$40k Fun: Ford Focus ST, MINI Cooper S, VW Golf GTI Performance And Subaru WRX Comparison Test
TMR takes to the hills around Melbourne to put a quartet of small and (mostly) practical performance cars through the wringer. Which will take the crown for all-round best buy?
|Variants Reviewed||Fuel use - l/100km|
|Subaru WRX >||197kW/350Nm||9.2||10.4|
|Ford Focus ST >||184kW/340Nm||7.4||10.6|
|MINI Cooper S >||141kW/280Nm||5.9||7.9|
|VW Golf GTI P >||169kW/350Nm||6.6||10.1|
Say you’ve got a budget of around $40,000 and you want something a bit fun. Something a bit practical, something you won’t tire of driving, and something that oozes cool.
With $40k to spend the choices are many, but we’ve assembled a group of some of the newest small speedsters - as well as an old favourite.
Cheapest here is the $36,950 MINI Cooper S. It’s all-new and trades heavily on its unique design and go-kart handling. The smallest car in this group, it’s also a lot less versatile.
Next is the $38,290 Ford Focus ST. When launched, it redefined what 'good value' meant among hot hatches, offering in excess of 180kW for substantially less that $40k. It’s about halfway through its life cycle now though, so has time robbed it of some of its sheen?
The Subaru WRX, meanwhile, is one of the most impressive sub-$40k performance cars around. It wowed us at its local launch by proving to be a sharp steerer with blistering speed. Priced from $38,990 it offers tremendous bang-for-your-buck value.
And then we have the interloper, the $48,490 Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance. Volkswagen could only provide us with the dearer 'Performance' variant (in base GTI-spec it sits at $41,490).
Even at base spec it's the dearest in this company and the Performance is only available as an automatic. But does spending more necessarily net you a more enjoyable car?
We took all four to some of Victoria’s most enjoyable roads to find out which gave us the most smiles-per-kilometre.
So, ranked on price we have:
1. MINI Cooper S: $36,950
2. Ford Focus ST: $38,290
3. Subaru WRX: $38,990
4. Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance: $48,490 (base-spec GTI manual $41,990)
If all we were assessing was build quality and material quality, the GTI would win convincingly.
The seventh-generation Golf has an interior that bests all other small cars, and could easily pass for something from a more luxurious marque.
The tartan-upholstered seats are also the best here, striking the best balance between comfort and support.
By contrast, the WRX’s flat sports seats don’t hold the body rigidly enough, while the heavily-bolstered Recaros in the Focus are too tight for larger folk.
But the Golf lacks pizzaz inside, and so too the WRX. They’re too sober (the WRX in particular), and if you’re looking for something that catches the eye, they probably won’t be quite what you’re looking for.
The Cooper S has far more visual appeal, and its unique design makes it a fun cockpit.
It’s got style and flair by the bucketful, and there’s tremendous scope for personalisation - a traditional MINI strength. Some of the plastics might not be for everyone, but there is no denying the funkified style.
Our tester came loaded with optional extras like a head-up display ($300), reversing camera ($470), LED headlamps ($1200), sat-nav ($200) and digital radio tuner ($300) plus many, many more options, which conspired to push the retail price to $42,430.
Be selective with your options though, and the Cooper S can be the cheapest in this gang and also one of the best-equipped.
However the Cooper S lacks the outright usability of the others thanks to its size, and is only capable of carrying four people (the rear seats a tad squeezy).
So, if carrying passengers is more important to you than visual flair, then the Subaru’s spacious cabin will probably win you over.
On The Road
On road, the WRX is the one with the immediate wow-factor. From the moment you let out its clutch and squeeze the accelerator, the WRX feels like it’s bursting with energy.
It’s a totally raw experience. And, though the 196kW/350Nm 2.0 litre turbo flat-four is entirely new, there’s still quite a lot of turbo lag down low, just like there was with the old WRX’s boxer motor.
But the surge in power and torque from 2800rpm is one of the WRX’s most endearing assets, and makes it feel even faster than it is.
And how fast is that exactly? Subaru says it’ll dash to 100km/h in 6.0 seconds flat, making it the quickest car here by a wide margin.
The Golf GTI Performance trails it despite its quick-shifting DSG auto, clocking in at 6.4 seconds.
The Focus ST isn’t far behind the Golf at 6.5 seconds, while the Cooper S is the slowest at 6.8 seconds to 100km/h. When it comes to straight-line speed, the hierachy is clear.
But fast isn’t necessarily fun. It certainly adds to the thrill, sure, but we’re here to determine what’s the most enjoyable whip, not the one that’s most likely to shred your licence.
And this is where the WRX starts to falter a little.
The WRX is blessed with a wonderfully direct and fast steering-rack, and it darts keenly into corners. No problems there.
And the extra grip of AWD helped immensely in the wet weather encountered during our test, particularly when powering out of corners. Get aggressive with the throttle on corner exit, and it’s even possible to feel the tail wag sideways.
And that kind of thing can be fun… on a racetrack.
On a confined mountain road in the wet, maybe it’s a little too manic - as if it might bite the hand hard that gets it wrong. Unquestionably fast, but it requires all of your attention to drive quickly.
The Golf GTI Performance sits at the other end of the spectrum - it’s unbelievably easy to pilot quickly.
