After a day out with the 2017 Honda Civic Type R and the 2016 Ford Focus RS, it came down to this: "If someone handed you the keys to either, which one would you take?"
This is not "The Matrix" and these combatants are not pills. They are the most anticipated sports cars on the market and have never been sold in the U.S. at the same time. Until now. Both are affordable; both are a blast to drive; both came in blue.
Both have five doors, giant rear wings and sweet rowing six-speed manual gearboxes. Yet the Type R and Focus RS are as different as they are similar.
The 350-horsepower Focus RS is an all-wheel-drive beast with sick grip and dangerous power. The 306-horsepower Type R is a front-wheel-drive modern marvel with a brilliant suspension and lovely road manners.
Back to the question posed by my colleague and co-driver, Doug George, at the onset of our trip down the rabbit hole on a cold blustery morning at Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Ill. Doug is an entertainment editor and modest guy with a warm, easy smile. During our morning at the track, that smile was transformed into an ear-to-ear grin.
That's what these cars do: induce perma-grin. Here's how.
"Yeah, subtle these cars are not," George said.
Especially the Type R. Based on the excellent 10th-generation Civic, the Type R is lower and wider than the RS. Nearly all the pieces of performance flair are functional, unlike the Civic hatch. The modest hood scoop sucks cool air and pushes hot air down and out; the front splitter reduces air under the body and the side skirts reduce lift so there's plenty of downforce to keep the car planted at high speeds, including a top speed of 170 mph, according to Car and Driver.
But, according to one editor, its rear end has the face of a Stormtrooper. The large rear wing, along with a spoiler under the wing and another spoiler above (Honda calls it a vortex generator), all create downforce to keep the rear down and reduce drag. All these aero elements make it look like something out of "Fast & Furious."
"It's totally boy-racer all the way," George said. "Hey Honda, Boeing called and wants its wing back."
The Rally Sport is, by comparison, more modest even in baby blue "Nitrous Blue." The RS feels and looks more unified, composed and mature. The third-generation RS has a similar splitter up front but a more menacing face with a black RS mustache splitting the grille. Its wing is braced off the roof, at the top of the lift gate.
Better pill: RS
The driver of either will not be disappointed on the track. "These are both astonishing cars," George said.
But intent is nine-tenths of the draw and the RS is made to be tracked.
With its modified EcoBoost 2.3-liter twin-scroll turbocharged four-cylinder engine with a tight six-speed manual sending power to all wheels, the RS is the better track car. "The extra power seemed to come on earlier and stay more tractable in the middle of a hard corner," George said about the RS. Acceleration is better due to the blend of more power (350 horsepower) and more torque (350 pound-feet) even though full torque comes later than the Type R at 3,200 rpm.
The Type R makes 295-pound feet at about 2,500 rpm. At that point, the Type R slingshots forward; before that point, it's not as responsive as the RS.
The short throws of the RS gearbox get to the sweet spot more quickly and there's a pony car rumble to the soundtrack that sounds much greater than a modified four-cylinder engine. Both sticks felt great, with cold aluminum knobs and short rowing; the Type R felt notchier; the clutch pedal of the RS had greater feedback.
The steering wheel in the RS is also smaller, and feels more connected to the road. The slightest motions deliver precise results. It's less forgiving than the Type R, so precision is paramount.
"The most dramatic 'wow' moment of getting behind the wheel was the steering in both these cars, which felt like a direct connection to the tires, like you're holding the whole car in the palm of your hands," George said afterward.
This extends to the all-wheel-drive handling of the RS, allowing it to hit turns harder and stay tight at higher speeds, and you can floor it out of the apex with more confidence, thanks also to the grippier Pilot Super Sport Cup 2S tires.
Yet Honda has really worked magic beyond the limited slip differential in nearly eliminating torque steer. With more weight up front, it was almost easier to slide the end through turns in the Type R. It was a subtle difference that had a bit more thrill because I was being worked more as a driver.
Also surprising, amid the autumnal smell of roasting tires and cooking brakes, was the earliest sign of brake fade on the Type R, which at 3,111 pounds, weighs significantly less than the 3,434-pound RS. Ford's promise of its most powerful brakes ever on a Focus proved good on the track but the RS burned through a lot more fuel.
Better pill: RS, though my co-worker disagreed.
"Honda was just more fun to drive," he said. "The manual six-speed felt lots better, and overall the car felt lighter on its feet, more agile and more eager to go go go."
We didn't disagree here: the Type R is the clear-cut modern vehicle. With carbon fiber trim elements and soft-touch materials, it has the look and feel of a pricier ride.
Honda's touch screen is clunky, especially since it houses the climate control settings, and the redundant steering controls to access the vehicle info in the instrument cluster are confusing, but it's better than Ford's Sync3 and its narrow touch screen.
The RS feels like a 10-year-old car; my 10-year old asked if the gauges for oil and temp on the top of the dash were stickers.
Some people might prefer the old-school feel of the RS, but for nearly $7,000 more (20 percent!), it felt like a swindle in the creature comforts department.
The RS, with its two damper settings and rib-hugging Recaro seats, was much stiffer on the highway in normal mode. This is not the car for the road trip. Adaptive damping in the Type R provided much more condition-appropriate ride feel. It's also wider and more spacious.
Doug, who is four inches taller at 6-foot-1, hated the seats in both. "These things would have masochists employing their safe word," he said.
Better pill: Type R
The Type R is new. The RS is old. 2018 will be the last model year of this RS iteration. It runs like it was meant to be bounced around at track and rally. These factors alone could be selling points for some enthusiasts.
To answer Doug's initial question, however, we both would take the Type R. If you'll be racing more than getting around, the RS is the pill for you. Otherwise, the Type R is the one.
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