It’s the raciest letter out there – whenever you’re looking for something that promises turbocharged performance, grippy tires and brakes big enough for track work, keep your eyes peeled for an R on the back of that hot hatchback. Yet R-recipes differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. In this case, which is best, ordering spicy German, or Japanese?

Tech Specs

2018 Honda Civic Type R

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Brendan McAleer

  • Price, as tested: $42,845
  • Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, 306 horsepower
  • Transmission/Drive: Six-speed manual/Front-wheel
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.6 city, 8.3 highway
  • Alternatives: Veloster N

2018 Volkswagen Golf R

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Brendan McAleer

  • Price, as tested: $49,905
  • Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, 292 horsepower
  • Transmission/Drive: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic/Four-wheel
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.6 city, 8.0 highway
  • Alternatives: Subaru Impreza STI, Ford Focus RS

Looks

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The Civic Type R's looks are far from subtle.

Brendan McAleer

Type R: No stone left unturned, no surface left unstyled. Whoever signed off on the Civic Type R’s looks clearly grew up on a steady diet of The Fast and The Furious movies. I’m only surprised it didn’t come from the factory with neon underbody lights. While Honda claims all the aerodynamics are functional, there is a lot of visual noise here to digest. Hood scoop? Check. Massive rear wing? Check. Huge front intercooler and razor-edged rear roof vanes like a Mitsubishi Evo tarmac rally car? Check and check. The icing on the cake is the completely ridiculous 20-inch wheels and rubber-band tires. If styling, as with jazz, is all about the notes you don’t play, then this car is as loud as Dick Van Dyke’s one-man-band character from Mary Poppins. Falling down a staircase.

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Volkswagen offers three dozen shades of colours for the Golf R.

Brendan McAleer

Golf R: A reserved German? Who’d have guessed it? The Golf R is the definition of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, although here the sheep has been dyed a punk-rock purple, which gives the game away. Points aplenty to Volkswagen for offering three dozen shades of colours on it (albeit at a $2,995 premium), as if it were a Porsche 911.

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In a less-shouty hue, the R is so subtle as to be almost boring. There are 19-inch wheels and quad exhausts out back, but if you removed the badges, the average passerby would have no idea that you were driving a machine that’s as quick as most 3-series BMWs. Yes, the badge says R, but this is the same kind of sneaky speed that made the original 1980s GTI so wonderful.

Interior

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The Civic Type R has a practical interior, with comfy seats and plenty of storage space.

Brendan McAleer

Type R: For such a cartoonishly styled car, the Civic Type R is surprisingly comfortable. The seats are hugely bolstered, but not particularly taxing over long distances and the amount of interior storage space, from cubbies to cup-holders, is impressive. But then it would be, as this is still a Honda Civic. A few points are lost for the bizarre decision to offer only four seats, but the R is just as practical inside as the regular Civic that Canadians love.

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The Golf R is polished enough to impress passengers even before you fire it up.

Brendan McAleer

Golf R: Volkswagen, on the other hand, looks to be posing the question, why would you buy an Audi? There are still Golf roots to be found here if you peek for hard plastic between the seats, but the R’s huge driver-angled touchscreen and high-resolution instrument panel are impressive enough to step on the toes of the upscale German brands. The price tag of many hot hatchbacks can be hard to explain to a non-enthusiast who doesn’t much care about what’s under the hood. The Golf R is polished enough to impress passengers even before you fire it up.

Performance

Type R: According to the laws of physics, a front-wheel-drive car can’t compete with a rear-wheel-drive machine, or a properly set up all-wheel-drive system. That’s the rule and the Civic Type R is the rule-breaker.

This isn’t just a quick and raw little car in the manner of stripped-out ancestors such as the Acura Integra Type R, this is a tarmac weapon. If the styling is pointy, then so is the performance: fast turn-in, excellent grip and a chassis that shrugs off imperfections with ease. In the real world, on some twisting piece of back road, it’s hard to imagine even much more expensive machinery being able to keep up.

Credit hours spent tuning this car to set the front-wheel-drive record at the Nurburgring, three-mode adjustable damping, an engine that’s almost certainly underrated for power, a helical limited slip differential and an unintrusive brake-based torque vectoring system. The combination of turbocharged torque and VTEC top-end punch make for an unbeatable one-two punch. Grab the spherical shifter for the manual gearbox (the only offering), grab a quick rev-matched downshift, and the Type R darts through turns in a manner that would make Dr. Honda himself beam with delight. It’ll certainly have you grinning.

Golf R: Thus far, the Volkswagen product has excelled with grown-up styling and a luxury-oriented interior. Here’s the bad news: the R can’t quite keep up with Honda’s performance effort.

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The engine offers plenty of punch and the Haldex all-wheel drive means that the Golf R has all-weather grip for any occasion. There’s a six-speed manual as the base transmission, and while it shifts sweetly, the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox is a better match for the character of the car.

Where the Civic feels happiest when driven in the sort of juvenile manner its styling suggests, the Golf R isn’t meant for 10/10ths hooliganism. It’s really quick, but its all-wheel drive is a helper to a front-drive bias, rather than something truly track-focused. The ride isn’t all that much more comfortable than the Civic either.

However, do they hand out trophies on your commute? The Golf R isn’t as sharp as the Civic Type R and wouldn’t be a first choice for track work. However, it’s only a step or two behind in real world pace and the option of a dual-clutch gearbox makes for a great all-rounder.

Technology

Type R: As with the Civic Si, the Type R gets a bunch of fun track-spec toys for its instrument panel, including a centrally mounted shift light. There’s also a nifty automatic rev-matching system that’s useful if you’re just learning a track and want to focus on what you’re doing with the wheel – note that you have to engage the emergency brake to turn the system on and off, which is a bit clunky.

Speaking of clunky, the Honda’s interface system still lags behind rivals. The Accord’s touchscreen is competitive, but the Type R has the same issues as most Civics, including occasionally confusing menus. On the plus side, it comes bundled with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and proficiency would come with repeated use.

Golf R: Volkswagen has put more effort into the ergonomics of its interface system – and it shows. The touchscreen is quick, with a brief zoom feature as your hand gets close to it, making selections easier. Then there are clever Volkswagen touches, such as the flip-up rear camera that never gets obscured by dirt, even in poor weather.

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This tester was equipped with Volkswagen’s optional driver assist package, which includes automated emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring and automatic high beams. Everyday driving life is made easier by the automatic adaptive cruise control and front and rear parking sensors.

Cargo

Type R: As it’s based on the Civic hatchback, the Type R gets a huge 727.7-litre trunk and folding rear seats. If you want to haul a spare set of competition-spec tires, jack and toolkit to your local autocross or racetrack, it has plenty of room.

Golf R: As you’d expect from the hottest Golf, it’s still a Golf. That means 646 litres of useful space for groceries and an easy-to-use latch system for installing car seats. It’s extremely livable as a day-to-day proposition.

The Verdict

Type R: The Civic Type R backs up its crazy anime-rocketship looks with blistering performance. The surprise is in how useful and comfortable it is. I’d be inclined to ditch the 20-inch wheels, install a set of 18-inch alloys with a high-quality extreme summer performance tire and sign up for as many weekend lapping sessions as time and budget will allow.

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The Golf R has enough space to function as a family hauler.

Brendan McAleer

Golf R: However, if you don’t spend every weekend at the racetrack, the Golf R is simply the better all-around hot hatchback. It has space enough to function as a family hauler, as much performance as you could ever want on the street, all-weather capability, and an interior and exterior that’s for the grown-ups in the crowd. R may be the raciest letter out there, but sometimes it’s better to whisper it, rather than shout.

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