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Ford Focus RS vs. Honda Civic Type R vs. Subaru WRX STI

The Best Hot Hatches Do Battle

The grandad of hot hatches: the Simca 1100TI

Every trend has to have a beginning. It is usually quite humble and the origin of modern hot hatches is no exception. Pictured above is the Simca 1100TI, often cited as the first hot hatch to be sold by a manufacturer. In 1973, the 82 hp output from the 1.3L engine was enough for the car to top a very short list of hot hatches. The list was so short, in fact, that the 1100TI was the only name on it. Today, it takes nearly 300 hp just to be considered competitive and beyond that, the car needs to be properly equipped.

There are at least a dozen cars on the market today that can be considered hot hatches. Legendary automakers like Audi, BMW, and Renault have built some amazing cars, but three of the top offerings in the group are the Ford Focus RS, the Honda Civic Type R, and the Subaru WRX STI. These production cars are all well-rounded; each offers an incredible engine, race-ready underpinnings, and enough interior comfort to be driven every day. Read on to see how each stacks up.

Ford Focus RS

The Ford Focus RS is one of the best hot hatches.

The Ford Focus RS has been available in Europe for many years, but didn’t reach the North American market until just recently. There were many hot hatch enthusiast who let out a collective “it’s about damn time” after the car reached the continent and here’s why.

Power and Drivetrain

The ford Focus RS engine

The Focus RS is powered by a turbocharged 2.3L four-banger capable of 350 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque. That power is sent to all four wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox and features a torque-vectoring system that takes a unique approach. The Focus RS can blast from 0-60 in 4.6 seconds and can make it to 100 mph in 13 flat. Add to that an electronically-limited top speed of 165 mph, you can see why the Focus made our list of top hot hatches. Hell, with numbers like that, the Focus RS can run with many of the top selling sports cars on the market today.

One of the more attractive features of hot hatches is their handling. Many companies use a skid pad to judge nimble handling and assess the G-force the car handles during lateral acceleration. The Focus RS measured 1.04g in testing when equipped with upgraded tires for added lateral grip.

The Ford Focus RS comes standard with launch control, adaptive dampers, and four driving modes you can play with. The first mode is aptly called Normal. No reason to go into depth about that one, but Sport mode definitely deserves a few words. Sport tweaks the throttle response, improves steering, and opens flaps within the exhaust system to combat lag. Next on the dial is Track mode. This mode does everything the Sport mode does while increasing input from the four-wheel drive system and easing back on the electronic stability control(ESC) for a more uninhibited ride when you are on a track. The final (read: best) setting the RS offers is up front and honest about itself:

Drift Mode. Really?

Ford's six-speed manual gearbox.

Drift mode makes use of the unique torque vectoring of the four-wheel drive system. The GKN-developed system uses electronically-controlled clutch packs on both sides of a rear drive unit. The result is that up to 70 percent of the torque is sent to the rear tires. All of the rear torque can be sent to whichever wheel needs it the most. Drift mode puts as much torque as possible in the rear and softens the dampers to allow for controllable oversteer. If you are brave enough, you can turn off the ESC system and try to drift like you’re in a movie.

Honda Civic Type R

All lists of hot hatches include the Honda Civic Type R.

The Honda Civic Type R is another car fans have had to admire from afar. A recent entrant in the North American market, the Civic Type R is better than anticipated. Though less powerful than the Focus RS, the Type R stands out from other hot hatches for its drivability and commitment to fun.

Power and Drivetrain

Hatchbacks like the Honda Civic Type R have powerful engines.

The Honda Civic Type R is powered by a 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder that produces 306 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. Power is sent to the front wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox. The Civic Type R is able to jump from 0-60 in 4.9 seconds and will run to 100 mph in an impressive 11.5 seconds, beating the RS. The Type R has a drag-limited top speed of 170 mph, beating out the RS by 5 mph. On the skid pad, the Type R is able to pull in 1.02g. As with the Focus RS, these numbers can give many standard production sports cars a run for their money.

The Honda Civic Type R comes standard with a vast array of external vents, fins, air manipulators, a monstrous wing perched out back, and three driving modes. The lower two, Comfort and Sport, are livable, but it is the +R mode that truly unleashes the Type R. The +R mode weights the steering and puts the adaptive dampers in their firmest position. Driven right, this mode will allow you to finish the quarter-mile in 13.5 seconds at 108 mph.

