Ford Focus RS v Subaru WRX STI v Volkswagen Golf R Comparison: Track Test

The first part of our Ford Focus RS versus Subaru WRX STI versus Volkswagen Golf R comparison, the road test, ended with the Volkswagen claiming victory over the new Ford and the Subaru.

This, though, is the second instalment – the track element – and it's the best chance the compromised but vastly gifted RS has to win back some ground.

The plan

With each car’s fuel tank refilled – the Subaru’s the biggest at 60 litres, followed by the Volkswagen’s at 55L, and the Ford’s at 51L – we once again inflate tyres to manufacturer-recommended pressures, as we did for our previous day’s road drive.

In the case of the $50,990 Focus RS, this means 41psi in the fronts and 38psi in the rears. Subaru recommends 33psi and 32psi respectively for the $49,790 WRX STI, while the $52,740 Golf R takes 38psi all round.

We make our way some 140 kilometres south-east of Melbourne to the 1.3km Haunted Hills hillclimb circuit – otherwise known as Bryant Park and the home of the Gippsland Car Club. And, despite the grey clouds, we're fortunate enough to be greeted by a dry track.

With the threat of rain ever present, the plan is for all three testers – myself, James Ward, and Chris Atkinson – to get some seat time in all three cars, but it's ‘Atko’ tasked with setting lap times: one a standing start/flying finish lap, the other a flying lap.

For consistency – and because James and I are only too happy attempting to learn whatever we can from watching professional drivers – we give Chris two attempts at each lap, in each car.

The hardware

We mentioned our Focus RS’s $2500 optional wheel and tyre package in the on-road test. Delving a little deeper, this means its 19-inch forged alloy wheels roll on 235mm-wide, 35-aspect Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres, instead of the standard 235mm-wide, 35-aspect Michelin Pilot Super Sports.

Inside these, the RS gets four-piston Brembo brakes up front, clamping 350mm ventilated discs, and single-piston calipers out back, paired to 302mm solid discs.

But while the Ford’s package already proved to be the best of the three cars gathered here, the Subaru’s combination of four-piston Brembo calipers with 326mm ventilated discs up front and two-piston Brembo calipers with 316mm ventilated discs in the rear held up well.

The same couldn’t quite be said of the WRX STI’s somewhat disappointing 245mm-wide, 40-aspect Dunlop Sport Maxx RT tyres – a situation unlikely to improve on track.

Equipped with 235mm-wide, 35-aspect Continental ContiSportContact 5P tyres, the Golf R comes to our track battle with single-piston calipers front and rear, and 340mm ventilated discs up front and 310mm ventilated discs out back.

The Volkswagen is also the only one of our trio to employ a part-time four-wheel drive system, rather than a full-time all-wheel drive setup.

Relying heavily on extended electronic differential locks (XDLs) at the front and rear axles – as well as hydraulics from the car’s electronic stabilisation program (ESP) – the Golf R’s Haldex 5-based 4Motion system preferentially decouples the rear axle in an effort to save fuel, making the R predominantly more front-wheel drive than four-wheel drive. That is, of course, until the system detects front-wheel slip, at which point it activates the Haldex coupling via an electro-hydraulic oil pump.

By contrast, the Subaru WRX STI’s symmetrical all-wheel-drive system teams a mechanical, torque-sensing viscous limited-slip centre differential with an electronic limited-slip centre differential, and a limited-slip front differential to distribute 41 per cent of available torque to the front wheels and 59 per cent to the rears.

Active torque vectoring – which can apply braking force to an inner front wheel and distribute torque to an outer front wheel – is another feature on board the ‘Rex. However, this system only operates when the Subaru’s vehicle dynamics control (VDC) stability control system is on, or in ‘track mode’, but not with VDC completely off.

The other trick up the STI’s sleeve is its multi-mode driver control centre differential (DCCD), which allows drivers to manually adjust the degree of centre differential lockup by six ‘steps’, ranging from fully open to fully locked. Three automatic modes (Auto, Auto+, Auto-) are also available.

