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Focus RS Showdown

Outside the US, the Ford Focus RS has been an iconic hot hatch for nearly 15 years and one that has left us on our hands and knees begging Ford to sell them on this side of the pond. Ford has finally heard the cries and is offering the Focus RS here for the first time. But at $35,000 we cannot ignore its top competitors: Volkswagen Golf R, Subaru WRX STI and the near extinct Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X. All are all-wheel drive with roughly 300+ hp and four doors. So does the Focus RS live up to the massive hype that surrounds it or do these old favorites give it a run for its money?

I climbed into the familiar Golf R first. We have driven the GTI and Golf R on numerous occasions and we see why people like it. The chassis is by far the most refined of the group. The interior is a nice place to be. The materials are high quality and the seats are the most comfortable. However, this is the first time we’ve driven the Golf R with the 6 speed manual transmission. As good as the VW DSG transmission is, the manual makes the car that much better. Grab the carbon fiber looking leather shift knob and shift gears with ease while driving around town and you won’t arrive to work with a sore left leg due to its feather-light clutch. But this ease falls on its face in the canyons. Fast shifting makes it easy to get the wrong gear.

VW gave the Golf R their standard 2.0L turbocharged engine cranked to 292 hp and paired it with a Haldex awd system able to send as much as 50% of the power to the rear wheels when needed. You can feel the awd system at work coming out of the corners keeping the backend in check and reducing torque steer. The steering is light and quick but offers little feedback. It maintains its refined and sheltering demeanor in every area.

My biggest complaint about the Golf R is its looks. Where is the flamboyancy? C’mon Volkswagen! A hot hatch is about fun not refinement. It takes itself too seriously. Its name is fitting in that it is like a businessman playing golf with his clients rather than the one who lets loose a little on the company business trip. The R may not be the most fun in the canyons but it is a laugh on the freeway. Its power delivery is great for zipping through traffic and eating the miles. Drop a gear, put your foot down and it throws you back in your seat, it was developed for the Autobahn after all.

The polar opposite car to the Golf R is the Lancer Evo. Anytime commuting was involved, we fought to avoid the Evo. It is anything but refined. It is loud and buzzy inside. The seats are now cheap, economy car quality instead of the available Recaros we love. They make the already poor driving position feel that much worse, the suspension is harsh on the freeway and actually sent Todd to the chiropractor when we got back from shooting (yes, this happened). The gearbox offers only five gears while everything else has six. The trunk holds your backpack if it’s small and the build quality is awful. But, damn what a car! The drivetrain has been unchanged since its release in 2008 with 291 hp, the lowest of the group but it’s one of the most exciting. The Evo exhibits a raw feel, giving you only the necessary tools for the job. The throttle for instance, despite being attached to a 2.0L four banger with a big turbo, is as responsive and twitchy as a terrier nipping at your ankles. The clutch is heavy and the shifter requires a bit of effort to change gears. Throw it into a corner and the car just grips thanks to its S-AWC (super all wheel control) system managing torque invisibly in the background. But, you will have to hang on for dear life because the seats offer zero support whatsoever. The build quality may be rivaled by LEGO but this car will likely go down in history as one of the all-time great all-wheel drive cars. But I recommend you trailer it to your favorite road or track, and get the Recaro seats.

In between the Golf R and the Evo X falls the Subaru. The current WRX STI isn’t without faults but it is one of our most loved and highly recommended cars on our podcast. The STI is the perfect all-arounder. It is livable in traffic and a laugh on a back road. The trunk is shockingly cavernous, especially when compared to the Evo’s. It is easy enough to driver for anyone to get in and drive fast. Like the Evo, the drivetrain has remained largely the same for the last 12 years. The 2.5L turbo four makes 310 hp and it feels like enough, but we do think it is time to change things up a bit rather than simply making due with “enough.” The exhaust has the classic Subaru burble but the induction noise is piped into the cabin. Rowing through the gears and the shifter feels notchy in a good way. The throws are short and direct making grabbing gears easy. Let off the gas and you’ll hear the blow-off valve hiss and whistle Fast and Furious style. The brakes, as we discovered in a sudden freeway traffic stop, are excellent. The same could not be said of the 2000s Corolla that nearly embedded itself into the Subaru bumper. A very close call. Up in the canyons you’ll quickly realize how solid the chassis is. The torque vectoring system isn’t nearly as invisible as it is in the Evo. Through the tighter turns you can feel it pulsing through the wheel which is a very odd sensation but one you get used to quickly. The STI and the Evo are the only cars with hydraulic steering racks, but thanks to the STI’s pulsating torque vectoring you lose some of the road feel through the wheel. The tires are where the STI stumbles. The Dunlops found on the car exhibit understeer in places where the other cars glide through without a fuss. This is also the only car that flirted with overheating in the 100+° weather.

The Focus RS is not only a brand new model but this one in particular was a brand new car having reached its 1000-mile break-in point on the way to the first day of the shoot. Let’s just get this out of the way and say the RS is freaking amazing in nearly every way. If you look up “hot hatch” in a dictionary, you’ll find a picture of this Nitrous Blue RS. The color just pops in the sun with a hint of metallic flake. It is lathered in aggressive body work and a huge rear wing. Ford took the sensible small hatchback and stuffed a 2.3L tur- I mean EcoBoost - Mustang 4 cylinder under the hood, with the volume turned to 11 and a torque vectoring awd system to contain all 350 hp. By adding Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires on all corners Ford has created the new hot hatch poster child. The torque vectoring system can send up to 70% of the power to the rear wheels and in drift mode, a mode that the country that invented hooning is trying to outlaw, can send 100% of that power to the outside wheel allowing for one helluva good time. Leave it in track mode though and you get sharper throttle response but still have the ability to tone the stiff suspension back down to sport mode allowing for fun without the sore back. Chuck it into a corner and the levels of g-force rearrange your facial features. Get back on power and you’ll feel a bit of torque steer which adds to the excitement. Even the interior is a nice place to be, second only to the Golf R. My main gripe is a personal one, the Recaro seats are aggressively bolstered and a bit tight on my thighs. But who cares? On paper, a 350 hp Focus sounds like a recipe for disaster but Ford has made the RS well worth the wait.

So which is best? As always there’s an element of personal preference involved. For me, the Golf R is a fantastic car on its own but in this company it feels like the dorky neighborhood rich kid trying to fit in with the neighborhood athletes. For that reason, I put it last. The Evo, despite how good it is to drive, fails nearly every other important measure. We hope with the recent purchase of Mitsubishi by Nissan that they will be able to save the car and that we will see an Evo XI in the not-too-distant-future because this car is just that good to drive.

I debated on my top choice for a long time. The Focus RS is by far the best car here. The performance is mind-numbing, it looks great, and is the hot hatch we’ve been waiting for but it’s a $40k as tested Focus. The STI isn’t the best car here but it is the one I kept going back to. I’m not entirely certain why but the car just speaks to me. I didn’t want to get out of it. Perhaps it was the aggressive styling. Every time I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that big, stupid wing or heard the lovely turbo noises I giggled. And that is ultimately what matters, the car that speaks to you most and puts a smile on your face, the intangible things that make all the difference in the world. For me, the STI wins by the slimmest of margins. But, in keeping with Everyday Driver tradition, Todd and Paul each have different winners of their own.

Photos: Chance Hales

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