the BMW’s back end feeling nicely planted under power. Damper conditions would have provided a greater challenge, and we know from previous experience that the Focus RS and Type R can both excel on moist roads.
LSD or no LSD, BMW’s stability control calibrations continue a trend for intrusiveness on its sporty compact models since 2011’s 1 Series M Coupe. In off-camber corners, ESC nibbles at the M140i’s brakes and engine power even in Sport or Sport+ rather than allowing some enjoyable, progressive rear-end movement.
Fellow testers Rob and Tony also complained that the BMW’s brakes felt spongy when it came to their winding road runs.
Adding to the sense that the M140i is an each-way bet at luxuriousness and sportiness, it doesn’t claw into corners like its rivals, and its seats never hug your torso like the Ford’s and Honda’s buckets – even with the adjustable side bolsters in their tightest position.
That duality of character has vast appeal, though, and it’s also formed by a ride that is easy to live with, even if the dampers are in a setting other than Comfort.
We can’t say the same about the Focus RS. It’s stiff-legged even in Normal mode, and the Limited Edition’s track-focused Cup 2 tyres compound matters by adding tramlining on scarred surfaces. It requires the owner to be a fairly dedicated driver to live with it on an ongoing basis.
Yet what rewards await when you break the shackles of city-driving constraints. Those Cup 2 tyres – seven per cent wider and stickier than the Michelin Pilot Super Sports previously standard – are ridiculously grippy.
They’re just one element of the RS’s go-faster arsenal, though. The all-wheel-drive system, now aided by that Quaife limited-slip diff, equips the Focus with traction out of tight corners its rivals simply cannot match.
Then there’s the RS’s uncanny ability to avoid understeer courtesy of torque vectoring at both axles: brake-biased up front, and torque-biased at the rear – with each rear wheel capable of receiving 100 per cent of the 70 per cent engine torque that can be sent to the back via the AWD system.
And Sport is all the mode you need. The somehow-controversial Drift mode is a skidpan tool realistically, while Track is perfect for a car that is a genuine circuit star. It would be quicker still if it wasn’t a bit of a chubber at 1575kg.
The Civic Type R may be the biggest car here, so kudos to Honda for making it the lightest. A 1393kg kerb weight is a result of a multi-material-construction approach – similar to that of the company’s NSX, albeit (understandably) without the exotic compositions found on the $420,000 hybrid supercar.
The more compact RS has the agility edge on the tightest and narrowest of roads, but the Type R still gives the Focus a closer run for its money than the semi-M five-door.
The Honda’s front-end grip is up there with the last-generation versions of both the Renault Megane RS and (Revoknuckled front-drive) Focus RS, while it combines its superb chassis balance, gluey Continentals, and the widest tracks here for mighty mid-corner stability, grip and speed.
Yes, the Type R can occasionally torque steer, but it’s the exception rather than the norm, and the wheel-tugging was never of a force that threatened to divert us into the bushes.
It also doesn’t prevent the Type R’s steering just edging the Focus’s as our favourite. Both racks are super-quick, but whereas the RS’s is ultra-sharp off centre, the Type R’s is more progressive and feels even more naturally weighted.
There’s no splitting their confidence-inspiring stoppers, whether the brakes are supplied (front Brembos for Type R) or generated in-house (RS Sport).
The M140i can claim to be the quietest on coarse-chip surfaces, though ride comfort isn’t the expected exclusive on country roads or around town.
Despite road-holding levels and body control to rival the RS, the Type R unexpectedly delivers a relatively supple, bump-blotting ride. It’s even more impressive when you consider the Honda wears the biggest wheels: 20-inchers to the Ford’s 19s and the BMW’s 18s.
We like the fact Sport is the Type R’s default mode, though Comfort is best for lower-speed motoring – not so much for the suspension but for the steering that is otherwise too heavy.
There’s no Volkswagen-style fusing of mainstream and luxury in this group. The Focus and Civic are clearly members of the former, and the BMW of the latter.
