Twin test: Honda Civic Type R v Abarth 124 Spider

Twin test: Honda Civic Type R v Abarth 124 Spider
Twin test: Honda Civic Type R v Abarth 124 Spider

It’s wrong to assume that just because you have £30,000 to spend on a car, you’ll look at two very similar models and make a judgement. Yes, some might think a Honda Civic Type R is a contender – but it’s not a given that they’ll look at other hot hatchbacks as well.

They might just consider something else entirely. Such as… an Abarth 124 Spider two-seater sports car.

So we’ve brought both together, to see how they measure up. Right from the off, you might make another assumption. That the Honda will trounce the Abarth. But, again, hold on. Here, we’re looking at pure driving pleasure, not just ferocious engine power and tenacious handling. The very fact one is a two-seat rear-drive roadster might just give it the edge over a five-seat, five-door hot hatch.

But what a hot hatch it is. We drove the Honda first, and it reminded us of just what a magnificent machine Honda’s given us here. This is old-school Honda brilliance, a model from a clearly car-crazy firm that at times leaves you speechless at just what it can do. It’s fast, engaging and exceptionally good fun.

How can the 124 Spider even hope to compare? Not through engine appeal, that’s for sure. The turbocharged motor is Fiat-derived and, to be stark, largely sounds flatulent. It’s not a sports car dream and is not a patch on the brilliant non-turbo 2.0-litre in the car this model’s derived from, the Mazda MX-5.

Then again, you’re sitting nice and low in it, unlike the raised-up seat of the Honda, and it’s snug and sporting in an authentically thoroughbred way. The gearbox is fantastic, the chassis is balanced and it feels sweet and lightweight. Even the ride is surprisingly decent, although the steering doesn’t quite have the feel of the Mazda.

It certainly doesn’t have the speed of the Honda. With 0-62mph in 5.8 seconds, the Abarth driver won’t see which way the Type R pilot went – and this is doubly impressive when you remember all this Honda power is delivered through the front wheels. Somehow, though, once the initial shock of the difference has subsided, it starts to not matter. Because the Abarth is a car that rewards being really, properly driven.

It is sharp and alert, energised and packed with feel. It’s more compact than the Civic, feels more precise, offers the wonderful additional repertoire of good old-fashioned rear-drive fun. Abarth’s even fitted a standard limited-slip differential, enabling you to slide it with glorious abandon. And because there’s not an excess of tyre grip, you can do this at relatively sane speeds. Alongside it, the Civic can feel, at times, a bit of an elephant.

This gives us a conundrum. One is exceptional in the real world, rain or shine, on busy roads and quiet ones. And up to four people can come along for the ride. The other is a decidedly selfish machine, one that doesn’t work all the time but, when you find the right conditions, is a bit of a star.

We’re going to call them both winners, then. The Abarth is the moral victor, and the Civic Type R is the overall winner. Which you pick is down to personal preference – whether you want the best pure driver’s car or the finest overall performance machine. Nobody ever said spending £30,000 on a car would be easy…

1: Honda Civic Type R – a triumphant return to form for the sportiest fast hatch

2: Abarth 124 Spider – a traditionalist’s roadster that needs a better engine

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