Genuine game-changers generally come along in broad intervals. With hot hatches, however, the pace of change is thrusting forward like a turbo engine piling on boost.
Three years ago the Volkswagen Golf R finally muscled its way past its Golf GTI sibling to offer 206kW and deliver 5.0sec 0-100km/h performance for around $50K. Its all-wheel drive system finally sent more power to the rear wheels, and its adaptive suspension could be tepid or tenacious at the press of a button.
It made traditional foes, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X and Subaru WRX STi, seem needlessly harsh with precious little reward. It also made the Renault Megane RS – which three years earlier re-wrote the front-drive handling rulebook – feel like it was superb for $43K, but less so for $50K-plus. This was the big league for small cars.
Enter the Ford Focus RS. It produces 257kW and claims a 4.7sec 0-100km/h for $50,990 (plus on-road costs). It also boasts an all-wheel drive system that can assist the driver to slide the vehicle as though it’s a rear-drive muscle car in a hatch outfit.
And look at the jutted jawline of the Nitrous Blue five-door. Beside its Pure White foe, with its mere licks of matte-silver trim, there hasn’t been a greater contrast between two candidates since the US presidential election. Like that disparate duo, it’s hard to believe these models emerge from the same country – in this instance, Germany.
Ford Focus RS ($50,990 plus on-road costs)
Volkswagen Golf R ($55,490 plus on-road costs)
Volkswagen recently added leather trim with front seat heating to its Golf R, which is now priced from $52,990 (plus orc) with a six-speed manual or $55,490 (plus orc) for the more popular six-speed ‘DSG’ dual-clutch automatic as tested here.
Our test car also added a $1500 driver assistance package with adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitor and low-speed automatic emergency braking (AEB), and an $1850 panoramic electric sunroof. Total? A hefty $58,840 (plus orc).
None of the above is available in the Ford, but don’t otherwise look to the standard features list to separate this pair.
The Focus RS is a manual-only offering, but our test car came to $53,490 (plus orc) via the addition of a $2500 performance wheel package that replaces the standard 19-inch alloy wheels and Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres with a lighter, gloss-black forged-alloy variety with even grippier Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber.
In this contest, the biggest question is whether the big-talking bravado of the RS is enough to best the comfortable, established R that might lack an ‘S’ on its badge, yet still doubles to be a strong performing, dynamically superb offering.
Inside – and around town – is where any performance Volkswagen Golf has long managed to poke early, cutting jabs at rivals. However, it’s now too simplistic to argue that a GTI and R are merely the ‘all rounders’.
If anything the Golf R cabin starts to feel strained approaching $60K. Its limited edition front-wheel drive Golf GTI 40 Years sibling set a new precedent for performance for the price, offering essentially the same power and torque outputs as this all-paw model grade but from $48,990 (plus orc) in DSG form.
For another $6500 – before options – the piano-black trim starts to appear plain, the monochromatic trip computer screen looks dated, the lid covering the storage tray beneath the climate controls feels flimsy, and the rear door trims are hard.
Put another way, a further $7500 buys an Audi S3 with a near-identical engine and transmission to this Golf R but with a markedly more upmarket cabin. Relative to cousins above and below it, this flagship Volkswagen hatchback feels squeezed.
Either in isolation or against its rival here, however, the Golf R delivers in true-to-form fashion a greater number of positives than negatives inside.
Blue lighting is a signature-R colour in the same way that red is for a GTI, and its illumination on the door sills/trim and speedometer/tachometer needles is alluring. The sports steering wheel is a delight to hold, the seating position and trim quality are faultless, the back seat is deeply padded and spacious, and there are even air-vents for rear riders.
Volkswagen’s 6.5-inch touchscreen is smaller than the 8.0-inch unit in the Ford, but both are similarly effortless to operate, have great satellite navigation systems with intuitive voice control operation and competitive connectivity – the Focus RS exclusively gets digital radio; the Golf R uniquely scores Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring technology (although its rival will imminently add that feature).
The Blue Oval product otherwise feels very cheap inside. Its plastics and seat trim (part-leather/Alcantara) quality are noticeably inferior, the back bench is flatter and less accommodating, there are no rear air-vents, and the boot is smaller.
By far the best aspect of its cabin are the wonderfully snug Recaro front seats that provide greater cornering support than the Golf’s and are also surprisingly comfortable around town. By some margin the worst aspect, however, is the lack of even manual height adjustment that positions the driver in a towering position completely at odds with this vehicle’s sporting intent.
At least the general ergonomics are fine, the gearshifter falls neatly to hand, the pedals are well spaced and the steering wheel is similarly sweet. But in the first round, the status quo remains firmly intact.
ON THE ROAD
A light cruise from Sydney over the Blue Mountains and onwards to some of the smoothest, bumpiest, tightest and most flowing roads should be exactly enough to sort out the performance and dynamic rankings of this German hot hatch duo.
First, however, the Focus RS is making a merely decent impression around town.
The previous RS was a snarling turbocharged five-cylinder monster with an exhaust note to melt ears like the acid-green paint seared eyeballs. The new four-cylinder sounds gravelly in an industrial-machinery way, with no tailpipe pops and crackles in the default Normal mode.
Ford absurdly insists the Focus RS defaults to Normal on each start-up. Not only is noise reduced, but throttle response is soft, even doughy. It makes thumbing the Drive Mode button – twice, no less – to ascend to Sport mandatory after every stop.
Sport isn’t an aggressive mode, but it offers the progressive throttle response and subtly crackling exhaust expected of a high-end hot hatchback. There is little need to further go to Race or Drift modes, which Ford requests be reserved for a racetrack.
