Loneliness is never a worry when you’re at the top of the hyperkinetic-hatchback class. Every few months, some punk with fat tires and delusional aspirations shows up to pick a fight. But since 2009—when the sixth-generation VW GTI arrived—this paragon of German engineering has not been caught by that succession of hostile pursuers. Over its long run, the GTI has evolved into the slot-car cynosure—the very definition of affordable fun and function—worthy of four straight berths on our 10Best list.
Even though this is the final model year for the sixth-gen GTI, it’s game for another go. The $24,790 three-door in this comparison is the lightest, most affordable example of a lovable breed. It’s powered by a small, turbocharged, direct-injected engine, a combination pioneered by Audi in 2005 that’s quickly becoming S.O.P. While a cast-iron cylinder block with power capped at an even 200 horses is slightly behind the curve, the GTI’s 2.0-liter four working through six nicely spaced gear ratios pleases without a ruckus. The standard-equipment list includes high-bolster cloth-upholstered buckets, a grippy leather steering wheel, a dead pedal to die for, handsome 18-inch wheels, and tasteful red interior and exterior accents.
Ford’s Special Vehicle Team (SVT) turns 20 in 2013. To celebrate, a hot Focus—on hiatus since 2004—rejoins the fold. But this one is tuned by SVT’s European allies, hence the ST (Sport Technologies) nameplate. Knowing precisely what’s required to run with the GTI, Ford’s German Team RS engineers—the group that developed the car—put the Focus on a grueling training regimen. A BorgWarner turbo supplies 19.5 psi of boost with an extra 20 seconds of overboost (up to 21 psi) to wring an impressive 252 horsepower out of the 2.0-liter aluminum-block four-cylinder engine. Its 270 pound-feet of peak torque mercilessly wallops the GTI’s 207 pound-feet maximum twist. Meaty Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 2 radials give the Focus the traction edge, while the springs, dampers, anti-roll bars, and front and rear suspension uprights are all specifically engineered for this car. And instead of limiting the inevitable front-tire slip by reining in the powertrain, the RS crew programmed the electrically assisted variable-ratio rack-and-pinion gear and the front brakes to counter torque steer and wheelspin. Outside, a double-slot roof extension, centered exhaust outlets, and lower body skirts signal the ST’s malevolent intent. Inside, the leather-wrapped steering wheel wears the ST badge and there’s an added row of gauges atop the dash to display boost, oil pressure, and oil temperature. Recaro seats (in either partial or full leather) are part of two expensive option packages.
Unlike the GTI—a sprawling family of cars offered in three- or five-door body styles, with or without a dual-clutch automatic—the Focus ST comes only as a five-door with a six-speed manual transmission. Our visually assertive tester, which starts with a base price of $24,495, cost $28,170 with the addition of Tangerine Scream tri-coat paint ($495), navigation ($795), and a $2385 package consisting of the partial-leather Recaros, dual-zone climate control, HD radio, Sirius satellite reception, a 10-speaker Sony audio system, and MyFord Touch with an eight-inch LCD screen.
Allow us to dab a tear as our trusty friend suffers this defeat. The GTI is the Swiss watch of hatchbacks, with every cog and wheel ticking in well-oiled synchronicity. The engine delivers throughout its 6000-rpm rev range without overwhelming your eardrums or the chassis. The steering wheel is a single-function tool with no switches to complicate its mission. The shifter slices through gears like one of Ron Popeil’s triple-riveted, full-tang Showtime knives. The brakes don’t fade; the damper calibrations feel like they may have been cribbed from BMW. Front buckets grip your backside as if they were any red-blooded American male and you were a Kardashian sister. Literally and figuratively, this VW is a consummate ass hauler.
The GTI runs door-handle-to-door-handle with the rambunctious Focus to more than 100 mph in spite of a major horsepower discrepancy. Unfortunately, it is not without a few character flaws. The clutch and brake pedals are no more conversant than the dead pedal. The steering feels disinterested on-center. While effort builds nicely from there, a slow steering ratio induces blurry-elbow syndrome through tight switchbacks. We’d willingly trade some of the GTI’s whipped-cream ride for another sprinkling of body-roll control. And the console switch located just ahead of the shifter that allegedly disables stability control is a placebo: When the sliding starts, automatic braking kicks in to halt such escapades.
