Comparison Test: Ford Focus RS vs. Subaru WRX STI vs. Volkswagen Golf R

There are many different types of sports cars. England gave birth to lightweight and nimble roadsters such as the MG TD, the Austin-Healey 3000, the Lotus Super 7 and the Jaguar XK120. The long-gone musclecar era left us the Chevrolet Camaro, the Ford Mustang and the Dodge Challenger, while the German brands produce powerful and fast luxury sleds, ranging from the Porsche 911 to the Mercedes-AMG GT.

Meanwhile, Italy has always served up exceptional supercars blessed with sublime bodywork, melodious engines and breathtaking price tags, thanks to Lamborghini, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, among others. In the Eighties, Japanese automakers allowed enthusiasts to dream about affordable cars such as the Honda Prelude, the Mitsubishi Eclipse and the Nissan 240SX. The hybrid and electric-car movement is already starting to churn out some highly desirable machinery, such as the BMW i8 and the Koenigsegg Regera.

And then there are those steroid-injected compacts that appeared about two decades ago. Rather plebeian cars transformed into veritable rally cars with turbocharged engines and all-wheel drivetrains that emphasise performance as much as all-weather capability. Sports cars that please a younger crowd rather than baby boomers that truly miss their raging V8 engines and cheap, leaded gasoline.

The Subaru WRX STI and the Volkswagen Golf R have been duking it out for a few years now, while another player in the segment retired last year, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. However, the hot Ford Focus RS has arrived on North American soil for the first time, and will seek to intimidate these other two established adversaries. Does the Focus have what it takes to give the Subaru and the Volkswagen a spanking and become the darling of compact AWD sports cars?

We put these three protagonists to the test on the road, but also on the track of the Mecaglisse complex in Notre-Dame-de-la-Merci, north of Montreal, where the flies rip off skin with very sharp teeth. We also delegated Franck Kirchhoff, sympathetic owner of the facility and advanced driving instructor, as our pilot emeritus. It’s his playground after all, right?

Here is our ranking.

3rd place: 2017 Subaru WRX STI
YOU WANT CHARACTER? DON’T LOOK ANY FURTHER

Photo: Jeremy Alan Glover

Within our merry little group of road rebels, it’s the WRX STI that’s the most impolite, and the least classy. It wears sleeveless shirts to fully display the tattoos on its arms, and can’t express itself without swearing. It’s despised by the Toyota Camrys and the Honda Accords who criticise the outrageous manners of the younger crowd by saying “When we were their age, we were much more respectful!”

Well, this relative lack of manners is what makes the Subaru so charming. Its 305-hp, turbocharged, 2.5-litre Boxer engine is a loudmouth with its coarse and unique sound, and helped the car achieve the best 0-100 km/h time of the bunch.

Its brutal character encourages spirited driving, which is fantastic when we’re in the mood for it. However, when it’s time to drive in a more relaxed fashion, the 2017 Subaru WRX STI just doesn’t want to cooperate all that much. While the suspension is capable of absorbing various road imperfections, it’s really firm, and the engine’s sound is well represented in the cockpit. In short, a calm, leisurely drive in the STI doesn’t exist.

And that’s likely what WRX purists love about the car, especially those who are fond of the STI. The adjustable centre differential, which allows varying the power split between the front and rear axles, is of no use for the average driver, but a nice gadget for the performance enthusiast that will exploit the limits of the STI’s potential. In addition, Subaru’s full-time all-wheel drivetrain has nothing to prove anymore, allowing the car to stick to the pavement in the twisties and to have a ball on snow-covered roads.

It’s in everyday use that the Subie loses points compared to its rivals. The dashboard’s fit and finish is acceptable, but some plastics look and feel cheap. The infotainment system and its new touchscreen do the job, but the trip computer located at the top of the centre stack looks old, while its control button isn’t the easiest to operate. On the other hand, we really like the sporty touch of the contrast stitching.

The STI’s practical aspect isn’t bad either, with a good amount of space at the rear and a decent-sized trunk. The exterior build quality of the 2017 Subaru WRX STI is swell, with perfectly aligned body panels. However, the huge trunk-mounted wing is excessive. Really. Younger people may like it, but we’re assuming that buyers old enough to afford the insurance payments on a sports car like this one will prefer a less extroverted look. At least no one can say the STI anonymously blends into the automotive scenery.

On the track at Mecaglisse, Franck appreciated the STI’s manual gearbox and its very close ratios. On the other hand, he noted a lack of low-rpm torque, brakes that lacked bite and more pronounced body roll than the other cars in our trio. In addition, the Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tires that equipped our test car weren’t the grippiest, fudging the efforts of the AWD hardware.

In a nutshell, the WRX STI gets noticed with its high-performance attributes, an ultra-efficient all-wheel drivetrain and a wild character that quickly becomes contagious—or aggravating. However, its two adversaries possess qualities that forced us to relegate the Subaru to the third step on the podium.

2nd place: 2016 Ford Focus RS
IT WAS WELL WORTH THE WAIT

Photo: Michel Deslauriers

The very first Focus RS was launched at the end of 2002 in Europe, but we had to wait almost 14 years for this sports car to set foot on North American soil. Admittedly, it did take that time to train at the gym, gaining muscle and improving its footwork.

The third generation of the Focus RS, the one we’re getting just now, not only benefits from a freshly-developed AWD system, but a turbocharged, 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine that belts out 350 hp and 350 lb.-ft. of torque. Amazing numbers given its displacement, numbers that greatly surpass those of its rivals. We were expecting the RS to school the other two cars in the group, but it wasn’t the case.

Ford calculated the engine’s output using 93-octane fuel, which isn’t available in every gas station—and is really expensive, too. With 91-octane super unleaded, the engine is theoretically a little less powerful.

Despite its launch control system, in our hands, the RS wasn’t able to beat the WRX STI’s 0-100 km/h time, but at least it was quicker than the Golf R, the least powerful of the group. However, the boosted Focus did post the fastest lap times around the track at Mecaglisse.

The Focus RS serves up good times behind the wheel. Its torque peak only appears at 3200 rpm, but hold on to your hats when you reach that engine speed, although the torque spread is nice and linear. The exhaust system of this EcoBoost four also unleashes a pleasing growl, and during more relaxed driving, the engine consumes fuel at a reasonable rate.

The 2016 Ford Focus RS’s cockpit is also very attractive with its modern design, its snug RECARO sport seats and its blue contrast stitching that mix very well with the car’s character. The SYNC 3 infotainment system is very easy to use.

On the other hand, as a daily driver, the RS has the same shortcomings as lesser versions of the Focus. The rear bench isn’t very spacious, and in a shopping mall parking lot, we quickly realise that the car’s turning radius is ridiculously wide.

On the track, Franck noted some good stuff, but some not-so-good stuff too. The Focus RS sticks very well to the pavement and provides a great feeling of safety and assurance. The braking system is powerful without being too brutal, despite recording the longest braking distances of the group. In addition, the six gears of the manual transmission are well spaced out.

However, he felt that the engine and the shift lever lack character, the pedal placement doesn’t favour the heel-and-toe technique and the driving position could be improved because the seat cushion is at an angle and cannot be adjusted. On the track, the shape of the outside mirror caps hides apexes while cornering. And the best lap times were recorded while the car was in Sport mode; with the Track mode selected, the suspension firms up to the point of making the RS jittery. And the track surface at Mecaglisse is impeccable, so we can just imagine how the car would handle itself on a circuit plagued by a lumpy surface.

Another important detail: the automatic start/stop system activates itself not only in the Normal driving mode, but also in Sport and Track modes. After a few hot laps around a track with the pedal to the metal, the last thing we want is an engine that shuts off instead of cooling down. The function must always be deactivated before a lapping session.

And let’s not forget the high entry price of the 2016 Ford Focus RS in Canada, set at $47,969 before adding freight and delivery charges. The manufacturer does throw in a set of winter tires, but the RS is still several thousand dollars more expensive than its rivals. That’s another reason why it finished in second place.

1st place: 2016 Volkswagen Golf R
THE MULTI-TALENTED SPORTS CAR

Photo: Jeremy Alan Glover

We love cars, obviously, and we’re sports-car enthusiasts too. However, we don’t spend our days burning up country backroads and driving at 10/10ths on a racetrack. When we’re stuck in traffic trying to get home at night, we just don’t feel like driving like a bat out of hell.

