Most comparison tests don’t begin on a quiet, brilliantly curved, sun-dappled road in southern Europe. This one nearly ends there when, surprised to find a UK-registered Volkswagen Golf R, Ford threatens to confiscate the new Ford Focus RS’s keys from us, but that’s another story.
No, this comparison test, like so many others of ours, begins when I climb into a Golf R outside a lock-up near Heathrow on a Friday night after work and prepare to drive across two countries. This is the sort of thing that could give the new Focus RS a really hard time, because when it comes to Golfs in general, and Rs in particular, familiarity breeds anything but contempt.
Yes, you’ll already know the Ford is brilliant if you've visited or read Autocar in the last week/three weeks/six weeks (delete as applicable). But a Golf R is anything but second-rate. Some people might put money on this being a foregone conclusion. I’m not one of ’em before I start, and even less so when I arrive in Valencia.
You find out quite a lot about a car if you drive 1300 miles in two days, even if 98% of it is a cruise-controlled 80mph straight-line schlep. The occasional roundabout and slip road remind you what the Golf R can do when roads turn corners. The rest of the journey reminds you what a Golf is good at all the time, regardless of what letters come after its name.
VW, you see, doesn’t quite have the same ethos as Ford when it comes to its sporting cars. Ford’s ST models’ closest equivalents are VW’s GTIs. STs are usable everyday cars given a passable dynamic makeover. Ford’s RS progamme, though, is something different: the team dispenses with everyday usability and replaces it with focus and keenness. Ford is prepared to give ride quality away to handling; it’ll allow steering corruption if it gives feel and so on.
I suspect, as the miles begin to add up, that they don’t have those kinds of conversations in Wolfsburg. Yes, the Golf R has given some ride quality away to body control and keenness of handling, but it remains an exceptionally easy car in which to drive many hundreds of miles in a day.
Provided, that is, you make full use of its drive modes. The Golf – like the Ford, as we’ll see – has settings that adjust things like damper stiffness, engine note and steering response. Ford wouldn’t dirty itself with the word ‘Comfort’ on an RS, but VW allows it and, although it might be a slight overstatement by Golf SE standards, the R rides acceptably on its 235/35 R19 Bridgestones.
There’s a touch of brittleness to it over the kinds of poor surface that vanish pretty much as soon as you’re on the right-hand driving side of the Channel, but it is always composed and controlled. It steers pleasingly, too: quick at 1.9 turns between locks but, like all German cars I can think of, never nervous, thanks to plenty of high-speed straight-line development work in its homeland.
Ergonomically, it’s as good as it has always been. The driving position is spot on, the steering wheel can be pulled close and the pedals are ideally spaced and perfectly weighted. It’s unusual to find an R with a six-speed manual gearbox rather than the dual-clutch auto, but I’m glad we did. The Focus RS is six-speed manual only, so it keeps their specifications closer.
On the face of it, there’s not so much in their mechanical spec, what with their four-cylinder turbocharged engines, manual gearboxes and all-wheel drive. Even tyre sizes are the same if you go for optional 19s on the Golf.
Where the two differ most is in the unseen oily bits. The Focus’s engine displaces a third of a litre more. It’s a 2.3, not a 2.0, and appropriately develops more power as a result: 345bhp rather than 296bhp. That helps it to an advantage in 0-62mph times (4.7sec versus 5.3sec), but I’m not worried about that. I have never driven a Golf R and decided that it desperately needed more power. What’ll count is how they feel.
And that’s where the differences in their four-wheel drive systems will play their part. Tech bit approaching: VW’s 4Motion system has a longitudinal clutch to divert power to the rear wheels. Theoretically, it’s possible to send 100% of torque back there, but you’d have to have the front wheels on a wet bathtub before the Golf decided the rears were the place to put all the torque. Most of the time, the Golf leads from the front and shuffles power to the back when it wants, and there is a suite of electronic systems that use the stability control system to divert it when it gets there – by pushing power, say, to the outside rear wheel by braking the inside one. We know it’s a good system and we know it pre-empts your corner exit by preparing to send torque to the back even as you turn in. I’ll remind myself how good it is when we get to the same set of corners as the Focus.
The Ford comes with the promise of more mechanical systems in its armoury. Unlike the VW, power is always pushed to the Ford’s rear axle – 70% of it – and it’s from there, where there is an electronically controlled clutch pack each side of the rear differential, that electronics decide how much power the rear axle will use. All 70% of the power can to go to the rear wheels, and up to 100% of that to either side, although most of the time, by slipping and shuffling, it sorts things rather more evenly. Significantly, the focus is on a dominant rear rather than front axle, though. The Golf is the other way around. Will that matter? It might.
Both cars also have adjustable dampers. I’ve kept the VW’s in their softest mode on the way down to Valencia, but as the Focus RS rumbles into view, I figure it’s best to turn it back up. I won’t dwell on the looks, but the Focus RS is a more aggressive-looking machine – more wings and skirts and the like. The colour helps, I’m sure.
Inside the Ford, there isn’t so much to get excited about as there is outside. There are Recaro sports seats, but they sit you high – too high for our testers – and a smaller wheel reach than in the VW means you have to tip the seatback fairly upright. Pedal spacing and the gearshift are still good, though; VW and Ford are both manufacturers who do this sort of thing well. Ergonomically and in terms of perceived quality, the rest of the Focus’s insides give best to the Golf’s, but that’s no great surprise. It might be an issue in a comparison of cooking diesels, but not here, where what matters rather more is the way they go down the road.