The M140i’s more premium presentation includes a richer-looking combination of materials, its classy ‘black panel’ analogue-digital hybrid instrument display, and sports seats that look like well-bolstered leather pews compared with the flamboyantly designed (mixed material) buckets in the RS and Type R.
That bolstering is electronically adjustable, too, along with other seat-position changes possible via button/switch unlike the manually levered adjusters in the RS and Type R.
Our test car’s virtually all-black cabin looked sombre, though it is partially offset by patterned silver plastic on the centre console, door-grabs, and dash insert (which also gains a stylish blue metallic stripe).
2017’s 1 Series range update introduced incremental improvements to BMW’s iDrive infotainment system, with the latest generation adding touchscreen capability and multi-function display tiles to a set-up that was already visually and intuitively superb. The Harman Kardon system, as expected, sounds marvellous.
The Ford’s RS interior is similarly subdued on the colour front, and it doesn’t distance itself from the Focus ST’s cabin as much as it should for what is now a vast $18,000 difference – especially as the cheaper hot-hatch also features Recaro seats.
The partial leather/microfibre Recaros are terrific, though, and the extra blue stands out and matches nicely with the extensive use of blue stitching throughout the cabin. It’s just a shame the seats are set a touch too high and non-adjustable, and the absence of side airbags isn’t ideal.
The Sync 3 system includes Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and is simple to use and smartly presented graphically. The main upside is that the latest RS’s cabin is a major quality improvement over the last model.
The Type R’s mix of hard plastics and softer materials is similar to the RS, though an extensive (excessive?) use of red, as well as dashes of faux suede and carbon-fibre-mimicking trim, ensures the Honda’s cabin has the sportiest aesthetics.
All three of our testers loved the grippy faux-suede/mesh bucket-style seats, contributing to a consensus that the Type R offers the best-in-group driving position. (The BMW was noted for its offset pedals.)
The Honda has the most digitally focused instrument panel, with the largest, central quadrant dominated by a half-moon graphic tachometer (with digital speedo).
The 7.0-inch display is the smallest here, the graphics look a bit first-generation touchscreen, and the response to presses could be sharper. And there’s that nav omission, as previously mentioned. Operation of the menu system isn’t rocket science, however.
If the M140i seems to spoil the driver and front passenger up front, BMW has stuck two fingers up at rear passengers. Rear-wheel drive has given the 1 Series a USP since its 2004 debut, though it continues to compromise packaging – specifically rear leg room, which is cramped.
Head room is only okay, and there’s also zero storage – not even door bins or a map pocket. Hard plastics are more noticeable than up front, though at least there are vents – which is more than can be said for its rivals.
Above: BMW M140i
And the Ford and Honda are barely any more generous for rear cabin storage, adding only door bins. (The Civic is a storage champion up front, though.)
All three models offer excellent bench comfort, but the Type R is the odd-Civic-out by catering for two passengers only with no central seatbelt.
The Type R, however, makes the most of its much longer body – which at 4557mm is only 10cm shorter than Honda’s 2003 Accord Euro mid-size sedan – and front-wheel-drive packaging. It provides not only far superior rear knee space, along with the best head room, but also the greatest hatchback practicality.
Above: Honda Civic Type R
It has the biggest boot at 414 litres, with easy access thanks to the large aperture. The 60/40 seats fold flat to expand its useability, and there’s a distinctive side-pull cargo blind.
All-wheel drive affects the 4390mm Focus’s boot – shrinking the RS’s luggage compartment from a regular Focus’s 316L to just 260L (30 litres less than a Fiesta’s boot).
The rear seats of the BMW and Ford follow the 60/40 split, but the shortest-in-class M140i (4324mm) takes second place for boot space with 360L – a good size complemented by a low loading sill.
Above: Ford Focus RS
NOTE: See our gallery for more interior shots of each car.
Servicing costs provide a big surprise: the BMW’s Service Inclusive package makes it the cheapest rather than most expensive over five years. Over the same period, the Type R costs $1535 and the RS $2075.
