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.