Far more complex than the STI’s system, the Focus RS debuts a brand-new performance all-wheel drive system with dynamic torque vectoring technology. Ford claims that, rather than using “the braking system to achieve simple vectoring effects”, its system applies “increasing tractive force directly to individual wheels”.

Just how complex is it? Well, it comprises two front drive shafts, two rear drive shafts, a three-piece propshaft, two electronically-controlled seven-pack clutch packs, a front power transfer unit (PTU), and a torque vectoring rear drive unit (RDU) – which manages front-to-rear and side-to-side torque distribution, and has its own independent electronic control unit (ECU).

Further, to ensure everything operates as intended, eight vehicle sensors monitor a raft of vehicle parameters 100 times each second. These include steering, throttle, engine output/speed, yaw rate, lateral/longitudinal acceleration, wheel speeds, the braking and stability control system, and temperatures for the RDU and PTU.

Developed by UK driveline gurus GKN Automotive, Ford says the system can direct up to 70 per cent of available torque to the rear axle, and distribute 100 per cent of available torque to either rear wheel.

The software

Headlined by its famed – or infamous, depending on who you speak to – Drift mode, the Focus RS is equipped with four selectable driving modes – Normal, Sport, Race track, and Drift – and three stability control settings – On, Sport, and Off.

Its adjustable dampers will automatically go into the firmest of two settings once Race track mode is selected, however, this can be manually overridden by pressing the suspension button somewhat oddly positioned on the end of the indicator stalk.

Transitioning from Normal to Race track notably adds weight to the steering, and increases throttle response, as well as the amount of engine noise into the cabin and pops out the back from the exhaust.

Keeping things relatively simple, the STI gives drivers a choice of three driving modes via its SI-Drive system – Intelligent, Sport, and Sport Sharp – and three options for its stability control system – On, Trac. mode, and Off.

With no adjustable suspension or variable exhaust/sound enhancer being part of the ageing STI’s repertoire, the shift from I to S# simply sharpens the throttle and weights up the steering.

Offering the widest range of adjustability, the Golf R presents drivers with five driving modes – Eco, Comfort, Normal, Race, and Individual – and On, Sport, and Off settings for stability control.

Allowing for ‘fine tuning’ of your preferences, while going from Comfort to Race automatically adds steering weight, sharpens the throttle, stiffens the suspension, and increases engine noise, Individual lets you independently customise the adaptive suspension, steering, engine, cornering lights, air conditioning, and interior engine sound to suit.

Additional gear that may prove helpful for the occasional track day is the STI’s dash top-mounted digital boost gauge, the Focus RS’s launch control system and dash top-mounted analogue oil temperature/turbo boost pressure/oil pressure gauge cluster, and the Golf R’s lap timer and oil temperature display.

On the track

With the rain holding off, all three testers throw in some initial laps, giving everyone a chance to play with cars, play with modes, and play with settings.

Immediately it’s clear that, out here, on the exceptionally smooth surface at Haunted Hills, some roles have been reversed from part one’s road drive.

The Golf feels the least thrilled with being punted around, the WRX feels excited and happy to be there, and the Focus is simply in its element.

“It’s fun,” Atko says after his first stint in the RS.

“I went with traction control off and it’s really taily. It’s quite good fun but you’ve got your hands full.

“You really have to be sharp to drive it well. It’s easy to be over-exuberant in this car and slide the car too much, but it’s fun.”

James too is all smiles after his crack at the fiery Focus.

“It looks cool, it sounds cool, it’s a heap of fun, so it is a great little car, and I really, really like it. But I can see, if you’re pushing hard on those tyres, they’re kind of a false god, as you have loads of grip until you don’t have grip, and then you’re going much too fast and it’s then really awkward.

