The Ford Focus ST has blown onto the hot-hatch scene. Will it cause a hurricane to rip through the rock-solid Volkswagen Golf GTI and Renault Megane RS265? Words: Jez Spinks. Photos: Chris Brasher.
Hands up if you still think you can only have fun in a rear-wheel-drive car. If you’ve lifted one of your upper limbs then you need to get behind the wheel of the best exponents of the front-wheel-drive hot-hatch breed.
And we have three of the finest here.
There are still squabbles about who actually built the world’s first ever hot-hatch, though what isn’t in question is that Renault and Volkswagen were right in there during the embryonic stages of the ultimate affordable performance car in the mid-1970s.
The Renault 5 Gordini (or Alpine) and Volkswagen Golf GTI both emerged in 1976 as the sporty take on the conventional hatchback body style.
And 36 years later, the two brands are still at it. The Golf GTI, of course, continues as the most famous of the genre, currently in its sixth generation and with a seventh about a year away from going on sale in Australia.
Renault’s small hatch today is the Megane.
The French company takes its hot-hatches so seriously that it operates a separate division – called RenaultSport – to build them. That’s where the RS initials come into play in the RS265 badge, with the numbers representing the power hike for the 2012 Megane RS, a model that first came out in 2009 as the RS250.
That makes the Ford Focus ST the newest contender here, having just launched in Australia. This isn’t a hot-hatch without its own lineage, though, with the Blue Oval having produced a number of memorable fast small cars since the turn of the 1980s.
We can tell you in advance that all three of these cars prove that Europe remains untouchable as the king of the hot-hatch-making continents. But which one of the trio will emerge triumphant here?
Lift the bonnet on the Focus ST, Megane RS265 and Golf GTI and you’ll be greeted by a common engine formula: a 2.0-litre four-cylinder with a single turbocharger to force more air into the circa-500cc combustion chambers to mix with the fuel (that’s directly injected in the ST and GTI).
The output results are not that dissimilar between the Focus ST and Megane RS265, with the Renault topping the power and torque tables with 195kW (265PS) and 360Nm compared with the Ford’s 184kW and 340Nm (though this figure jumps to 360Nm briefly on overboost).
Golf GTI owners would have reason to be feel slightly belittled with the Volkswagen offering 155kW and 280Nm.
The VW does boast the widest torque plateau, however, with its maximum pulling power produced all the way from 1700 to 5200rpm. The Focus ST delivers its 340Nm between 2000 and 4500rpm – with a brief surge of 20Nm coming on with kickdown overboost – while the Renault’s peak torque arrives at 3000rpm but with 80 per cent of that available from just 1900rpm.
The upshot is three cars that provide great tractability and immense mid-range driveability that makes freeway and city driving absolutely effortless. Lag isn’t an issue, giving you instead just linear acceleration that belies their turbocharged nature.
The RenaultSport Megane (there’s more than one way to refer to this car) actually produces the same 184kW as the previous RS250 version and the ST in default mode, and it takes the pressing of a Sport mode button to unleash the RS265’s full 195kW.
There’s a noticeable change in throttle response (making it too touchy for city driving), the exhaust burbles on over-run, and the electronic stability control (ESC) threshold is raised. (ESC can be switched completely off in the ST and RS; the GTI suggests it can but never disappears entirely.)
The in-gear performance of both the ST and RS265 is particularly special, with the Focus feeling the strongest off idle before our non-stopwatch rolling tests, from 80-120km/h and 110km/h upwards, reveal the Ford and Renault are evenly matched.
For those driving enthusiasts focused on standing-start performance, the Renault Megane RS265 will reach that metaphorical 100km/h chequered flag half a second before the next car, according to each of the car maker’s own figures. The Renault takes 6.0 seconds compared with 6.5sec for the Ford and 6.9sec for the GTI.
The GTI’s sprint time is identical whether the sporty Golf is fitted with the standard six-speed manual or, as on our test car, the optional six-speed dual-clutch automatic. You don’t get a choice with the others; it’s six-speed manual or nothing.
The ST’s 20 per cent fuel efficiency improvement over the 2.5-litre five-cylinder XR5 Turbo it replaces gives it the bragging rights for consumption here, with its 7.4L/100km official combined figure comparing with 7.7L/100km for the Golf and 8.2L/100km for the Megane.
An entertaining soundtrack comes standard regardless of whether you opt for your hot-hatch from Germany (ST and GTI) or France (RS265).
The Golf’s exhaust pipes parp on upshifts (an aural treat not experienced with manual gearbox versions), and the Renault reaches a turbo-whooshing crescendo above 6000rpm.
But top of the charts is the Focus ST, which charges along with an addictively bassy growl that resonates nicely in the cabin – thanks to the retention (from its XR5 Turbo predecessor) of the Sound Symposer that pipes noise from the engine bay into the cabin.
ON ROAD AND TRACK
Ask the chief engineer of any powerful front-drive car what their biggest challenge was, and it’s more than likely they’ll say just two words: torque steer.
It’s a term applied to the effect of the engine’s power being fed to the same wheels that are also responsible for determining the direction of the car.
Yet while the Renault Megane RS265 has the most power here, it’s the Focus ST where the symptomatic tugging on the steering wheel is most noticeable.
Ford says it could have dialled more torque steer out of its hot-hatch but determined it wanted to retain some drama – believing it was an important part of the driving experience.
None of CarAdvice’s road test team found the ST’s torque steer, which is most evident in hard straight-line acceleration, off-putting, though equally all found the Renault’s relatively calm rack all the more impressive.
The Megane also generates the best front-end grip and it’s no coincidence that the Renault is the only car in the group to have gone the extra engineering step with a mechanical limited-slip differential. (The GTI features an electronic version that alternatively dabs the brakes of the inside front wheel to help distribute more power to the outside wheel with more traction).