Those are venial sins next to the two major shortcomings that prompted the GTI’s fall from grace: all-season tires and excess understeer. Hobbled by a major grip deficiency, the VW finished well behind the aggressively rubbered Focus ST on the skidpad, through the slalom cones, in stopping tests, and around the Evaluation and Handling Road (a.k.a. race circuit) at Chrysler’s proving grounds in Chelsea, Michigan. It’s our hope that the seventh-generation GTI (due in early 2014) arrives with sharpened chassis dynamics. And it needs a box on the order form where the 19-inch summer tires available in Europe could be selected in place of this squirmy all-season rubber.
Margins of victory don’t get any thinner than one lonely point. But a win is a win and the ST merits the crown. It’s quick, amusing, inexpensive, and capable of doing just about everything well, and that includes toting the average college kid’s possessions to school.
As noted, the ST doesn’t flash taillamps at the GTI until speeds hit 120 mph—and then the GTI tops out at 125. Yet the ST feels substantially quicker, an impression we attribute to the audio/visual entertainment that accompanies every full-throttle indulgence: Its “sound symposer” (a device that actively controls induction noise) pipes a stirring rendition of Ride of the Valkyries directly into your ear canals. The nose rises, the front wheels lose their sense of dead ahead, and the ST’s body seemingly swells to consume a full lane of roadway.
This is torque steer compounded by a potent engine giving its all by 2500 rpm, wide tires struggling for purchase, and suspension struts overwhelmed by what they’re asked to do. Ford’s Team RS engineers could have civilized the full-throttle moments by saving maximum torque for third and higher gears, but we’re glad they didn’t. Instead, it’s up to the driver to apply appropriate amounts of throttle, steering lock, and brain to manage the ST’s combination of ample thrust and dogged grip hammered through a rudimentary front suspension. This Focus never lets you shirk your driving duties, which is fine by us.
Even though the ST is the slightly larger and heavier hatch, it thumps the GTI’s agility with quicker, tighter steering and effort that rises linearly with lock. That said, the road-to-palms feedback is no better here than in the GTI. The ST’s ride motions are taut but seldom troubling.
But it’s at the adhesion limit where the Focus ST reveals its most endearing characteristic: lift-throttle oversteer. When you sense the front tires slipping wide, a quick reduction of go-pedal pressure remedies the situation. The tail steps out smartly but never excessively, your arc tightens, you kiss the apex and exit the corner on the most expeditious line. Ham-handed operators will surely be intimidated by the two-axle steering, but any driver with a lick of ability can make the ST dance. While both of these sportsters feel entirely at home on a racetrack, the Focus ST is nearly two seconds quicker around the 1.6-mile, 10-turn Chrysler circuit where we ran the cars. A stability control switch in the center stack allows you to select either a sport mode or an off position. And when you choose “off,” this stability control remains delightfully disabled.
Front-seat headrests tipped too far forward to accommodate helmets top our gripe list. (Fortunately, the headrests can be removed and/or installed backwards.) A few other small complaints: Even though the ST’s interior accommodations are satisfying overall, Team RS could learn from the GTI’s dead pedal and seatback-adjuster details. Because the whopper wheels and tires were added without a complete front-suspension overhaul, the ST’s turning circle is an agonizing 40 feet—about the same space that a Chevy Silverado pickup requires. And, while Ford didn’t bother with a label indicating premium fuel is recommended, filling the tank with 87-octane gas results in a 9-hp sacrifice but no change in peak torque.
The most significant take-away from this confrontation is the Fun to Drive line in our Final Results tabulation: Note how the ST topped the GTI by two points. Considering how long and how well VW has raced slot cars, that’s a colossal achievement. Something finally caught the GTI.
View Photo Gallery
By DON SHERMAN