“I love the look of the Ford, though. It’s the car you buy when you’re at that point in your life where you don’t care about the backseat, or the boot, or the buttons, or the dashboard, or anything. Even just looking at it in the car park, it looks unreal.”

Where the Ford felt fidgety and unsettled on the road, on the track, with its Race track mode engaged and the dampers in their firmest setting, the RS just feels ‘right’ – its audible-from-anywhere-on-the-circuit exhaust pops only adding to the experience.

The Recaro seats, too, hold you in exceptionally well. And, while all three testers continued to lament the seat’s inability to be lowered, the track-spec bucket seats ensure your bum stays put when pushing hard.

It may fall short of the Subaru for outright communication between car and driver, but it’s the RS’s lateral grip that really impresses most.

Sure, it’s fast from Point A to Point B, but the cornering speeds the car can achieve are something else. Add to this its ultra-responsive agility and, on track, the Focus RS feels like the road-registered tarmac rally car we wanted it to be out on the road. That said, Atko still has his reservations.

“It’s still missing that feedback and feeling from the road – I don’t feel as connected as with the Subaru, for sure," he says.

“In the Subaru you just know exactly what’s going to happen and where you’re going to go. And whether that’s because I’ve driven them for years or what, but I don’t get that feeling with the RS as much. It’s more difficult to drive, more edgy than the Subaru, but it’s still fun.”

Offering the most feedback and information to its driver, the Subaru immerses you in diff noise and gearbox whine from the second you roll out of the pits and onto the track. Without any form of variable exhaust/engine noise system, however, the ‘Rex’s iconic burble is also largely muffled, compared with the heightened aural experiences available on the Focus and Golf.

A few laps in, though, and the STI feels as authentic and unpretentious on track as it does on road.

“I enjoyed it,” Chris says hopping out after his first track laps in the heavily-winged WRX.

“The car’s fun. It’s raw, you turn everything off and it slides a bit and hooks up wheels and it’s good fun to drive. For sure, of course, on a track there’s a little bit of understeer, but if you can drive in the correct manner – get the car turned and use the diff and pull it out of the corners – it actually handles pretty well.

“It’s a little bit ‘lazy’ in the long corners – there’s body roll – but it’s not as bad as you’d think, and I just found it easy to drive fast and to push to the limits straight away, and not have any real moments.”

In the STI, heavy steering partners with a solid but accurate six-speed manual shift action and impeccably positioned pedals – the Subaru’s middle one being the firmest of our three cars. Outright braking performance may be slightly short of the RS, but the STI’s stoppers also hold up better to consecutive quick laps than the Golf R’s.

Feeling its weight more than the other two around Bryant Park’s tight turns and not insignificant elevation changes, the STI’s biggest shortfall comes from the four tyres connecting it with the road beneath.

Its trick diffs do a terrific job of covering for the lack of grip, but the Subaru simply can’t compete with the Ford when it comes to grip, nimbleness, and ‘chuckability’.

That said, the Japanese four-door still feels more comfortable and more at home on the track than the German five-door, maintaining good balance and stability, and with an engine that, if kept above 3000rpm, can still hustle.

A not-so-closeted fan of the WRX STI, James appreciates the car’s ‘talkative’ nature.

“You can really mess around in the Subaru. It lets you know when you’re doing something wrong, and gives you the chance to correct it before bad things happen.”

Hop into the Golf R and, while it definitely has the ability to be respectably quick when pushed, when you do push, it feels as though you’re perhaps hassling it more than it would ultimately prefer.

Still, even on track, the Volkswagen easily leads the pack in terms of refinement and polish. However, here, and in this company, it errs on becoming a negative, somewhat dulling the experience.

Offering the least amount of feedback through the wheel – even in its most aggressive Race mode – the Golf R’s more premium demeanour cocoons its driver in a way neither the Focus RS or WRX STI could even contemplate.

It cocoons them from a sense of speed, making the R deceptively fast, but also cocoons them from some degree of involvement and engagement. On the road, as we experienced in the first half of this two-part comparison, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But on a racetrack – particularly in the company of the RS and STI – it becomes more of a negative.

