Battle of the hot hatches: Ford Focus RS vs. VW Golf R


Nature abhors a vacuum, but she sure loves boost. With the five-door version of the Subaru STI dead for the present, here are two of the hottest hatchbacks on the planet, eager to muscle in on supersonic Subie territory. To figure out which is best at filling the STI's niche, we took both up to Squamish, home of Subaru's rally team and some of the best backroads in British Columbia.

Neither car is a newcomer, strictly speaking more a couple of European imports that finally made it through customs. Overseas, fast Ford fans have had the option of picking up an RS-designation car for decades. Usually, the new owners immediately did donuts in a car park at midnight. The Focus RS has a DNA made for hooliganism and it looks like it you 'avin' a giggle, mate? 'Ow 'bout a clip 'round the ear?

The Golf R, on the other hand, is the product of a more genteel evolution. Americans got the VR6-powered R32 some years back, and Canadians finally got the ultimate Golf with the previous-generation R.

This new seventh generation turns up the wick to a respectable 292 horsepower, but doesn't look all that wild from the outside. The Tornado red paint is a bit Achtung Baby, but aside from 19-inch wheels and a chin spoiler, you're looking at a $45,000 GTI. Sorry, didn't mean to make you choke on your sauerkraut.

Let's start with the $50,000 Focus instead. Oh, dear. Are you going to be all right? Should I try the Heimlich manoeuvre? I should really have asked you to stop eating before revealing the price tag.

Yes, that's brand-new Bimmer money for a compact hatchback, but anyone who shells out for one of these smurf-blue hellions is in for the time of their lives. It's flared out and fanged, with a front end that looks like a man-eating catfish.

An enormous rear diffuser houses two exhaust cannons (you can't just call them pipes), and the black-painted 19-inch alloys are shod in the same track-ready Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires you get on the Shelby GT350. Or a Porsche 918 Spyder. The four-layer paint's called Nitrous Blue, and one of the optional drive modes is called Drift Mode. I wonder if the Bluetooth comes preprogrammed with Dominic Toretto's cell number.

Squeeze into the RS's ridiculously right Recaro seats, and it's a Focus. That means you get an interior that competes with stuff like the Honda Civic. It does not look like a $50,000 car in here, but hey, a boost gauge! Also, ow, these seats! If you are Taylor Swift, the Ford's Recaros will probably be nicely comfortable. If, however, you've eaten a hamburger sometime in the last decade, you're going to get pinched. It's like being squeezed in the palm of a not-very-attentive BFG. The seats are silly, but they fit the character of the RS perfectly.

Swap into the Golf R, synapses still fritzing with Nitrous Blue sparks, and it's a whole different game. While the Focus was developed in Cologne, the Golf R feels distinctly more Germanic. Actually, it feels like somebody re-skinned an Audi as a Volkswagen. Forty-five grand is a lot to pay for a VW, but if you ignore the badges, this interior doesn't feel like you're spending all your money on the powertrain.

Instead of race-spec seating, the Golf's seats feel more balanced between comfort and sport. The interior's a little bigger, too, and airier, despite lacking a sunroof. The central touchscreen is no easier to use than the Ford's, but it looks nicer.

Also, this particular car has VW's DSG dual-clutch six-speed and an optional tech pack that includes adaptive cruise control. Luxury and technology department: advantage VW.

And when it comes to performance, the VW stands up to the ebullient Ford. Theoretically down on power by 58 horsepower, the Golf R throws down 0-100 km/h times that are quicker, thanks to the rapid shifts of the DSG. And it's not just the transmission, either; trap-speeds in the quarter-mile are often an indication of total power, and R has equalled RS in instrumented testing.

Enough bench racing. Selecting the Golf R's Race mode (good grief, couldn't they have just called it Sport?), we bomb down the same slithery, scaly road, working the paddleshifters to stir the 2.0-litre turbo four up. Power output for the R is 292 horsepower at 5,400 rpm, and torque is more accessible with 280 lb-ft coming in at 1,800 rpm.

The Golf R is more composed and unflappable, but less thrilling and grippy. The ride is better than the Ford's occasionally choppy suspension, but the VW's engine has less character.

Which one's the best STI replacement? The RS has all the brutish, unfiltered fun you'd expect from a rally-bred Subaru; it's an impressive engineering achievement and the closest cousin, just in a different shade of blue. However, as somebody who owns an STI hatchback, I've come to an unsettling conclusion.

I'd spend my money on the less-raw Golf R. It's slightly clinical in delivery, but the standard six-speed manual should dial up the driver engagement. The Ford would have the edge for on-track durability, and it has the better all-wheel-drive system. However, a large portion of its superior grip is thanks to its low treadwear rating rubber.

It's a question of track-Focus versus real-world usability. Would you rather have Drift Mode and bright paint, or sleeper status, technology and comfort to soothe you in everyday traffic? Until Subaru sees the light and offers a hot hatchback again, the Golf R feels like the grownup's choice. Nature, after all, favours a balanced approach.

Read more on The Globe and Mail.

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