2016 Ford Focus RS, 2015 Subaru WRX STI, and 2016 Volkswagen Golf R

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From the May 2016 issue

Europe gave us the hot hatchback and so we wanted to return the favor, choosing the Continent for our first comparison of the eagerly awaited Ford Focus RS. We took a car from the media launch in Valencia, Spain, and headed over the border to France, enabling us to use both Michelin's test track at Salon-de-Provence and some of the region's more spectacular mountain roads. This is where we find out if this four-wheel-drive superhero can possibly live up to the hype that's been heaped on its bulging shoulders.

This is also a welcome chance to confirm many of the stereotypes we hold so dear about France and the French, none of which is truer than the national characteristic for double standards. This is the European country that whines loudest about American cultural imperialism, yet every McDonald's franchise here is packed six deep. And during our visit, it was reported that the former French *government minister responsible for fighting tax evasion had just gone on trial for tax evasion. Yet perhaps the greatest proof of Gallic hypocrisy came in the warmth of the *welcome we received and the polite interest that the natives, most of whom drive underpowered diesels, expressed in our relatively exotic trio. What has happened to France's fabled snobbishness?

On paper, the RS arrives with a clear advantage. Its 2.3-liter engine, based on the one in the Mustang EcoBoost, is tuned to deliver 350 horsepower. It sends this effort roadward through a transmission system smart enough to have earned its own doctorate, with separate electronically controlled clutches distributing torque to each rear wheel. At $36,605 before options, it's more than twice the price of a basic Focus S sedan. And although standard equipment includes a touchscreen interface, Recaro sport seats, and keyless entry, there's still plenty of potential to add to that. Our car emerged from the calculator at $40,085 as tested.

Ridiculous, maybe, but that's what you have to spend in this segment. The Volkswagen Golf R costs an almost identical $36,470 in base four-door manual form, and $40,010 with options. With a 292-hp version of Volkswagen's 2.0-liter turbocharged four, it's down on power compared with the RS and has a less advanced Haldex four-wheel-drive system that can't match the Ford's clever torque biasing. The R is the only car here available with an automatic option-Volkswagen's familiar six-speed dual-clutch DSG-but resisting it, as we would urge you to, saves $1100 and 80 pounds.

Finally, an outlier: the Subaru WRX STI, distinguished from the others by the fact that it's a sedan rather than a hatchback, and because Subaru has somehow managed to supply us with a U.S.-spec car on Illinois dealer tags. With no front license plate of any kind, it should make any encounter with les gendarmes interesting. The WRX shares the same mechanical *layout that Subaru has championed for decades, as if it were presented to them by the Almighty on carved tablets. A turbocharged flat-four supplies power to all *corners through a center differential with front-to-rear adjustable torque bias on the STI, and with limited-slip diffs at each end. For $35,490 to start, it's slightly cheaper than the others, but a comprehensive options workout makes it the priciest car here when *sampled, as they say in France, a la carte.
The Haute and the Hatch

France is the home of gastronomy, so while in Provence we sampled some of the local cuisine:

  • McDonald's, Salon-de-Provence McDonald's corporate standards trump nationalistic fashion sense. Both the sommelier/cashier and the bustling maitre d' wear the team uniform: garish top, black pants a few inches too short, black shoes, white socks. The sommelier recommends the Coke Light, vintage unknown. Fondue and mushrooms on the “American Winter” menu suggest a limited understanding of U.S. dining customs.
  • Presto Pizza, Salon-de-Provence Recommended to us by the fact that it is open late. The proprietor resembles Tony Danza and has sired at least 50 percent of his staff. Language difficulties mean we aren't entirely sure what we order-cheval and langue de boeuf sounded particularly delicious.
  • Boulangerie, Patisserie Banette Mazan, Mazan France's restaurants are all fermé for Sunday lunch. The entire remaining stock of this small bakery consists of a single sausage roll served au froid avec hauteur.
  • McDonald's, Salon-de-Provence (again)


Our fare the first time was suspiciously edible, so we returned unannounced. We try the burger fromage pané et fondant and the McWrap fromage pané. The former is a fried cheese log on a bun; the latter is a cheese log in a wrap. Not even French McDonald's does cheese logs to equal our gold standard, Sysco. Attempts to order a Royale with Cheese are met with blank stares, as is our inquiry, “English, motherfker! Do you speak it?!”