In whichever mode, the Focus can be caught off boost below 3000rpm, despite the claim that its peak torque of 440Nm is produced from 1600rpm until 5000rpm. The steering is nicely mid-weighted but also a touch artificial either side of centre, with a brief blank patch the previous model’s razor-sharp set-up would not entertain.
Surprisingly the Ford’s two-mode adaptive suspension proves an urban highlight. In its standard setting the ride quality is tough yet sophisticated in the way it rounds off harsh edges such as potholes. It is wound tight into the ground, yet threading through tight backstreets is as delightful as when the engine comes on boost, the manual slipping superbly through each slot.
While few buyers select a Golf R manual, the popular dual-clutch isn’t a sizeable hindrance to proceedings. The lack of a touchy-feely shift action is a major loss, and the auto can be too relaxed in Drive and too frenetic in Sport. However, any turbo lag goes virtually unnoticed and despite lesser outputs (including 380Nm between 1800rpm and 5100rpm) the DSG-equipped 2.0-litre feels not a bit slower.
And – joy of joys – the Volkswagen even remembers the driver’s adaptive suspension, steering, automatic and throttle preferences on each start up. This is despite the most aggressive Race mode still being more pliant than its rival’s standard mode, while the alternative Comfort and Normal settings offer slightly softer and firmer shades of smooth compliance, respectively.
Beyond urban confines, it doesn’t take long for the Ford to find its natural habitat. When driven with even slight intent, it comes alive and starts to feel forceful around where its peak 257kW is delivered at 6000rpm.
The steering, too, threads a wonderfully incisive and sharp path, even rippling feedback through to the driver on bumpy roads. The suspension is properly battle-hardened, treating bumps like a boxer refusing to wilt after thousands of upper cuts. There is absolute control yet the Focus RS continues to round off sharp edges.
The great blue hulk’s breadth of cornering abilities proves most stunning, however. It can change direction and string together right-angle corners with unflinching immediacy, relying on chassis agility and tyre grip. Yet thanks to its all-paw system, even in Sport with Sport stability control mode engaged, it permits anything between neutral behaviour and generous oversteer depending on the throttle position.
Simply load the outside front tyre in a corner – and the Michelins possess staggeringly high limits – then dab the throttle to tighten proceedings. It is incisive, adjustable and supremely rewarding.
Swapping to the Golf R isn’t exactly a deflation, but there are differences.
Although it has 206kW between 5100rpm and 6500rpm, the engine’s note is deeper and the DSG again keeps it on the ball to make the Volkswagen if anything feel quicker thanks to rifle-delivery gear changes and tightly packed ratios. Only sometimes, the Ford can revv too hard in second gear, but is too relaxed in third.
The steering is immediately slower and less responsive, however, and the suspension in either Normal or Race starts to crash and thump over bumps the Focus RS shrugs off in that primed, prize-fighter way.
Although it wears tyres of identical width (235mm) and profile (35 aspect) the Continental ContiSportContact5 tyres on the Golf R lack the (dry weather) grip of the Focus RS, resulting in softer turn-in and earlier squeal and squirm.
Although it sends greater drive to the rear wheels than before, the all-paw system remains passive in its delivery.
For best results the Volkswagen’s front-end needs to be massaged hard into the surface, and steering input demands aggression to shift weight distribution rearward. At this point adding throttle will subtly tug the hatchback into a neutral position for a fast cornering exit that would leave a Golf GTI 40 Years some distance behind; even with a limited-slip differential (LSD), corner exits require patience in the front-driver.
The trade-off is that the 1435kg R never quite feels as light on its feet as the 1365kg 40 Years, and if all this sounds intense then it’s worth remembering that cheaper sibling offers all the benefits of this Golf with only slightly less focused results.
Somehow the 1524kg Ford also feels more nimble. It doesn’t embarrass the Volkswagen or remove the feeling that it remains a superb driver’s car. But what it does is simply enhance and extend the accessibility of near-supercar levels of handling ability for a price more mortals can entertain.
The Golf R is superb, but the Focus RS is astonishing and jaw-dropping, a red-hot hatchback that manages to only come up short by leaving the driver short of breath.
TMR VERDICT | Who wins the AWD hot hatch showdown?
Volkswagen will imminently reveal its ‘Mark 7.5’ Golf R facelift. Interestingly, cousin Audi has already debuted its facelifted S3 equivalent citing an all-wheel drive system that delivers even more power to the rear wheels. Three years ago the R redefined this end of the hot hatchback market, but especially with the 40 Years hot on its tail, it feels as though it’s again time for this flagship Golf to leap up another flight of stairs.
With auto availability, a more comfortable cabin, superior urban ride comfort, better ergonomics and extra space for the family, the R will appeal to a greater number of buyers in the same way that every Golf GTI does. It remains more than just the ‘all rounder’ and embarrasses anyone who purports the Golf-is-vanilla cliché.
The Ford is not perfect. Overcome its drive mode issues, its high driving position and slight turbo lag, however, and although it also cedes some visceral appeal to the previous model, the Focus RS stretches the hot hatchback boundaries significantly.
Put another way, the last vehicle we tested on identical roads was a BMW M2, a $100K coupe that brings a modicum of supercar ability to below where an entry-level Porsche Cayman kicks off. The personality and agility of the Ford Focus RS is extremely reminiscent of that fellow German through corners tight and wide.
The pace of change in the hot hatchback segment really is that brisk.
- Ford Focus RS – 4.5 stars
- Volkswagen Golf R – 4.0 stars
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