How the Civic Type R Stands Out

Our list of hatchbacks is anchored by the Honda Civic Type R.

Where the Honda Civic Type R really stands out is in its balance between ride comfort, body control, and speed. Most hot hatches are willing to sacrifice ride quality for speed and handling. Even though it sits on tiny 30-series tires and 20-inch wheels, has stiff springs, dampers, and bushings, the Type R handles broken pavement as well as any standard Civic produced. The supportive seats and a nice array of creature comforts make the Honda Civic Type R a great option as a primary mode of transport. As an added bonus, it is more affordably priced than either of the four-wheel drive cars on today’s list.

Subaru WRX STI

The Subaru WRX STI rules the road

The Subaru WRX STI is a bit of a grandfather to the Focus RS and the Civic Type R. While in recent model years a hatchback hasn’t been available, many will remember the bugeye, blob eye, and hawkeye wagons of the past. While the modern WRX isn’t exactly a hot hatch, we’re granting it an honorary status given its appropriate specs and hatchback history.

It has been tearing up North American roads for the better part of a decade(the WRX has been around longer, but the STI was introduced in 2007). The WRX STI begs to be pushed into tight corners and taken on high-speed excursions.

Power and Drivetrain

The engine of the Subaru WRX STI exemplify hot hatches.

The Subaru WRX STI is powered by a 2.5L turbocharged four that is more than capable of thrilling drivers. The 2.5L unit pushes out 305 hp and 290 lb-ft of torque. Both figures compare well with the Civic Type R, but fall short of the Focus RS. The WRX STI pushes its power to all four wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox. A six-speed manual seems to be a standard gearbox for hot hatches and why not? It certainly adds to the driving fun of these cars.

The WRX STI rockets from 0-60 in 5.3 seconds and can make it to 100 mph in the same 13 seconds as the Focus RS. The STI has a drag-limited top speed of 159 mph. As with all hot hatches, the numbers are not complete without a skid pad test. The Subaru WRX STI with standard wheels and tires can produce 0.93g of force during lateral acceleration.

Subaru has upgraded the center differential of the WRX STI’s all-wheel-drive system. In past model years, the center diff was mechanically and electronically controlled. Now, it is digitally controlled. The new system is called the Multi-Mode Driver Controlled Center Differential (DCCD). That is a big name for a simple function: improve on the outstanding handling of the STI. The latest WRX STI’s are also equipped with yellow monoblock Brembo calipers using six pistons up front and two out back as well as larger vented discs; all in the name of better stopping power.

What Else Has Improved?

The Subaru WRX STI rounds out our list of the best hot hatches.

In the past, the Subaru WRX STI was knocked around by critics for its poor gearbox, long-travel clutch, and noisy cabin, but all are gone in the newest models. Subaru eliminated the transmission issues with a brand new synchromesh design. The clutch issue was simple to remedy, just shorten the throw a bit so it engages more quickly. No need for every day to be leg day when operating a clutch. The cabin noise has been reduced by using thicker side glass, better door seals, and a windshield-header beam filled with foam.

Each of these hot hatches outshines the other offerings in the group. Of the three on the list, the Ford Focus is the most powerful, but the most costly. The Honda Civic Type R offers the most affordable price tag, but many hot hatch enthusiasts prefer an all-wheel drive car. Then there is the Subaru WRX STI. Its lower power numbers and skid pad figure can be a bit of a downer until you consider the vast parts aftermarket. The Subaru WRX is the most frequently tuned car in North America, so you can easily improve on the factory performance numbers of a WRX STI.

We can talk about numbers on paper until the cows come home, but if you really want to know which hot hatch is the right one for you, you’d better get to test-driving – good luck figuring out which of these hot hatches is truly the best!

Chris Riley
About Chris Riley

I have been wrecking cars for as long as I've been driving them, but I keep coming back for more. Two wheels or four, I'm all in. I founded GearHeads.org and then built and ran AutoWise.com until selling it to Lola Digital Media in 2020. I look forward to watching AutoWise grow as part of the AllGear group.