Back in 2010, we pitted the incredible Honda Civic Type R Mk3 Mugen against Audi's R8 V10 - here's that story:
So often in life, it’s the simplest questions that require the most complex answers. Take the one we’re about ask here.
Can one of the world’s maddest hot hatches – and certainly one of its most expensive – really and honestly cut it against a classic mid-engined supercar over a favourite Welsh mountain road? As the inimitable Ms Vicky Pollard might reply: “Well yer-but, no-but, yer-but, no-but…”
As part of a grand celebration of hot hatches, we felt we had to do a story like this. The greatest hot hatches have proved, after all, to be some of the most effective giant-slayers ever to grace a public road. And although the Honda Civic Type R Mugen is something of a freak among freaks, it’s still a hot hatch at heart, featuring a transversely mounted four-cylinder engine that powers its front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox.
True, the Mugen’s 2.0-litre engine has been massaged to the point where it produces a spine-chilling 239bhp, and it has a red line that’s just a single blink of an eye short of 9000rpm. It also costs a vaguely hilarious £38,599.
Yet in many respects the Mugen represents absolutely how far the hot hatch has come during the 21st century. It looks sharp to the point of contemporary design perfection and is entirely focused on the business of going quickly, but at the same time it’s also sufficiently well packaged to accommodate four people and their luggage with ease, and it will return close to 30mpg all day long unless you go completely and utterly berserk in it.
Mind you, it’s hard not to drive this car like a maniac over the kind of roads you see in the pictures above, especially when there’s someone in an Audi R8 V10 in front of you, trying their best to make a point. Dial a fair chunk of pride and honour into the argument, as well as the fact that you happen to be the fool who came up with this idea in the first place, and 9000rpm is really the only place to be in the Mugen Type R.
So what, specifically, is the Honda up against here, and does it stand any sort of chance of hanging on to the back bumper of such a hard-hitting opponent under any circumstances?
The R8 V10 has been fairly well documented here, but familiarity has done nothing to dilute its appeal. It remains a deeply impressive, extremely rapid supercar by any standards. From A to B there are very few cars that are quicker, at any price.
The comparison between it and the Mugen doesn’t make particularly great reading for hot hatch fans, either. In simple terms, the R8 has 10 cylinders to the Honda’s four and boasts 518bhp rather than 239bhp. The Audi is also four-wheel drive and has more than twice the amount of torque available in the Civic.
There is one thing that the R8 has more of but in this instance doesn’t need: kilograms. The Audi weighs 1625kg to the Mugen’s 1233kg. So although it still has a massive power-to-weight advantage – 319bhp per tonne versus 194 – the R8’s extra weight might just be what prevents it from disappearing over the horizon.
And that’s before you so much as mention the more relevant issue of how fast you are prepared to drive a car like the R8 on the public road.
Fact is, the R8 has so much acceleration that the occasions on which you can use all, or even half, of its potential are exceedingly rare indeed. In a straight line it will out-accelerate the Mugen in third gear, even if the Honda is in the heart of its rev range in second gear. Put the R8 in second gear and it will rocket away from the Mugen, simple as that.
Except that on the public road, of course, nothing is ever as simple as that. For starters, there’s the small matter of your driving licence to consider. And then there’s your conscience to bear in mind, other road users (some of whom may not be paying attention as you come hurtling towards them across a blind brow), plus the inevitable army of caravans, tractors and/or sheep that may lurch in your direction at any given moment.
The only way you can account for the myriad of unpredictables that come at you on the open road, in other words, is to operate well within your own limits and those of the car you are driving. And that’s a far easier thing to do in the Honda than it is in the R8.
Why? Because in the R8 it’s so easy to get carried away and end up travelling far too fast for the conditions that the only way to be sure that you are doing the right thing – the safe thing – is to put a lot less effort into your actions in the first place and simply drive a lot less hard. Which means the Honda, in theory, might just be able to keep up.
Broadly speaking, that’s precisely how it turned out in Wales. We went to our favourite roads, with road tester Jamie Corstorphine driving the Audi first while I drove the Civic, and for most of the time I could keep up. When we swapped cars and did the same thing in reverse, it was exactly the same result: whoever was in front – and no matter which car they were driving – the person following could always keep up.
And that’s the difference, in the end, between having a brain between your ears and an excess of grip and horsepower beneath your backside. On the public road, the brain will usually win, which means the leading driver – unless he or she is either stupid or worryingly fearless – will always be at a disadvantage. And in this case not even an extra 279bhp could compensate for that crucial disadvantage.
Maybe the most interesting thing we discovered, however, was that after a day at the wheel of both cars, Jamie and I agreed that we enjoyed driving the Mugen more over those roads. And I’m being entirely straight when I say that. There’s no caveat, in other words: the Honda was simply more fun, more agile, less intimidating and a lot easier to get close to its limits than the oh-no-tell-me-I-haven’t-overcooked-it R8.
No question that on a track the Audi would have destroyed the Mugen, but track driving and fast, responsible road driving are two entirely different things. On a track you can take calculated risks, and if you’re skilled enough you can start to exploit the way an R8 handles to make it go a lot faster.
You can do things like turn in on a trailing throttle to eradicate its natural tendency to understeer; you can turn the ESP system off and get on the throttle early out of ◊ ∆ slow corners, again to dial out the understeer. And you can use every last ounce of its thundering straight-line performance, safe in the knowledge that nothing will be coming the other way.
On a circuit, only the R8’s infuriating open-gate six-speed manual gearbox and its peculiarly jumpy brakes would hamper your progress, and it would obliterate the Civic as a result. But on the road it’s not like that at all.
On the road, the Mugen’s smaller dimensions, relative lack of weight, extra agility and far less lively tail end allow you to get much closer to what it can do ultimately, on a track, than you can in the R8. Partly that’s because your conscience screams at you to be sensible in the R8 far louder than it does when driving the Civic. And partly it’s because the Mugen is that much more friendly and predictable in the way it reacts on or near its limit.
Either way, the Mugen is quite clearly the car of choice in which to go howling – at a sensible kind of speed – across a favourite Welsh mountain road, even though it’s not the quicker of the two if the driver of the R8 decides to turn up the wick and behave like an idiot.
There are two vital questions here. How much faster do you really want to go than you can go in a Mugen Type R? And is it honestly worth the effort if your heart is in your mouth for so much of the time, as it is in the R8 when you’re going for it?
Answers: not much, and no. In the light of which, give me the hot hatch and a big bag of change every time, thanks. And maybe we should leave the supercars to those who think otherwise.
Honda Civic Type R Mugen
Price £38,599; 0-62mph 6.0sec (claimed); Top speed 146mph (claimed), Economy 28.7mpg (test); CO2 na; Kerb weight 1233kg; Engine 4 cyls, 1998cc, petrol; Power 239bhp at 8300rpm; Torque 157lb ft at 6250rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual
Audi R8 5.2 V10 FSI Quattro
Price £103,810; 0-62mph 3.9sec (claimed); Top speed 196mph (claimed); Economy 19.6mpg (test); CO2 351g/km; Kerb weight 1625kg; Engine V10, 5204cc, petrol; Power 518bhp at 8000rpm; Torque 390lb ft at 6500rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual
Get the latest car news, reviews and galleries from Autocar direct to your inbox every week. Enter your email address below: