Can The Blue Oval Bad Boy Dethrone The Hot Hatch King?
About three years ago to the day, fellow Senior Editor Seyth Miersma and I – during our respective tenures as editors at Winding Road – met on a cold, wet autumn morning to put the then-new sixth-generation Volkswagen GTI up against a slew of hot hatches for a comparison test cover story. Miersma and I share a love for this type of car, simply because they're affordable little runabouts that don't skimp on functionality while being hysterically fun to toss about. Actually, you'd be hard pressed to find a single member of the automotive media that doesn't hold at least one of these little rascals close to their heart.
The hot hatch hierarchy has long been capped with the GTI as king, and for good reason. Of all the vehicles offered in the segment, it has perhaps the best blend of the many facets we love about these cars, and it's the one that we'd absolutely open our wallets for year after year, generation after generation. So when a new kid comes to town, it doesn't completely matter how it stacks up against other competitors in the segment – if you want to dethrone the king, you have to beat the GTI at the very game it created.
Enter the 2013 Ford Focus ST, a car that Ford says will run circles around every other hot hatch available in the United States. The Blue Oval is out for blood with this one, and for good reason. After our first experience with the car overseas, we must admit, it's damn good.
So on yet another cold autumn morning, I found myself sitting behind the wheel of the brand-new Focus ST, following Miersma in the GTI out to the same roads we've flogged hot hatches down in the past. History indeed has a way of repeating itself, but with the potent little Ford now in its class, does the GTI still hold onto its crown?
There's a reason why we're keeping this a head-to-head comparison. The next logical competitor for the Focus ST is the bonkers Mazdaspeed3 – there's the old family tie there, anyway – and cars like the Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart do fight in the same class, albeit with all-wheel drive. But we wanted to keep this simple, and since every new hot hatch gets compared directly to the GTI, we figured this should just be a straight-up two-car battle. No sense in complicating things with other cars.
The Focus ST is an all-new entry for the 2013 model year, powered by a 2.0-liter EcoBoost inline four-cylinder engine that sends an impressive 252 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels. Those rollers themselves measure 18 inches at all four corners and are wrapped in sticky P235/40R18 Goodyear Eagle F1 tires. Our Tangerine Scream tester came packed with options like the automaker's love/hate MyFord Touch infotainment system, dual-zone climate control and the fabulous swallow-you-whole grippy Recaro seats. All in, this relatively loaded Focus ST stickered for $28,170 including destination – a full $3,405 more than the GTI you see beside it.
When we first parked the two cars next to each other, the bold, aggressive lines of the Focus ST only reminded us how much we appreciate the clean, conservative styling of the GTI. The Ford absolutely screams "boy racer" from every angle, though truth be told, this paint job doesn't help. It may be the Focus ST's show color, but it's the least appealing to our eyes. Regardless of hue, we found the Ford's design to be over-styled in many ways – most notably, there are a couple of extra character lines on the sides that don't really seem necessary and the sill extensions could stand to be smoothed out. "The body kit added on to the already complex shape of the Focus panels doesn't work for me," says Miersma. Still, when it comes to getting the point across that this isn't your normal Focus, the ST has enthusiastic charm in abundance. It is indeed both fast and furious, and looks the part even when standing still.
In this spec, the Focus ST weighs in at 3,223 pounds – 189 more pounds than the 3,034 of the Volkswagen. A lot of that comes down to the fact that the Focus is simply a larger car in every dimension. It rides on a 2.8-inch longer wheelbase (104.3 versus 101.5), is 5.8 inches longer overall (171.7 vs. 165.9), is 1.8 inches wider (71.8 vs. 70.0) and stands just over half an inch taller (58.4 vs. 57.8). Because of the added width, the front and rear tracks of the Focus are slightly wider than the Volkswagen, as well – 0.8 inches wider at the front, 0.7 at the back. Despite those numbers, the Ford just plain looks bigger from all angles, though that's largely thanks to the fact that our test Focus has four doors while the GTI only has two.
And here, we must address another caveat to this test. We fully understand that the more appropriate comparison would have been to use a four-door GTI since the Focus ST is only available with that many doors, but we were unable to source one. The more important thing to compare here concerns performance, and if we wanted a VW equipped with a manual transmission, we had to get a two-door. (The Focus ST is only available with a manual.) Even so, fitting two extra doors to the GTI adds 79 pounds to the curb weight (and $600 to the car's bottom line). Yes, it looks a little funky for the photos, but trust us, we were glad to have the stick in the VW for judging these two cars on the road. You'll read about that in a minute.
Now that that's cleared up, let's discuss the Volkswagen, all $24,765 of it. You heard right – it's a GTI that stickers under $25k. That's a seriously attractive price point for this car, though it lacks a lot of the features and functions found in the Ford. Namely, the GTI doesn't have any sort of navigation or infotainment and doesn't feature dual-zone climate control, though it does come standard with heated seats – something our Focus ST wasn't equipped with. But don't let this price fool you – top out a GTI and you'll be forking over $32,490, while a fully stocked Focus ST comes in at $30,335 (both prices include $795 for destination).
Unlike the Focus ST, we can't be anything but in love with the GTI's appearance – it really just looks like a Golf fitted with larger wheels (18-inch Detroit alloys wrapped in P225/40R18 Pirelli PZero Nero tires here). The Volkswagen has a refreshingly clean shape with simple lines that don't make it look overly aggressive or faddish. It's probably the biggest sleeper in the entire class, and its design won't be off-putting in any situation. Even your mom will think it's handsome.
Same goes for the interior – once again, we find the Ford to be a bit over-styled. Miersma's notes completely lined up with mine, the tall Dutchman citing "textures, colors, patterns and lighting that all overload the senses." We adore the Ford's Recaro seats for keeping us firmly planted while tossing the car about, but they aren't quite as accommodating to our well-fed bodies as the chairs in the Volkswagen. There's just a lot going on, though neither of us would call the Ford's cabin anything less than well-appointed and comfortable. It all just feels a bit overwhelming (and perhaps a bit cramped).
There's no need to bore you readers yet again with our dissection of the MyFord Touch infotainment system – just know that it's the exact same unit found in every other Blue Oval product. There is a complimentary five-way controller on the left side of the steering wheel to manage functions found in the gauge cluster, with a matching five-way setup on the right side to control audio functions. The rest of the steering wheel is packed with buttons for voice controls and cruise control, and despite the fact that the Focus ST wheel feels nice in our hands, it's all a bit cluttered. Volkswagen absolutely wins the helm wars here – its thick, flat-bottomed wheel is a joy to spin – and while we enjoyed the lack of any redundant control buttons attached to it, it's easy to grow tired of reaching over to the center stack to deal with audio requests (#firstworldproblems).
After being disappointed with interior fittings in VWs like the Jetta, it's so refreshing to be back in the GTI. Every touchable surface feels really high quality, and we simply adore the plaid cloth seats fitted to this test car – they're comfortable, supportive, and come on, they look awesome. And with the standard bun-warmers, we don't know why anyone would opt for the leather on higher trim levels. Call the tartan treatment gimmicky if you will (we call it "historically correct," not to mention "super rad"), but the pattern ads some pizazz to what can be an otherwise sober interior. And besides, if you don't like a bit of fun in your compact, you shouldn't be buying a hot hatch in the first place.
Behind the front cabin, the Focus ST and GTI are both extremely functional, but Volkswagen has yet again done a better job here. Both cars offer plenty of legroom and headroom for rear seat occupants, the VW offering slightly more of each, even in this two-door configuration. Back seat riders are treated to 38.5 inches of headroom in the GTI (37.9 in the Ford) and 35.5 inches of legroom (the Focus has 33.2). For hauling, both cars offer 60/40 folding rear benches, but the Volkswagen's legitimately fold flat while the seats in the Focus just sort of topple over and require you to remove the headrests. Because of that, the GTI, even with its smaller size, narrowly takes the cake on cargo capacity. You can fit 46 cubic feet of stuff into the back of the VW while the larger Ford can only hold 44.8.
From the parking lot point of view, Miersma and I were absolutely smitten with the GTI and hands-down preferred it to the Ford. But would that translate to the road?
First and foremost, despite its 189-pound weight advantage, the GTI is seriously underpowered compared to the Focus ST. Nestled under its Candy White hood is Volkswagen's 2.0-liter turbo-four, good for 200 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque. That's a full 52 hp and 63 lb-ft shy of what's being made in the Focus ST, and in fact, the GTI is one of the least-powerful hot hatches of its size.
We lined up the two out on some of our favorite back roads just northwest of Ann Arbor, Michigan – perhaps the only good driving roads in the entire lower half of the Mitten State, and roads that Miersma and I know like the backs of our hands. Firing up the engines, the Ford came to life with an impressive rumble, while the GTI just, well, turned on – no drama here. Our first run had the GTI pacing the Ford, and here, the Focus had absolutely no problem keeping up through every corner and on every straight stretch of road. Off the line, Ford estimates a 5.9-second 0-60 time while Volkswagen says the GTI will take nearly a full second longer to reach that same speed.
"This EcoBoost powertrain feels downright epic – far closer to the brutal, what-the-hell-did-I-just-step-on throttle response of the equally bonkers Mazdaspeed3 than that of other hot hatches," Miersma notes. "The downside to all of that power and torque is some bad behavior from the front tires under hard acceleration."