That’s exactly why the 2016 Volkswagen Golf R took the trophy in this matchup. It shines as much by its dynamic drive than its ability to be an excellent daily driver.

Don’t call us old timers. If pure performance of an exuberant sports car is the only criterion on your shopping list, you’d probably be happier behind the wheel of a WRX STI or a Focus RS. It’s just that the Golf R offers a perfect balance of refinement and sportiness.

Its turbocharged, 2.0-litre four is the smallest and the least powerful of the group, and its torque rating also ranks third. However, the Volkswagen group is a champ when it comes to fine-tuning this type of engine, and in this case, the torque peaks over a wide range, from 1900 all the way to 5300 rpm. Blastoffs are muscular, without delay, accompanied by a pleasing thumping growl (artificially enhanced inside the cabin, admittedly) and thrilling. As a bonus, the best fuel economy average of our trio.

The Golf R’s suspension is firm, but more comfortable than those of the STI and the RS. The clutch pedal is light and nicely supports the precise shift lever. The steering is very communicative, yet well calibrated. This car feels rock solid. However, the sidewalls of the 19-inch tires are thin—very thin—and expansion strips on our badly maintained highways send quite a jolt through the structure. Yet the Focus RS has the same tire size and that sensation wasn’t as brutal in the Ford.

The 2016 Volkswagen Golf R’s cockpit is inviting with its leather seats that are both comfortable and laterally supportive, while the overall presentation is sober, but one of quality. The rear seats are spacious, and their seatbacks are easily folded down to create a virtually flat and versatile cargo area. The infotainment system is better than the one found in the Subaru, but not as intuitive as the Ford’s.

On the track, Franck not only recorded quicker lap times in the Golf R than in the WRX STI, but he was also amazed by the car’s poise. He praised the incisive steering, the powerful brakes, the minimal body roll and the feeling of piloting a go-kart. However, he felt that the clutch pedal was somewhat spongy and that it didn’t return to its initial position quickly enough. Despite that shortcoming, he considers the Golf R to be the best of the group for beginner race car drivers.

Aside from choosing a more flamboyant colour, sports-car fans would probably like a more aggressive look on the Golf R, which hides its sporty pretentions well alongside the other members of the VW Golf family. It draws much less attention than an STI or an RS, not a bad thing if we don’t want to constantly be under surveillance from the police force, or to be systematically invited to street race by young, testosterone-pumped drivers in their slammed purple Civics.

In short, the Golf R is an accomplished sports car that can not only measure up to its more muscular adversaries, but that doesn’t bruise and batter our passengers under normal driving, which they will appreciate. With the R, we don’t need to make any compromises. Even its $39,995 base price feels like a bargain.

Conclusion

What does the future hold in the compact AWD sports-car segment? We must admit that we can’t see much in our crystal ball. The WRX and WRX STI will soldier on in their current form for another year, maybe two, while Subaru conjures up a new generation of the car based on the 2017 Impreza that will be totally redesigned.

Honda will soon reveal its new Civic Type R, which should boast at least 300 horsepower. However, it seems as though it won’t be equipped with AWD, so it’ll certainly be handicapped compared to the three cars tested here. A manufacturer that might surprise us is Hyundai and its future performance model based on the next-generation Hyundai i30 (sold in North America as the Elantra GT). It would be the first car to wear the letter N, symbol of the Korean automaker’s newly established high-performance division.

For now, the queen of compact AWD sports cars is the Volkswagen Golf R.