However, if you drive the average annual mileage – 15,000km – or more, then the Honda is the priciest ($2456) because its annual service intervals are shorter (10,000km) than either the BMW or Ford. BMW allows up to 80,000km over the five years, and the Ford covers up to 75,000km.
Ford also includes roadside assistance for the servicing outlay, and BMW provides it complimentary for three years.
Honda counters with the longest warranty – five years versus three for its rivals.
Above: Jez does some sums on the ownership question
Essentially, you can’t go wrong whether you choose to have your power going to the front, rear or all wheels – and you’ll note the overall scores are nearly identical. If we were told we could drive these three cars again next week, it wouldn’t be soon enough.
The differing characteristics and characters of this trio mean each will have differing appeal to buyers.
Ford’s Focus RS is a rally car for the road. The Honda Type R feels (and looks) like a compact touring car racer. The BMW M140i has more of a sports-luxury hybrid nature.
The M140i’s superb, sweet-revving, ultra-flexible straight-six could be worth the price alone before you consider factors such as a genuine luxury interior, class-leading infotainment system, and effectively a free ZF auto that’s brilliant.
The M140i remains a CarAdvice favourite – and we even bought one. It’s destined to be viewed as a modern classic, especially once the 1 Series switches to front-drive for its next generation (expected in 2019).
It just doesn’t encourage a trip to a racetrack like the RS and Type R. There’s definitely room for an M1 super-hatch – if BMW can ever get over its late-1970s supercar that your average 1 Series buyer wouldn’t likely remember anyway – though even owners of the near-$100K M2 coupe would admit their car seems excessively priced in comparison to the M Performance five-door.
The Limited Edition version of the Focus RS is the only one officially available from Ford showrooms now, and the benefits of the extras introduced for the $6000-higher price tag are questionable for some drivers.
Even Ford admits the Quaife front diff will be most noticeable on a track, and that’s our feeling from experience. The Cup 2 tyres add grip but are prone to following grooves in the road, and if you don’t like (Nitrous) blue as an exterior colour – tough luck.
A genuine rear-biased all-wheel-drive system, however, continues to give the RS an extra string to its dynamic bow. Aside from the obvious all-weather confidence, it gives drivers the option for throttle-jabbing playfulness or a focus on pure speed – maximising its traction advantages and remarkable resistance to understeer to savour what feels like the quickest here on a driver’s road. The WRC-style soundtrack adds to the flavour.
Honda’s Civic Type R isn’t quite as appealing aurally as either the RS or M140i, while visually the big wing and bulging wheel-arches are certainly not for shy, retiring types. Or the demographic that can afford $51K, some would argue.
Those appendages are claimed to provide genuine downforce, mind you, and the first turbocharged Type R to be sold in Australia still revs more maniacally than its competitors.
Its greater driveability, however, contributes to the first Civic Type R that’s as easy to live with as it is to drive rapidly on a racetrack or curvy road.
Beyond trumping the Ford and BMW for practicality, cabin space, and driver-aid tech (notably its excellent adaptive cruise and blind-spot systems), the Type R’s relatively relaxing ride is a revelation for a car that delivers hardcore handling.
And with the best seats, best driving position, best manual gearbox, and best steering, the Civic Type R edges a group test tighter than a Lexus panel gap.
It deserves to join the list of front-drive hot-hatch greats.
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Click through to our gallery for more photos.
The Ford Focus RS and Honda Civic Type R have both been the subject of some forum discussions relating to mechanical issues.
The Ford situation resulted in the company issuing a recall notice in the UK and US for 2016/2017 models to fix the RS engine, which in some cases had been expelling white smoke owing to leaking coolant. Ford Australia hasn’t issued a recall, although one is said to be coming. In the meantime, Ford has advised owners to contact their dealer if they have any concerns.
And some Type R owners have complained about grinding gearboxes – chiefly the first to second gear change – though Honda has so far denied there is any widespread problem with its manual.