Polar Opposite Front Drivers: Civic Type-R (FD2R) and MkV GTI In the Malaysian Highlands

It’s the Muslim fasting month and a consistent chant from a nearby mosque starts to drift into the hotel room at the break of dawn. A sharp chill lingers around Fraser’s Hill as a sleepy haze refuses to relinquish its grip on the Malaysian highlands. I sit awake, wondering about what lay ahead in the day – tackling mountain passes in a 225PS 2.0-litre naturally aspirated legend, the Civic Type-R, against the quintessential Euro hot hatch, a 2.0-litre turbocharged favourite, the Golf GTI. They are polar opposites, philosophies that clash with each other in nearly every way possible – and I am here 572 kilometres from home to celebrate the greatness of both. I jump out of bed to get ready for motoring heaven.

Front wheel drive (FWD) cars have always bore the brunt of criticism from hardcore enthusiasts. They have a point – not one supercar in mind, or one that you would want to drive, gets power through the front wheels only. Coupling the role of steering and putting power down to the front wheels would overwhelm even the most sophisticated of FWD cars. It is an unenviable task, one that usually gave way to more capable RWD or AWD cars that coped with it better. But there is an enduring appeal to a fast FWD, one that hasn’t faded in the modern world. They are usually cheaper, much more practical in interior layout and in the real world, giving proper pace and daily drivability. We brought together two completely different interpretations of a fast FWD to show that there are more ways than one to have fun.

Our proving ground was Fraser’s Hill. Well, actually not really – when we discovered that the road uphill was way too narrow for fast driving, we started to look elsewhere. At the base of Fraser’s were excellent flowing B-roads – nearby Bukit Tinggi also offered the same, but in a mountainous configuration. The most thrilling tarmac for me was Genting Highlands, which was an immensely wide A-road that snaked all the way from Kuala Lumpur into the cool and devious cloud cover above 1800m. It was beyond epic, proving to me that Southeast Asia had its staggeringly beautiful roads as well that could easily rival anything from the UK.

First, the Honda. There are some FWD cars that defy common convention. The FD2R is one car that puts away all pre-conceived notions about FWD – understeer, lack of grip, torque steer – and then shoves you into one thrill to the next. The lack of torque from the revered K20A is a blessing in disguise, for 215Nm will hardly overwhelm the front wheels, if at all. To reach that figure necessitates that you get the engine working to 6,100 rpm where it peaks, after which you hold on longer to extract all the power you can when VTEC kicks in. So definitely no torque steer issues here; on paper, the stats would make a modern direct injection turbo-diesel gloat with laughter.  With a torque-light engine, the front wheels have actually more dedication to getting grip down; going through the same corner which would have gotten the GTI screeching its tyres and struggling to keep on the road, the FD2R felt immensely composed, as if it was just on its way to a local supermarket. Don’t mistake that for docility though – that composure comes at the fiery sensation of a VTEC-soaked soundtrack, an unforgiving ride and a notoriously short gearing. You will break a sweat wherever you go in the FD2R, make no mistake about it.

Up the hills of Bukit Tinggi (which by the way is also used for time attack events once a year), the FD2R had its work cut out. Mustering every single horsepower from its K20A was necessary to make the climb. Any driving done without the car on VTEC made it as slow as any other car on the road; the difference felt behind the driving seat both shocking and telling at the same time. This isn’t a car made to pot about below 2,000 rpm in luxury; you have to work hard with the car to give you the sort of thrills that absolutely nothing in its segment can provide. The engine is special, the chassis making full use of it and asking for more, coaxing the driver to push it harder and harder with every apex. There is no other FWD car quite like it.

The GTI doesn’t bend logic. It understeers. It torque steers until you’re instilled with a primal fear of hedges and wild dogs skipping past the road. And, coming with 272 bhp and 370 Nm in the particular one I drove, there is a definite need to trim the throttle carefully to drive on the edge of grip, because it is so easy to lose it all in an instant. But guess what, there is a genuine joy when you want to drive fast but with ruthless efficiency. Where you have to time your shifts perfectly and blip like what Soichiro Honda expects of you in the FD2R, you can ride on the wave of torque in the GTI between a leisurely 3,000-4,000rpm between every corner and going out of them. There is less fuss, less legwork needed – but a lot of marvelling at what turbocharging and a dual-clutch gearbox can do nowadays, marrying practicality with staggering cross-country pace. Sure, understeer is always lingering in the back of my mind, but it can be dialed away with proper throttling and gauging the amount of grip available, so you don’t overdo it. Even with that restraint, the car is already plenty quick, giving the FD2R a hard time. There is no doubt about it – in the hands of a professional, the FD2R is easily unrivalled except by the very best of the breed. But in the hands of common men like us, the GTI is the faster real-world car.

The GTI made its point on the long-distance trip (read more about this highway I took, here) from Singapore to the Malaysian highlands – its ability to cruise easily at speed and with first-rate damping from the suspension allowed it to completely clobber the FD2R on the highway. It just pulled so much quicker for overtaking, made its occupants relaxed and ready for the destination, provided excellent fuel economy and unmatched tractability. How it manages to combine this cross-country pace with an impressive B-road performance is its secret recipe, the thing that made the GTI such a legend.

Both Honda and Volkswagen have distinct concepts about what makes a fun FWD car. Although they appeal to distinctly different camps, they both prove a point – FWD cars are no lesser than their RWD and AWD counterparts, just different. On a winding road or on the track, I think I would take the keys to the FD2R. It just felt more at home attacking the corners and more rewarding when you gave it your all. But in the process, it also made the driver worse for wear, as if it was hard labour driving the car. The GTI, in complete opposite, felt like the more supreme daily driver – its breadth of talents simply cannot be matched by the FD2R at all. Where the FD2R has a singular, one-track determination to its purpose and strength, the GTI seemed to be able to do everything rather well. It all boils down to this when you have to decide: what do you use the car for?


Author: James Wong

The only writer to be based in Asia, James provides a refreshingly different perspective to the automotive industry with his unique experience of living in the Far East. He is a prolific journalist who has written for several leading automotive publications in Singapore, including Torque Singapore and REV Magazine Singapore. He believes in the thrill of driving and champions for an appreciation of driving pleasure above the horsepower race. In September 2010, James relocated to the United Kingdom, London, bringing him to a whole new environment from which to start a new chapter in automotive journalism.

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