The Golf R and Focus RS battle it out
On track, the Golf R struggles to keep in touch with the RS
Ford is brash and adjustable; VW is more neutral
Golf R sells interior plushness alongside potent performance
Upgraded RS retains mostly standard Focus cabin fittings
In previous years, the courteous Volkswagen Golf R and rambunctious Ford Focus RS would have been almost certainly destined to joust it out in the final reckoning of this event – and even with the premium-level strength of the competition assembled, there were short odds of the winner emerging from this first-round shoot-out.
Why? Well, both have done a remarkably good job of preserving their lofty reputations. The VW is fresh from the light makeover that has finally afforded it a metric output beyond 300bhp, while the RS has been the recipient of Mountune’s attention and now boasts 370bhp in its uprated FPM375 guise.
The two have been thrown together so often in the past 24 months that it’s almost tempting to see them as peas in the same sub-£35k, all- wheel-drive pod. In reality, though, they could hardly be more different. Much of their dissimilarity is about lineage: the R is unashamedly plush and soft to the touch, because its multi-purpose urbaneness is meant to represent the peak of middle-class Golf-dom. The RS, meanwhile, with its democratisation of rear-driven sports car driftability, is Ford at its blue collar best, unrepentant about its silly vaunted driving position or the stock nature of many of its fixtures and fittings.
Previously, the Golf has emerged triumphant from comparisons because, in the broadest possible sense, it is more accomplished. Certainly nothing about the £899 Mountune kit – a familiar mash- up of revised software code and breathed-on components – fitted to this Focus RS is about to change that. The latest R barely needs 10 minutes of driving on the B-roads around Llandow to reconfirm that you’d drive it not only happily home but also for the rest of your life in benign contentment. Equipped with the optional (but wholly essential) adaptive dampers, its supple ride, supremely biddable power delivery and trademark precision make a compelling case against almost any real-world performance rival, let alone the occasionally chafing knife- edge dynamism of the granular and cheerily raucous Ford.
Leave behind the Welsh roads and enter the business end of a pit lane, however, and the rebalancing of the scales is more striking than ever. Unequivocally it is to VW’s credit that the R’s road-biased submissiveness doesn’t cause it to tumble from a handling cliff on a circuit. Just as the car’s drive modes extend to an optimistic Race setting, so its talent stretches all the way to the edge of its almighty mechanical grip. The remarkable neutrality of the 4Motion system, usually only hinted at on the road, is immediately brought to the foreground at Llandow, and while the R remains nose-led in a way that’s plainly inclined towards stability, it doesn’t unduly prejudice any given opportunity to adjust the car’s line with mid-corner throttle-off antics.
Throw in the seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic ’box that delivers a 4.6sec 0-62mph time and it all smacks of R-branded peachiness.
It’s only moments later you’re abruptly reminded that Ford had the Focus RS custom-built to turn what might reductively be called hot hatch chopsticks into a full-blown concerto. Setting aside the misnomer that is Drift mode (no, it won’t – not really), the car still does things with its crazy-brave back axle that no five-door family hatch has ever endeavoured to do without the power going there exclusively. And while it would be overstating the case to call the FPM375’s additional power the key in the RS’s lock, there’s no questioning the 376lb ft of dump valve-subsidised potency available from 2000rpm, nor its tantalising extra proficiency at making the car pivot on cue.
Of course it is the higher output that helps make the Focus a full second quicker around Llandow than the Golf, but it’s the often very real sense that you’re wrestling now with a properly hairy beast that best describes the difference between the two on track.
Which ultimately returns us to a familiar debate: do you want your hot hatch to be snarling, slideable, working class cult hero or supreme purveyor of buttoned-down speed, sewn-up comfort and sought-after classlessness? Had the final round remained on track – or, better still, transferred to the high altar of a rallycross stage – the VW would be a dot in the Ford’s mirror. But once again, as real-world Wales beckons, it’s the Golf by a princely nose. Nick Cackett
Second opinion - Matt Prior
Ah, trusty Golf R. Ever present, ever predictable, like the light that comes on when the fridge door opens. And, some might argue, in this company, almost as exciting. Drama be damned; if what you want is a car that is highly entertaining yet practical, comfortable, ergonomically sound and able to blend into any company, the Golf R is the one. Matt Prior
Rapid and refined. The non-denominational premium hot hatch
Engine 4 cyls, 1984cc, turbocharged, petrol
Power 306bhp at 5500-6500rpm
Torque 280lb ft at 2000-5400rpm
Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch auto
Kerb weight 1483kg
0-62mph 4.6sec (claimed)
Top speed 155mph
Economy 37.7mpg (combined)
CO2/tax band 160g/km, 31%
Working class hero gains a new thuggish edge. Fast and raucous if not refined
Engine 4 cyls, 2261cc, turbocharged, petrol
Power 370bhp at 6000rpm
Torque 376lb ft at 2000rpm
Gearbox 6-spd manual
Kerb weight 1547kg
0-62mph 4.5sec (claimed)
Top speed 165mph
Economy 36.7mpg (combined)
CO2/tax band 175g/km, 34%