You're more likely to meet a French vegetarian than a European Subaru. Last year, the brand sold just 41,000 cars across the entire continent, fewer than it moves in a typical month on the American side of the Atlantic. Strange, then, that the STI seemed to be recognized pretty much everywhere we took it. One middle-aged lady working in a gas station successfully identified it after hearing no more than its flat-four burble: “C'est un Subaru?” A function, we presume, of conducting this test in what is very much rally country, with one of our chosen roads, the spectacular route des gorges de la Nesque and its vertiginous drops, frequently serving as a special stage.

Yet the Subaru proved to have no advantage on what should be its favored terrain, feeling very much like the odd one out in this company, and not just because of its three-box design. To be *honest, it felt outmatched by these polished hatches. It's a point brutally made by poor road surfaces. Following the STI in the Golf R produced the odd sensation of experiencing the Subaru's crashy ride by proxy, wincing in sympathy as it rode over crested surfaces with all the composure of a French military retreat. The Golf would read that same road as smooth just a couple of seconds later.

It's loud and rough and generally uncouth, but the STI is basically just as quick as the more powerful Ford Focus RS.

Subaru has stuck to a formula that has served it well; if you've driven one of the company's turbocharged products in the last 20 years, the STI feels instantly familiar. Worked hard, it is impressively quick, the 4.7-second zero-to-60-mph time just a tenth of a second behind the Focus RS. And the Subaru is faster to 100 mph and ties the Ford's 13.4-second quarter-mile time. But you have to dig for those numbers. At low revs, the engine is lethargic and there's a noticeable pause as boost builds-a lack of flexibility evinced by the difference between its zero-to-60-mph and 5-to-60-mph jaunts, which is double the differences of its rivals.

The rest of the driving experience is complementary, meaning somehow harder than it should be. Besides the punishing ride, there's also the handling. We've never noticed the STI understeering before, but against the Velcro Focus and the agile Golf, it felt distinctly front-end loose with no sense of power-on adjustability, even with the center differential instructed to send the majority of torque rearward. At the limit, the STI seemed to give up early, running surprisingly wide at lower speeds. You can travel quickly in the Subaru, but it's never a relaxing journey.

And just look at the thing. Subaru is long overdue for a handsome car, and the STI is not it. The body's lines and creases seem to have been added almost at random, as if styling were coordinated via conference call on a bad line on a Friday before a holiday. The interior feels low-rent in this company, especially against the Golf, with cheap-feeling materials and mismatched fonts and varying brightness levels in the different display screens. Were it substantially cheaper than its rivals, we could forgive many of its foibles, but its optioned price is the highest here. Time has moved on; the STI has not.

Believe the hype, and the Focus RS-hallowed be its name-should have destroyed the Golf R the way a flamethrower destroys a snowball. But it didn't. Despite lacking 58 horsepower and a clever torque-splitting rear axle, the Volkswagen managed to run the Ford to a remarkably close finish on both the track and the road.

Acceleration numbers make the R the slowest car in this test, just above five seconds for the zero-to-60 sprint. But savings made on the other side of its power-to-weight atio mean the difference feels less than the raw numbers suggest. At 3292 pounds, the Volks*wagen is the lightest car here by 154 pounds; that difference is evident in the way the R stops, goes, and turns. It's also worth noting that in a previous test, the dual-clutch version was actually quicker than the numbers we just recorded for the STI and Focus.