I swap into the Focus. Immediately, it shows that it has poise and agility, even with the dampers in their softer mode. The ride is terrifically well controlled yet manages to be so without the underlying brittleness of the VW. Its steering comes in at 2.0 turns between locks but feels more immediately responsive off straightahead than the Golf’s – still with no nervousness, mind. There’s a natural fluidity to both cars’ racks, but the Ford’s is that bit more engaging, more responsive and accurate.
And the Focus is fast. Both cars are plenty quick enough, in all honesty, but the Ford’s extra capacity gives it a more urgent response from low revs. There’s analogue feedback from its engine, too: an exhaust that cracks and bangs on lift-off (antisocially so as you move up the drive modes). The VW’s sound – although far from a bad one – comes mostly from a sound symposer near the base of the dashboard. If it sounds slightly synthetic, that’s because it is, whereas the Ford is more visceral – more honest. But none of that is the big difference between the twocars: not sound, not steering, not power, not driving position and not interior. The marked difference between the Focus RS and Golf R – the marked difference between Focus RS and anything else, not just in its class but also in several classes both above and below – is the way the Ford goes around a corner.
The Golf steers and corners ably, you understand. It leans a bit and grips hard and you can feel power being shuffled around to prevent understeer and improve agility. The systems work well. Torque is sent to the rear and the Golf is a masterclass of chassis neutrality. You can make it understeer or oversteer just a tiny bit (on a wet circuit, you can make it do both rather more, obviously), but it is always precise and controlled. It’s adjustable and engaging, too, mind. There’s passable steering feel and the chassis responds to your feet as well as your hands. That’s why it’s a 4.5-star car. It hasn’t come all the way to Spain to get mugged.
But the way the Focus RS corners is a class apart. It turns with more immediacy, it feels lighter on its toes and more adjustable, and its cornering speeds are outrageous. If you want to corner faster, my suspicion is that not a great deal this side of a Nissan GT-R will allow it.
But still there’s immediacy, feel and adjustability there, too. The RS’s drivetrain wants the rear to help the car turn. Sure, on the way into a corner, the Focus pivots around its middle in that fast-Ford, tuck-in-asyou-lift way, but what it does once you get back on the throttle is much more interesting, even in Normal mode. The chassis feels positively rearbiased, more so as you turn through the modes, yet with a semblance of all-wheel drive security that, say, a BMW M235i would come without.
All the while the body control – even in the dampers’ softer setting, but especially so if you firm them up, as you can in any drive mode by pushing the end of the indicator stalk – is absolutely sensational.
The RS goes around corners like no other car I can think of. It doesn’t have the light chuckability of a Renault Mégane Trophy, or the pure rear drive of a BMW, and it has more adjustability and capability than the Golf R. A Nissan GT-R is probably most similar in its rear-biased, shuffly fashion. The Nissan is probably quicker midcorner, too, but then it should be. It’s also a damned sight more brittle and uncomfortable. And the Ford costs less than £30k. Extraordinary.
The rest of Focus package is more easily summarised. Engine: vibrant, poppy. Gearshift: slick. Brakes: powerful. But it’s those cornering moments that live with you after the drive has finished, the ones that linger in a ‘did it really just do that?’ sort of way. As in a Mégane Trophy, the handling overwhelms everything else you think about the car.
And it leaves an indelible enough impression to give the Focus RS a win over the Golf R – frankly, over almost anything through corners, if that’s the basis on which we’re judging this comparison. Don’t misunderstand: I’m far from unhappy to climb back into the Golf R for the return leg – probably happier, in fact. As a compromise, as an ownership proposition, the VW still takes a heck of a lot of beating. But as an occasion, as an event, a car for you to simply get into and drive the crackers off of it, the Focus RS is phenomenal.
Ford Focus RS
Price £29,995; 0-62mph 4.7sec; Top speed 165mph; Economy 36.7mpg; CO2 175g/km; Kerb weight 1599kg; Engine layout 4 cyls, 2261cc, turbo, petrol; Installation Front, transverse, 4WD; Power 345bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 325lb ft at 2000-4500rpm (347lb ft on overboost); Power to weight 216bhp per tonne; Specific output 152bhp per litre; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Length 4390mm; Width 1823mm; Height 1472mm; Wheelbase 2647mm; Fuel tank 51 litres; Range 412 miles; Boot 260 litres; Front suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar; Brakes 350mm ventilated discs (f), 302mm ventilated discs (r); Wheels 8Jx19in; Tyres 235/35 YR19
Volkswagen Golf R
Price £31,745; 0-62mph 5.3sec; Top speed 155mph; Economy 39.8mpg; CO2 165g/km; Kerb weight 1476kg; Engine layout 4 cyls, 1984cc, turbo, petrol; Installation Front, transverse, FWD; Power 296bhp at 5500-6200rpm; Torque 280lb ft at 1800-5500rpm; Power to weight 198bhp per tonne; Specific output 149bhp per litre; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Length 4596mm; Width 1799mm; Height 1467mm; Wheelbase 2630mm; Fuel tank 55 litres; Range 495 miles; Boot 340 litres; Front suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar; Brakes 340mm ventilated discs (f), 310mm ventilated discs (r); Wheels 8Jx19in; Tyres 235/35 ZR19