“I struggled a lot in the corners,” Chris says.

“There was a lot of understeer and I didn’t really feel like I could drive the rear wheels at all – it felt like most of the power was going to the front wheels. And then you had a lot of wheelspin and slip and the diff wasn’t working that well.

“It felt a lot like a front-wheel-drive car. The car’s still good and nimble and has really good change of direction and it’s fun – you can play with it – but it’s just missing that outright performance on a track.”

James too, while impressed with the Golf R’s potential, was left a little cold.

“The Golf, again, really surprised. It’s easy to drive, it’s pretty smooth, it sounds good, it’s fast, but it just dulls how well and how fast it’s doing things.”

Easily the most discreet car here, the Golf R may not provide the same level of theatre as the Focus RS or connection as the WRX STI, but around the track, it’s planted, capable, compliant, composed, and has a flexible engine with solid mid-range torque.

The R also has the slickest gearbox of the bunch. However, it lacks the slight edginess and excitement you want when lapping a racetrack with enthusiasm.

Laps and times

With our dry track remaining so, we throw Atko his helmet, and grab a stopwatch and a handful of GoPros.

First up, the 221kW/407Nm Subaru WRX STI.

Starting with a clean, all-paw launch, Chris fires the STI towards Haunted Hills’s downhill Turn Two, squeals tyres through Turns Seven, Eight and Nine, and holds third gear up the hill out of Turn 11, before dropping back to second gear for the Turn 12, 13, 14 complex. Blasting back uphill to the start/finish line, he crosses the line in 1:05.18.

Using the standing-start lap as an effective out-lap, Chris keeps the hammer down and completes his first flying lap in the STI in 1:03.40.

After a cool-down lap and some idle chit chat, we reset the car, the cameras, and the timers, and brace for the STI’s second attempt. Three, Two, One, Go! Again, Atko skilfully avoids bogging the red ‘Rex off the line.

Always eager to improve, Atko puts the foot down and completes the STI’s second standing start lap in 1:04.87 (an improvement of 0:00.31s), before completing the second flying lap in 1:03.30 (an improvement of 0:00.10s).

Next up, it’s the 206kW/380Nm Volkswagen Golf R.

With launch control restricted to dual-clutch automatic DSG models, Chris has to rely on the Golf R’s standard six-speed manual transmission – and his own fine motor skills – to get the German hot-hatch cleanly off the line.

Visibly slower out of the gates than the STI, the Golf R chirps its way off the line before Chris hustles it through Turns Two and Three and down into Turns Four and Five.

Dealing with spinning and squealing tyres up and around Turn Seven and through Haunted Hills’s Turn Eight and Nine switchback, Chris keeps the Volkswagen in second gear up and out of Turn 11, before working hard to keep things neat through Turns 12, 13, and 14. He crosses the line in 1:05.38 – 0:00.20s off the STI’s first run.

Again using the standing-start lap as an out-lap for the flying lap, Chris completes his first flying lap in the Golf R in 1:03.68 – 0:00.28s off the STI’s first run.

Keeping things consistent, both Atko and the Volkswagen get a cool-down lap before we reset and ready the car, cameras, and timers for the Golf R’s second run.

Three, Two, One, Go! Again, Chris does his best to get the Golf sharply off the line, but with tyres already starting to fall away to some degree, the R’s second standing start lap is actually 0:00.27s slower than its first at 1:05.65. The deficit flows on to affect the second flying lap of 1:03.80 – 0:00.12s off the Golf R’s first flying lap and half a second off the STI’s fastest lap.

Lastly, the 257kW/440Nm Ford Focus RS.

Aided by its standard launch control system, punchy engine, and prolific grip, the RS blitzes the field, recording an initial standing start lap of 1:04.50, and a first flying lap of 1:01.92 – outdoing the STI’s quickest times by 0:00.37s and 0:01.38s, respectively.