In terms of outright grip, the R's peak 0.95 g was short of the Focus RS's, but the two cars produce nearly identical speeds in the slalom, a measure of both the R's agility and the confidence it instills in its driver. And on-road, the R delivers effortless pace. The engine responds with a *linearity that puts a carpenter's ruler to shame, pulling strongly from where the Subaru is still gasping in a boostless hinterland and carrying on all the way to the fuel cutoff. The 2.0's flexibility means it feels at least as fast as the Focus at a real-world pace, heaving hard and not always needing a downshift to zing it into life. It doesn't sound as good as the others, despite a bass-heavy soundtrack in the cabin that is partially delivered by one of those cheating electronic sound devices.

Though its measured grip levels aren't as high as the RS's, they're still possibly too high. There's little sense of being able to influence the R's cornering attitude with the throttle pedal beyond reining it in when the front starts to run wide. It took the arrival of the sort of rain depicted in one of the gloomier Biblical passages to see the stability-control light illuminated. The R is quick and nimble, with the adaptive chassis system on our test car delivering impressive compliance over broken surfaces in comfort mode and firming up noticeably in race mode. The control weights are less good, with the electrically assisted steering lacking resistance and the pedal and gearshift feeling too light in this company. Overall, this is an effortlessly cool high achiever, the sort that delivers without breaking a sweat. It's Jason Statham as a hatchback.

Sorry, fans of 1990s' car colors, the green paint seen here is not available on U.S.-market Golf Rs. Neither is the fabric upholstery.

The Golf also scores highly on the want-it scale. It looks less aggressive than the RS, but its sculpted flanks and crisp lines *gratify like good architecture. Inside, you'll find the best-looking and nicest-feeling cabin materials. Wolfsburg supplied this press demonstrator fully optioned, including various bits of carbon trim and a shade of paint that-in light of Dieselgate-we dubbed We're Trying Really Hard To Be Green. Despite near price parity with the STI and RS, both unadorned and as tested, the R feels like the classiest car here by a comfortable margin. For many, that will be the deciding factor.

But not for us. Let's start with the criticism, which won't detain us for long. Until you start to drive the Focus RS hard, it doesn't feel much different from the far-cheaper ST. Yes, its body kit is slightly chunkier, its air intakes are larger, and the rear wing is wingier. But apart from some blue-tinted instruments and overly affectionate sport seats, the cabin feels identical to that of its cut-price sister. And, indeed, identical to the $18,000 base model, with grainy plastics and a dashboard layout that seems designed around a requirement to maximize button density per square inch.

Okay, that's it for the gripes. Start to drive the RS and complaints diminish to the scale of French deodorant sales. No, the engine isn't as linear as the Golf's (although top-gear acceleration times are very similar), but the Ford feels brawnier and more exciting, sounding nicer and delivering a fusillade of exhaust pops and bangs on the overrun. While the Focus didn't boast the test-track advantage its power output suggests it should have-we suspect the Subaru's rated horses are very muscular ones-it did record the fastest zero-to-60 time here, albeit by just a tenth of a second. And it remains hard to criticize a hatchback that can turn in a 13.4-second quarter-mile.

Dynamically, the RS is in a different league than the others, maybe even playing a different sport. It's far more exciting than the staid Golf and much more polished than the brutish STI. And this isn't just because of that trick rear axle; it's evident in practically every detail, from the crisp communication of the steering to the predictable weight of the gearshift to the resistance of the brake pedal.

The torque-shuffling back end builds on this. As we've said before, Drift Mode-the setting you select to make you Ken Block-remains little more than an amusing gimmick; it took us less than five minutes of on-track hooning to overheat a tire to disintegration, and, as an indication of where the powertrain sends most of its torque, it was the outside front that melted. (It took a guy six hours to reach us with a replacement tire; sorry, Ford.) The clutched rear axle is effectively a supplemental driving aid, one that works extremely well at eliminating understeer in real-world driving. Power into a turn and, as the front starts to run out of grip, torque heads to the outside-rear wheel to coax the RS back onto its intended line. The result isn't smoking oversteer; rather, the sensation is of the RS being keener to turn as the power*train works to maximize both grip and control but without permitting a serious slide. Proof of how good the system is comes from how little you notice its intervention beyond reduced steering effort on a twisty road, your right foot taking instinctive control of much of the directional input.

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