FINAL SCORING

Year 2016 2017 2016
Make Ford Subaru Volkswagen
Model Focus RS WRX STI Golf R
DESIGN/STYLE
Exterior /25 21.3 17.2 19.7
Interior /25 20.3 15.9 18.4
Total /50 41.6 33.1 38.1
BODY/CABIN
Interior and exterior fit and finish /10 8.0 8.2 8.5
Quality of materials used /10 8.0 7.8 8.5
Dashboard /10 8.4 7.1 8.4
Equipment /10 8.5 6.9 7.4
Trunk /10 7.8 7.5 7.8
Storage /5 3.6 3.9 3.7
Total /55 44.2 41.3 44.2
COMFORT / ERGONOMICS
Driving position /20 14.8 16.3 17.3
Ergonomics /10 8.1 7.5 8.4
Infotainment system /15 12.4 11.1 12.6
Rear seats /10 7.7 7.3 6.8
Driving noise /10 6.8 6.3 7.6
Total /65 49.7 48.4 52.6
DRIVE
Handling /40 31.5 32.5 35.0
Engine /40 34.5 31.5 34.5
Steering /20 17.0 15.5 17.5
Brakes /20 17.3 16.3 16.8
Transmission /20 17.0 15.3 17.0
Ride quality /10 7.1 7.3 8.1
Total /150 124.4 118.3 128.9
SAFETY
Visibility /5 3.8 3.6 4.1
Driving aids /5 4.0 4.1 4.1
Total /10 7.8 7.8 8.2
MEASURED PERFORMANCE
Acceleration 0-100 km/h* /40 32.8 33.2 32.4
Acceleration 80-120 km/h* /20 18.3 18.4 18.8
Braking 100-0 km/h* /20 14.0 16.8 15.6
Fuel economy* /40 25.2 22.0 26.2
Total /120 90.3 90.4 93.0
EDITORS' CHOICE
Average /50 37.5 35.0 50.0
TOTAL /500 305.0 283.9 322.0
FINAL SCORE WITH PRICE FACTOR* 264.8 250.2 284.3
RANK 2 3 1

*Using AJAC's scoring curve calculations.

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TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

Year

2016 2017 2016
Make Ford Subaru Volkswagen
Model Focus RS WRX STI Golf R
Wheelbase (mm) 2648 2650 2630
Length (mm) 4390 4595 4276
Width (mm) 1823 1795 1790
With with mirrors (mm) 2044 2053
Height (mm) 1472 1475 1436
Front track (mm) 1546 1530 1542
Rear track (mm) 1525 1540 1516
Curb weight (kg) 1599 1536 1489
Aerodynamic drag coefficient (Cd) 0,35 0,32 0,32
Number of airbags 7 7 6
Passenger capacity 5 5 5
Trunk volume min/max (litres) 562 - 1240 340 343 - 1233
Engine Turbocharged L4 Turbocharged H4 Turbocharged L4
Displacement (litres) 2.3 2.5 2.0
Maximum power (hp @ rpm) 350 @ 6000 305 @ 6000 292 @ 5400
Maximum torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm) 350 @ 3200 290 @ 4000 280 @ 1900 - 5300
Required fuel super super super
Transmission 6-speed manual 6-speed manual 6-speed manual
Drivetrain All-wheel drive All-wheel drive All-wheel drive
Front suspension Ind., struts Ind., struts Ind., struts
Rear suspension Ind., multilink Ind., double wishbone Ind., multilink
Front brakes / diameter (mm) Disc / 350 Disc / 326 Disc / 340
Rear brakes / diameter (mm) Disc / 302 Disc / 316 Disc / 310
Tires P235/35R19 P245/40R18 P235/35R19
Steering Rack-and-pinion, electric ass. Rack-and-pinion, variable Rack-and-pinion, var. electric
Turning diameter (m) 12.0 11.0 10.9
Fuel tank (litres) 51 60 55
Acceleration 0-100 km/h (sec) 5.6 5.4 5.8
Acceleration 80 to 120 km/h (sec) 3.8 3.7 3.3
Braking 100-0 km/h (m) 40.1 35.7 37.6
Lap time, Mecaglisse circuit (sec) 48:79 51:28 49:63
City/Hwy NRCan fuel cons. (L/100 km) 12.1 / 9.3 13.8 / 10.2 10.9 / 7.7
Observed fuel economy (L/100 km) 10.5 11.8 10.1
Base / maximum MSRP $47,969 / $48,964 $37,995 / $45,395 $39,995 / $43,915
As-tested price $48,964 $40,795 $39,995
Assembly location Sarrlouis, Germany Ota, Japan Zwickau, Germany
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