This is not just a hot hatch test. This is an engineering head-to-head, and a chance to find out which mechanical recipe creates the most thrilling £30k driver’s car. The bold and brash new Civic Type R wades in with a high-tech, front-wheel drive system, complete with motor racing-inspired suspension and limited-slip differential, finished off with a new 306bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged engine.
The freshly facelifted, rear-wheel-drive BMW M135i doles out even more power, thanks to a turbocharged 322bhp 3.0-litre straight-six engine. It’s been our favourite high-end hot hatch for some time and, with its more conventional sports car DNA, it sits in stark contrast to the Civic’s more extreme take on the format.
Recently updated and now even more powerful. One of our favourite hot hatches.
Hooligan looks and serious pace, but is it as much fun as the rear-wheel-drive M135i
What are they like to drive?
They feel as different on the road as their mechanical differences suggest. The Civic is the more focused car, even without the +R mode activated, which brings heavier steering, a quicker throttle response and stiffer suspension. The Honda turns in to corners aggressively, stays relatively flat as it does so and its steering gives a decent amount of feedback.
In fact, the Civic’s excellent steering makes it as easy to guide on a motorway as aim with precision at the apex of a corner, although the inevitable shortcomings of such a powerful front-wheel-drive car do come to light when you accelerate really hard, because the steering wheel squirms around in your hands a little – a phenomenon that’s known as ‘torque steer’.
Does the Honda handle better than the BMW? Well, the M135i feels very relaxed in Comfort mode, which minimises the steering effort needed and makes the car easier to drive smoothly. However, select Sport or Sport+ and it comes to life. Subtle suspension upgrades have made it less likely for the rear end to break away, but the steering can still feel too light through fast corners, and it doesn’t provide quite as much feedback as the Honda’s.
However, the BMW’s rear-wheel drive layout makes it the more entertaining car to drive hard; it’s light-footed and playful yet seriously capable, whereas the Civic is entertaining in a scrappy way and, steering aside, less involving.
The engine in the M135i is a peach, too. There are no obvious surges in acceleration as the turbocharger starts to do its work, and the BMW is the much quicker car in a straight line. It’ll hit 60mph from a standstill almost a second faster and will sprint from 30-70mph in just 4.5 seconds, whereas the Honda takes 5.3 seconds. Still, the Honda’s engine has its merits. There’s a frantic sense to the way it revs, and the F1-style shift lights start to illuminate as you approach the 7000rpm limiter. Blink and it’ll be time for the next gearshift, which is more satisfying and shorter in its throw than the BMW’s.
The cars’ differing characters continue when it comes to ride comfort. Our BMW came with optional £515 adaptive dampers, but the variation between suspension settings is subtle, and even in the firmest mode it delivers a remarkably supple ride.
That’s not to say the Civic is as hardcore as its winged, blistered and vented appearance would suggest. The dampers soften bumps effectively and broken surfaces don’t have the Honda fidgeting too much. It feels firm over sharp-edged potholes, but anyone in the market for a hard-nosed hot hatch is unlikely to complain.
So, the BMW is faster, more fun in vigorous use and easier to live with the rest of the time. It’s also more refined. The Civic’s theatrical engine rasp, and the pronounced hiss as you lift off the throttle is great fun, but at a steady 70mph the engine quickly becomes tiring. By contrast, the BMW emits an encouraging, bassy warble when you want it to, but just a distant hum on the motorway, and there’s significantly less road noise, too.
What are they like inside?
The Civic’s driving position is generally excellent for a hot hatch, mostly thanks to the deep bucket seats that offer lots of side and shoulder support and hold you firmly in place when cornering. However, they do make it quite difficult to get into and out of the car, and it’s a shame that the Honda’s speedo is easily obscured by the steering wheel. Rearward visibility is, frankly, laughable.
The BMW’s seats are less supportive at the sides but still hold you in place very effectively through bends and are far more comfortable on long journeys. The M135i also has a high quality dashboard that’s much easier to use, thanks to a cleaner layout and a single central colour screen that you control using a rotary dial and some shortcut buttons positioned between the front seats.
The Civic relies on a touchscreen, which is slower to respond and much more fiddly to use. It’s also trickier to see in bright and sunny conditions.
Both cars have plenty of leg room in the back, if slightly limited head room for six-footers, and while the BMW can carry five at a push, the Type R’s bespoke rear seats are strictly for two people.
The Honda’s boot is vast, and much bigger than the BMW’s, although there isn’t a parcel shelf, and there’s an annoying sunken area in the load bay which, in the standard Civic, is covered by a false floor.
However, you can fold down the rear seats in both cars for those occasions when you need to carry extra long or bulky items.
What will they cost?
The Civic Type R is new and in-demand enough that cash buyers will struggle to get any discount. However, BMW is already offering as much as £3189 off the M135i, which, coupled with good resale values, means it’s the cheaper car to buy and own.
The BMW is also the cheaper option for those buying on finance. Put down a £5000 deposit on a 36-month PCP deal and, thanks to a dealer deposit contribution of more than £3000, you’ll pay £344 a month. On the same terms, the Honda will cost you £421.
The BMW even betters the Civic for real-world economy, returning 34.8mpg next to the Type R’s 31.8mpg across our varied test route. At least the Civic’s lower CO2 emissions make it the cheaper company car, and private buyers will also have to cough up slightly less each year in road tax.
A DAB radio, a USB socket, Bluetooth and audio connectivity and a colour multimedia screen are standard on both our contenders. The Honda also gets cruise control, automatic emergency braking and a reversing camera, whereas you’ll pay £480 to add rear parking sensors and cruise control to the BMW.
Still, the M135i counters with standard automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers and leather seats, and sat-nav for £595, whereas you have to add the £2300 GT Pack to get it on the Civic. For that, Honda also throws in auto lights and wipers, lane-departure and blind-spot warnings, and adaptive cruise control.
These are two very different takes on the hot hatch format, but the BMW is both more fun on the limit and easier to live with the rest of the time. It’s that breadth of ability that wins it this test.
The Type R is still a fine car, mind. Super-grippy handling, quick steering and a satisfying short-throw gearshift make it great fun on the right road. It’s just a little too pricey given its shortcomings elsewhere.
For Sports car performance; playful handling; supple ride
Against Overly light steering; higher CO2 emissions
Verdict Outrageously fast and fun, yet uncompromised in everday use
Honda Civic Type R
For Grippy handling; decent steering; good driving position
Against Pricier to buy and run; so-so interior quality; harder to live with
Verdict Impressively capable on road and track, but not as rounded as the BMW