There’s a corner at the far end of the straight at Bedford Autodrome’s East Circuit: a fast right-hander that tightens into a double apex. To add to the fun, you have to get the car balanced early as you exit to dive straight into a tighter-still left-hander.
Here, our fast front-drive duo were like pigs in the proverbial. Nothing but the Caterham jinked with such precision through that complex. Yet it was also here that the differences between the Honda Civic Type R and the Ford Focus ST were most telling.
Let’s start with the Civic. As the all-new contender to the Focus’s mild refresh, the Type R waded into this class with the meek humility of a bull charging a matador. With trick suspension, adaptive dampers and mechanical diff to make the most of the raging 306bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged motor, it dispatched our circuit using brute force tempered with fierce traction.
Stick it in R mode, to perk up the suspension, diff and throttle response, and it turns in to the complex with just the right amount of keenness, keeping body roll to a minimum before settling into a face-warpingly grippy steady state.
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The steering builds nicely in weight as the tyres load, and when you do push it hard enough to trouble the grip limits, a subtle lift-off snaps it out of understeer and back into line with no lairy oversteer pending.
The flipside is that there’s little of the playfulness that the Focus serves up. You can trail the Ford’s brakes to keep the nose pinned as you enter the right-hander, then jump on the throttle to modulate your angle of attack and keep the playful rear end where you want. Its chassis feels so much more adjustable than the Civic’s.
But the Focus has its flaws. Sure, the revised front spring and damper set-up and stiffened body structure of this 2015 update result in keener turn-in, but the steering still feels more scrappy than you might hope. It’s overly keen to self-centre and has little of the natural building of weight that the Honda delivers. It’s just a bit harder to place the Focus precisely at that key moment as a result.
The Ford’s reliance on electric systems to rein in the 247bhp of its 2.0-litre turbocharged engine denies you the traction levels of the Civic, with its proper diff. This is as obvious on the road as it is on a circuit. Exit a tight junction with any gusto and it becomes an exercise in moderate throttle application to avoid spinning the inside front wheel, resulting in more weaving than actual progress.
The Civic isn’t faultlessly grippy, either. It has torrents of power going through its front wheels, so you do get torque steer on occasion, but it is remarkably manageable, given the power. You can be more heavy-handed with getting on the power in the Civic, and it just sucks up the punishment, gathers itself together and fires you up the road, with the engine spinning through a broad torque band and on to 7000rpm.
Although the shorter-lived, heavy boost of the Ford has its own mid-range merits, the Honda’s motor has the sort of rev-hungry attitude that has echoes of the VTECs of yore.
Yes, it’s a bit lacklustre at low revs, but keep it on the boil above 3000rpm and it delivers the frenetic character that you expect, given its caricature looks. That snappy gearshift, with a throw supposedly identical to the NSX’s, is an absolute joy, too, and more so than the Focus’s precise but slightly softer-feeling shift.
In fact, the whole car feels like a caricature – from how it claws its way through corners, to the supportive yet comfortable bucket seats, the bonkers rear wing and chin-heavy fascia. Even the damping is over the top. Or perhaps ‘under’ would be more accurate, given that in firmer mode it tends to amplify rather than cushion small ruts and bumps. Certainly, this is not the most comfortable car, although the softer setting is more palatable and ticks the ‘everyday usable’ box adequately for such a focused car.
The Focus is the more forgiving in terms of ride comfort and the more playful but, ultimately, it comes second here. It falls short of the Civic’s ferocious performance and handling machismo, making the latter feel somehow closer genetically to Gordon Shedden’s weekend wheels than your average cooking Civic. For that hilarity alone, it gets the nod.