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Ford Focus ST Track Pack v Honda Civic Type R: sharpened Focus tackles the hot hatch king

The Civic Type R has so far seen off all challengers, but will it meet its match in the trackday-friendly Focus ST?

There was no question the Honda Civic Type R needed to be a part of issue 322's evo Track Car of the Year. It’s aced every challenge evo has thrown at it, running away with its first group test and putting in a strong showing at eCoty 2023, outscoring (and often outrunning) sports cars, supersaloons and grand tourers alike. Most recently, it won our mega-test of every hot hatch currently on sale (evo 318). And we know from its original launch at Estoril that it’s a devastatingly capable car on track, too.

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So its presence in this year's test was a given – much like the 911 GT3 RS, it’s an established yardstick against which to measure cars of all genres. But experience also tells us that hot hatches, even ones which are brilliant in isolation, often fade into the background against pure two-seaters and big-horsepower machinery. So we decided to bring another hatchback along for a bit of direct context. And Ford’s Focus ST Track Pack was one of the standouts in the track section of 2023’s hot hatch shootout at Bedford Autodrome, even if it didn’t shine quite so brightly on the road. Where previous time with the Civic has shown it leans towards being a precise – prescriptive, even – tool for the job, the Focus has been a more playful, more boisterous counterpoint. And, as the name suggests, in this trim it is designed to excel on the track. 

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The £3000 Track Pack option takes the Focus’s price to £39,855. Big money for a Focus, though affordable in relation to the Civic’s £50,050. The pack comprises adjustable coilover suspension (12 clicks on bump, 16 on rebound), Brembo front brakes with 363mm discs (up 33mm), 19-inch P Zero Corsa tyres on lighter wheels, and black paint for the roof, mirrors, boot spoiler and diffuser. If you missed out on a Track Pack, you can buy the identically specced ST Edition for… £42,905.

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In the assembly area at Cadwell Park, however, surrounded by minimal Radical, maximum GT3 RS and an M2 with arches wider than the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it looks a bit apologetic. More like a Focus TDCi rental car than a circuit-ready trackday hero. I can’t help but feel a bit worried on the Focus’s behalf. 

The Track Pack also includes a bespoke ‘Race Track’ drive mode within the touchscreen’s menus, relaxing the stability control and pepping up the steering, throttle and engine maps. Duly selected for our exploratory laps as well as Meaden’s timed laps, the steering feels super-responsive and the Focus’s tail follows its nose faithfully. Any doubts about whether or not it should be here melt away almost immediately. The Ford is keen as mustard. It feels faster in a straight line than many of the sports cars here, and resolutely stable under braking.

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Dickie concurs. ‘That’s a proper sleeper,’ he says, climbing out of the Focus as it ticks itself cool. ‘I really, really enjoyed it. It changes direction well, and actually it reminds me of a more supple Renault Sport Mégane with a more characterful engine. It proves that a straightforward, conventional car can be very good on a track like this.’

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Both hatches are powered by turbocharged four-cylinder engines (though the 2.3-litre Ford is considerably less powerful, with 276bhp to the 2-litre Civic’s 324bhp) via H-pattern manual gearboxes. The Ford’s shift is ultra-slick, moving through the short-throw gate almost as quickly as you can move your hand. I drove the Honda from evo’s Bedford office to Cadwell Park the previous evening, revelling in the precision of the controls and their feedback: the feel through the brake pedal, the seat, and what might just be the best manual gearshift in any new car on sale today. If it hadn’t been for the clanking noises of evo’s weighing and timing gear in the back, I’d have revelled in it a little more. 

Funny how being on track shifts the parameters for feel and feedback. The last word in steering feel is less important when you’re making bigger inputs and moving the car around on the brakes and with weight transfer as much as with the wheel alone. Speed and ease of gearshifts becomes as important as tactility, and in some ways the Ford’s less feelsome but super-snappy gear gate is even more useable on track. 

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The Civic’s brake feel is as brilliant as ever, making it easy to feel exactly the point at which ABS begins to intrude (which, impressively, isn’t often, apart from the heavy braking zone at the end of the back straight into the 90-right Park corner, and at the steep downhill braking zone for Mansfield, where most of the cars trigger ABS, and I’ll later briefly lock a front wheel in the Revolution). But the surprise is that the Type R doesn’t feel as stable as the ST under braking. Don’t get me wrong, it’s far from wayward, but it pogos on its stiff suspension and the rear feels unsettled. 

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Particularly in +R, the most track-focused mode, which puts the Civic into its firmest damper setting. On most UK roads that mode feels a bit too much, turning the dampers to concrete and a smooth road into a toboggan run. The real surprise is that it does the same to Cadwell Park. Yes, it’s a true park circuit rather than a flat airfield track and it contains bumps and cambers, but it’s still much smoother than the average British road. Yet, when I overtake John Barker, who’s on a warm-up lap in the Toyota GR86, he reports that the Honda’s rear was visibly bouncing on the start-finish straight.

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It’s much calmer with the dampers in their softer modes, and it is possible to mix and match the +R setting for the engine with a less firm damper setting in Individual mode – though Barker notes that even in the softer suspension setting it’s still a wild ride in places.

‘As soon as you roll away in the Civic, you can feel extra detail through the steering, the engine’s a fraction punchier and the chassis is a bit grippier, but there’s more of an edge to it, especially in +R,’ observes JB. ‘Cadwell isn’t that bumpy, but the Civic finds every ripple. I imagine it was a little hairy setting the lap time…’

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That time (1:41.14) is 1.75sec quicker than the Ford’s, and it pulls 118.5mph to the Focus’s 114.1mph v-max. None of us is surprised. What we didn’t see coming is that we all enjoyed driving the Ford more. ‘The Ford is a lovely thing,’ says John. ‘The front diff hooks the car around tricky turns such as Mansfield like there’s a Scalextric groove on the racing line. It has a friendliness and malleability that make you feel like you’re driving well and not taking an awful lot out of the car.’

‘The Civic’s suspension wasn’t happy at all,’ says Meaden. ‘I know Cadwell is a busy track with lots of small bumps, but it seemed to amplify all of them. The Focus has a finessed feel to it without any real dynamic downsides – on the track, at least. It exceeded all our expectations, and normally it’s the opposite case when you take a road car onto a track.’

Sam Jenkins, who drove the Ford to and from Cadwell Park, confirms that it’s still imperfect on the road. It has a tendency to tramline, the hypersensitive steering becomes hard work at times and it’s a less useable car day-to-day than the Honda. The Civic Type R remains the better all-rounder, and is still our favourite hot hatch on sale. But, here at Cadwell, the Focus was the more enjoyable of the two – making for the first big upset of TCoty 2024...

This story was first featured in evo issue 322.

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