In dry conditions, the Renault feels the quickest – with the type of slingshot acceleration out of corners that can leave the driver grabbing at both superlatives and expletives.
The French hatch’s advantage felt slightly neutralised during our wet session on the racetrack, though its superior, tauter body control was still evident. No doubt the low, compact shape of the three-door hatch – Renault likes to call it a coupe – contributes to it having the flattest stance and greatest stability.
There’s noticeable roll from the GTI and ST on the circuit, and the Focus’s rear end was the keenest to step out when braking into corners, though both the VW and Ford delivered the kind of grip and composure that wouldn’t disappoint owners wanting to take them to the track.
For GTI buyers, though, we’d recommend paying $1500 to replace the standard suspension with the optional Active Chassis Control variable dampers that bring slightly sharper handling in Dynamic mode (and a slightly more flexible ride in Comfort).
For the most direct steering, the Ford Focus ST can’t be beaten – with less than two turns from lock to lock. There’s also a satisfying heft to the ST’s steering, which is also communicative like the Renault’s helm. There’s less feedback from the GTI, though its steering is reassuringly linear and uncorrupted.
It’s the first to understeer, though, and its balance, while good, isn’t as remarkable on the road as either the Focus ST or Megane RS265, which both handle rapid changes of direction with pivotal brilliance.
The Focus ST, Megane RS and Golf GTI all sit on stiffened underpinnings yet all three are sufficiently comfortable for daily driving.
The GTI’s suspension is the most supple, the RS265’s is the firmest, and the ST’s sits somewhere in between as the best balance of comfort and handling.
The ST’s 18-inch tyres make the most noise, however, followed by the GTI and then the RS.
Practicality is still part of the fundamental appeal of hot-hatches. The Renault is partly handicapped in this area because the Megane RS265 is only available as a three-door.
And while the CarAdvice team unanimously votes for the Renault as the style king in this group, the sloping roof does squeeze headroom adding to the rear-seat space being generally better for shorter rather than longer journeys.
Ergonomics are also an issue – with some bizarre button placements, such as the cruise control switch on the centre console, and unintuitive audio buttons. The front seats offer plenty of comfort, though some drivers might appreciate some extra bolstering (that isn’t lacking in either the GTI or ST).
Our Golf GTI test car was also a three-door, though a five-door version is available and the better bet practically – and visually – if you could stretch the extra $1500 to the $40,490 starting price.
Whichever version you get, you’ll get the classiest-looking cabin of any hatch currently on sale. There’s only one small-car interior that’s going to better it, and that’s the new-generation Golf due next year.
Only the GTI, though, comes with the sporty red stitching throughout, plus that tartan upholstery that has been a trademark of the car since the first generation.
Ford’s made an effort to make the ST stand out from the regular versions of the Focus. There’s no shortage of ST badges almost everywhere imaginable, inside and out, there’s the exclusive-to-ST ‘Tangerine Scream’ orange hue among the paint choices, and a row of gauges on top of the dash, though what’s impossible to miss are the chunky, cloth and leather Recaro sports seats (especially in the yellow/black colour set of our test car).
They’re quite brilliant, too – limiting your body’s movement during cornering yet providing sufficient breathing space and ache-free cushioning for hours of freeway driving.
VALUE AND FEATURES
If the Renault Megane RS265 leads on performance and the Volkswagen Golf GTI is ahead of the game on interior quality and presentation, the area the Ford Focus ST is unrivalled on is value for money.
Not only is the Blue Oval’s hot-hatch the most affordable contender here at $38,290 but it’s also the most liberally equipped. It almost makes the $38,490 GTI look like a poverty pack special in comparison.
While the sportiest front-drive Golf includes seven airbags, foglights, 17-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, 6.5-inch touchscreen, leather sports steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers and one-touch windows all round, the ST sees that standard-gear hand and raises it with full Bluetooth audio streaming, voice command control, metallic paint, satellite navigation, 18-inch alloy wheels, and a rear-view camera. (And unlike the XR5 Turbo, this time there’s cruise control.)
As one of the more expensive hot-hatches on the market, thankfully the $42,990-plus Renault Megane RS265 is decently stocked. There are 18-inch alloys, eight airbags, Brembo front brakes, LED daytime running lights, rear parking sensors, limited slip differential, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth audio streaming and wipers with rain sensor among its feature highlights.
But you need to step up to the more expensive Trophy to gain Recaro cloth front sports seats and pay more again for the Trophy+ that brings sat-nav and reversing camera (plus some other items).
Even as it sees out its twighlight years, we still love the Mk6 Volkswagen Golf GTI. As a hot-hatch combining a high-quality, feel-good interior with handling and performance a motorist of any level or driving interest can enjoy, the GTI remains unsurpassed.
But with the sixth-generation Golf effectively being a major update of the Mk5 out since 2004, a fresh look and approach is needed – and the seventh iteration of the GTI is now keenly awaited for its release sometime in the second half of 2013.
And if you’re a driving enthusiast wanting to occasionally head to the race track, it’s the Ford Focus ST and Renault Megane RS265 that will deliver the greater involvement and bigger thrills – not least because the GTI is relatively slow in comparison.
It’s a ridiculously tight call between the Ford and Renault. The ST is stunning value for money – cheaper than all its key rivals yet with a standard features list longer than any – and is a superbly balanced car complemented by a terrific engine and the best seats in the hot-hatch business.
But it’s once again the French that prove they are the undisputed masters of the hot-hatch genre. The Renault Megane RS265 can justify its extra premium over the ST with more than just quicker performance. This is a car that redefines front-wheel-drive handling.