In no particular order, then, the Civic Type R and MX-5 made the cut – previous annual Britain’s Best Affordable Driver’s Car champions in both cases – as well as the test’s freshest-arriving meat: the Focus ST.
Quite a podium, that. Much as some of us had hoped that the sharp end of the competition might be a bit closer fought, truly outstanding driver’s cars have a habit of, well, standing out; and while all five judges had both the Honda and Mazda in their top order, only one overlooked the Ford. It was a terse ‘nul points’ for the Golf GTI TCR, Mini John Cooper Works, Leon Cupra R ST and Mégane RS 300 Trophy. That may seem tough on cars that weren’t short on driver appeal by any means, but, contrary to appearances, I guess we’re a tough bunch. It was a solitary point, meanwhile – but no podium place – for the i30 N Fastback. It was universally saluted for being a performance car of intriguing potential and made of all the right ingredients, albeit ones not quite blended and brought together with flawless skill.
Which brings us, inevitably, to the sharp end of this contest; and to what exactly separates one of the greatest hot hatchback debutants of the past several years from what’s probably the most widely anticipated of 2019. Would either be good enough to force its way between Mazda’s affordable rear-driven sporting icon and another BBADC title? Our jury had plenty to say on the former question, but was split on the latter; and so our 2019 champion ended up taking the golden biscuit by a margin of just three points.
Both on road and track, there’s quite a big difference between the ways in which the Focus ST and Civic Type R go about establishing their respective cases to be considered hot hatchback top dog. Conveniently enough, acknowledging the strengths of one only serves to shine a light on the weaknesses of the other – and picking either meant becoming aware of your own tastes in fast front-drivers as much as anything.
If you like your hot hatchbacks relatively small, lively, agile and dynamically effusive, for example, consider yourself a Focus ST sort of person. The Ford goes bigger than the Honda on character and noise, on steering response and handling balance, and on tactile feedback and instant driver engagement; whereas, in a simpler sense, the Civic just goes big – on size, on pace and on visual attitude.
But whereas the Focus’s chief assets as a driver’s car might be the vivacity and accessibility right there on the surface of its motive character, what really convinces you about the Civic is what it holds in reserve – only to be uncovered when you wring out its motor to high revs, carry that extra speed you pick up around corner and over bump, and unearth the remarkable pace and composure that lies beneath. So if you like to go fast – on track, I would recommend, given that this Honda gives up very little pace to sports cars of two or three times its price – you’ll be a Civic Type R type of, well, type.