Part of that comes down to having a twin-clutch DSG automatic gearbox that rarely puts a foot wrong. But it's also the Golf’s incredibly well-sorted stability control tuning and clever limited-slip differential (exclusive to the Performance) - together these endow it with a surprising level of grip for a front-driver.
The result is that it's not that far behind the WRX for point-to-point speed. Its steering is almost as sharp, and though its 169kW/350Nm turbo 2.0 is nearly 30kW down on the WRX, there’s hardly any lag to contend with.
The GTI Performance is a slick package, no doubt about it. The downside is that it tends to filter out a lot of the excitement that comes with that performance potential. Is it too competent? Too refined? Perhaps.
The Focus, on the other hand, is less polished. It’s got more power (184kW) than the Golf but lacks a limited slip differential, and in wet conditions that’s a real handicap.
The traction control software has a hard time reining in wheelspin when applying power with the front wheels turned, and there’s axle tramp aplenty when accelerating in a straight line.
And with the Golf GTI Performance using the same Pirelli tyre compound as the Focus, but with a slightly narrower tread width (225mm versus the Ford’s 235mm), it’s clear how much of a difference a proper LSD makes. It’s night and day.
But to the Focus ST’s credit it has the best steering by far. There’s no slop, the rack ratio is ultra-quick and turn-in is incredibly crisp. It’s just a shame about the lack of traction under power.
The least powerful is the Cooper. With 141kW and 280Nm it’s the David to the WRX’s Goliath, but the Cooper’s lightweight and nimble chassis helps redress the balance.
Its steering isn’t as tactile or so rich in feedback for what's happening at the wheels as the Focus, but it’s wonderfully direct nevertheless.
The Cooper feels alert and alive, but with the narrowest tyres in this group (205 section Hankook Ventus S1 Evo2s), the Cooper had the toughest time dealing with the greasy conditions encountered in this shoot-out.
It would understeer where some of the other cars wouldn’t, and oversteer if you lifted off the power abruptly while turning in. Learn to work with it though, and it just flows beautifully from corner to corner.
In Sport mode the Cooper S is at its best.
The exhaust starts to pop and crackle on the overrun, the steering wheel weights up a notch, the stability control becomes a little more permissive and the engine will automatically rev-match on downshifts.
And while those features don’t necessarily make you faster, they certainly add plenty of theatrics to the Cooper S experience.
- GTI P: 225/35R19 Pirelli P-Zero Nero
- Focus ST: 235/40R18 Pirelli P-Zero Nero
- WRX: 235/45R17 Dunlop Sport Maxx
- Cooper S: 205/45/17 Hankook Ventus S1 Evo2
The Golf GTI Performance, as fast and sophisticated as it is, is maybe too refined to win this competition. In this company it’s a straight-A student, but it lacks some of the raw edge - and some of the brat-pack spirit - of the other contenders here.
But seriously, it's a lot more expensive than the others and, on road, struggles to justify the $10k premium over the WRX, Focus ST and Cooper S. It's a highly capable machine, but the value equation simply isn't right.
The WRX, on the other hand, is a bona-fide bad-boy, and it’s got the biggest muscles by far. It’s a little too feisty when pushing hard though, and too easily steps across the line separating 'fun' from 'frenetic'.
It steers beautifully and has big power for a FWD hot hatch, but it struggles to put all that mumbo down and is nobbled by its open differential.
The interior also needs more refinement, and while yours truly fits snugly into those Recaros, a great chunk of the Australian population wouldn't. Thankfully, the interior is getting a makeover with the upcoming mid-life update.
And that leaves the Cooper S. We weren’t sure if it was going to be able to keep up with the rest of the group, and the decision to include it in this comparo was one that was subject to much debate given its lack of rear doors.
We’re glad we did though, for it surprised and delighted us with its verve and personality. It’s the slowest car here, but it left us with the widest grin.
And as the most affordable contender, it’s also the most sensible buy - though it’s hard to ignore the sheer power-per-dollar offered by the $38,990 WRX.
The Cooper S was also the biggest winner when it came to fuel economy. After a day of thrashing up and down mountains, it showed an average of 7.9 l/100km, making it the only car to drink less than 10.0 l/100km during the test.
Which wins it, then?
For us, it's the Cooper S that gets the gong: the most fun, at the best price.
Now, some of you may cry foul about the GTI Performance, and that throwing a top-spec automatic variant against a group of sub-$40k manual-equipped competitors was always going to work against it.
However, even if it were the base manual GTI, we’d still be looking at a $41,990 vehicle - and one lacking the mechanical LSD that gives the GTI Performance its astonishing grip.
Compared to the others, the GTI also lacks soul.
The WRX, Cooper and Focus all have a distinct flavour and persona, but the GTI just doesn’t. As quick and capable as it is, none of us jumped for the Golf’s keys when the time came to swap cars.
What about the others?
There are undoubtedly a few other contenders that might have been included in this 'fun-factor test', like the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ and Renault Megane RS 265, not to mention smaller fast hatches like the Renault Clio RS and Ford Fiesta ST.
The Renault Megane RS has remarkable performance cred and is perhaps the best FWD hot hatch around.
However, while it is right in the slot on price and performance, its stiffer track-focused suspension means it's not a car for the daily commute.
As for the Clio, Fiesta, 86 and BRZ, that's a head-to-head for another time.
If $40k is your upper limit and you’re looking for something zingy, quick, room for your friends and just plain fun, there is something special about the MINI Cooper S. It really is that enjoyable.