Ford has employed a seriously good active front differential in the Focus ST, but there's still a wallop of torque steer in first and second gears. It's all fairly manageable – you don't feel like you're going to careen off into a ditch like you would under full-throttle applications in a Mazdaspeed3 – but you absolutely must have your wits about you. Running through the gears, the Ford's more impressive exhaust note provided pure aural delight, being pleasantly audible when you were hard on the throttle and diminishing to a dull roar while cruising. It's a perfect balance of sound and made us wish the GTI would open up its vocal chords a bit, though let it be known that the Ford's throaty noise is manipulated to be more audible at higher revs. The louder note presents itself all of a sudden around 3,000 rpm, and we don't mind it one bit.
All of that impressive front-end tuning completely came into, uh, focus when we hit our first sharp, 90-degree left-hand turn. Not only is the steering so absolutely direct with go-kart-like turn-in, the car is nearly free of awful understeer characteristics. "You might find more plowing behavior when driving on a race track, but Ford has this thing locked in for on-road performance," notes Seyth. It's really impressive and was perhaps the biggest surprise (and delight) about pushing the Focus through turns. This car is just oh-so rewarding to fling around. It's hard to completely remove both torque steer and understeer from front-wheel-drive cars with this much turbocharged grunt. Pigs may not yet fly, but at least this one can turn.
In the GTI, on the other hand, things weren't nearly as good. This little guy dove nose-first into every corner with the front tires struggling to keep things glued to the road (the Ford's grippier rubber indeed helps here), but even more disheartening is how light and carefree the Volkswagen's steering felt in these situations. This steering setup may be nicely tuned to filter out many of southeast Michigan's harsh road impacts, but we wished it were a lot more communicative during these back-to-back runs down some decidedly smooth ribbons of tarmac.
That same sort of eager-to-please but highly underwhelming dynamic could be found in other areas of the GTI driving experience, namely in its throttle response, clutch feel and gearbox. Seyth noted this on our drive out to the good test roads before even sitting inside the Focus ST, and the fact is, the meatier, more engaging setup of the Focus ST only amplifies just how weak the Volkswagen is. The clutch in the GTI is seriously light, as are the gearbox throws. That's fine and dandy for traffic jams and slumming through city streets, but on these roads – or on a track – it's hardly ideal. The same can be said about the brakes – the stoppers on both cars are plenty adequate, but the Ford's more responsive pedal feel and its tendency to stay better balanced under hard braking make it the outright better performer during slow-downs.
Once again, kudos goes to the Focus ST. Its clutch offers a near-perfect balance of weight and feedback and the gearbox offers precise, short throws. That said, the placement of the six-speed shifter in the Focus ST is a bit weird for quick steering-wheel-to-shifter movements, the whole thing feeling like it's maybe an inch too far to the right. The GTI is better in this ergonomic regard, but again, the Ford's is more engaging to use.
When it came time to line the GTI behind the Focus ST for a run down our test course, it became immediately clear just how much quicker and more composed the ST is. With the Ford rocketing ahead, it was a truly tough time trying to keep up in the Volkswagen. In order to keep the GTI's throttle on full notice, the engine needed to ideally spin above 3,500 rpm and in one gear lower than the Focus ST. Because of this, you're doing a lot more clutch-and-shifter work on involving roads with lots of varying-speed turns. For the majority of our route's difficult sections, we could leave the Focus ST in third or even fourth gears, while the GTI had to run back and forth between gears two, three and four to always have its power on tap. The VW 2.0T mill was a total honey to play with, but it felt completely outgunned by the Ford.
That same thing can be said about every other part of the GTI driving experience – it simply feels a couple notches below the Ford on the total performance and involvement scale. We'd love to get these two out on a track for ultimate testing, but there isn't a doubt in our minds that the Focus would continue to wipe the floor with the Volkswagen dynamically.
All that in mind, it'll come as little surprise that picking a winner here was a total no-brainer – the Focus ST absolutely outperforms the GTI. In terms of form and function, the Volkswagen is the sort of car that you could more easily get away with for everyday life – its lower levels of engagement, better interior and more refined styling indeed proved to be better for the sort of non-enthusiastic settings that we were faced with during the entirety of our week-long loans with the two cars. But when it came time to pick the better hot hatch, the Focus ST took our votes without a single doubt. The GTI just couldn't keep up – literally.
We mustn't discount the fact that the GTI is getting on in age – the seventh-generation car is right around the corner, previewed by a concept that bowed at the Paris Motor Show in September. And it's hard to say exactly how its performance credentials will be amped up in the coming years. But right now, we can no longer call the GTI the king of the hot hatches – Ford's European-bred offering simply stomps all over this car in the dynamics department, and while we like the overall packaging and refinement of the GTI a lot more (it's the one many Autoblog staffers would rather live with day in and day out), the Focus ST still wins. Period.
So at least until that new GTI hits the streets, there's a new king sitting atop the hierarchy of giddy little hot hatches. And when that new car launches, I'll be with Miersma for yet another round of turbocharged tomfoolery to see if the Focus ST can hold onto its new crown.