Already making its presence felt, a cool-down lap, chat, and camera and timer reset later, and Chris and the Ford are ready to have a final crack.

Three, Two, One, Go! With the RS bouncing off its launch control rev limiter, Atko lets the wannabe rally rocket off its leash. Sitting flatter through corners than either of the other two, the Focus simply devourers the Bryant Park circuit, punching hard out of each corner to record a day-best standing start lap of 1:03.37 and a fractionally slower second flying lap of 1:01.97.

The results, then

Our timed track laps completed, the results are clear, with the Focus RS topping the standing start charts by a cool one and a half seconds (0:01.50s) from the WRX STI and more than two seconds (0:02.01s) from the Golf R.

On fastest flying laps, the RS gapped the STI by 0:01.38s and the R by 0:01.76s.

“The difference between the STI and the Golf R was closer than I was expecting,” Chris says looking at the final times. “But the Golf’s slower second run shows you that the tyres went off – that really affected it.”

As for the outright time difference between the Focus RS and the other two? “That’s a lot around here,” Chris says. “The Focus is a lot faster.”

“Put the launch to one side, though,” James says, “and those times show how competent the Golf is."

“But I’d love to get either the Subaru on good tyres or the Ford on standard tyres. I reckon if we put the Subaru on the Ford’s optional Michelins, it’d be a really, really, interesting re-match.”

We knew from day one of this test that with its track-focussed setup, stickier rubber, larger front brakes, and extra power and torque, that the Ford Focus RS would be the quickest on the circuit. What we didn’t know, was by just how much, and how far off the pace the other two would be.

And, for the curious among you, the Volkswagen Golf R again proved the most fuel efficient of our trio - just as it did in part one, the on-road test. Managing to average 12.2 litres per 100km over the day, the R compared well against the almost identical 15.4L/100km and 15.5L/100km of the Subaru WRX STI and Ford Focus RS, respectively.

So with two days of testing done – both on road and on track – and over 700km worth of driving completed in each car, we asked Atko and James two final questions.

Which car performed the best for them at Haunted Hills, and which car would they take home for themselves?

Atko’s pick

“The Ford is the most challenging to drive, the most on-edge, but in a good way. It’s like hopping in a race car and you’re at the edge of the limit, and, with traction control off, you have to drive it well to get a good time out of it. You can easily muck up.

“I thought the STI would have been closer to the Ford than it was, and the Golf felt like it would’ve been even further behind, but the times don’t show that.

“Which one would I want to hop back in now and have another go in? I’m going to go in the Ford – that’s a challenge to me to try and get that faster and manage that rear and keep the car under control. It’s not easy to drive, but it’s a good challenge and it’s quick. So, from that point of view, I’d hop back in the Ford and have another go, because it is a challenge.

"But which would I recommend? I’d recommend the Golf R, but I’d take the STI for myself.”

James’s pick

“The grip in the Ford – we saw it – is pretty amazing. But you’ve got it, until you don’t – it’s a light-switch change to a lack of grip, and you don’t get that progressive slide or feel.

“I think the Subaru for this, definitely feels the most ‘old’. It’s basic, it’s old, you do get that occasional steering rattle and knock as it’s coming through a corner, you are very connected to the car, you get a lot of communication about how you’re performing, how the car feels, and you can push the car harder. But when you’re not doing it right, it gives you a bit of warning.

“The Subaru has done exactly what I had expected. It neither has neither exceeded nor disappointed in my expectations. It’s been the car I knew it would be and expected it to be. The Golf has come right up. I didn’t expect it to be that confident. It’s really impressive.

“The Ford is an absolute hoot, but it is a challenging car. You can’t just get in and be a hero. You’ve got to be thinking about it if you’re going to be pushing that car hard.

“I kind of want to jump back into the Ford now as well, because I want to get better at it. The Subaru, I know I can get in and know I can have fun – it’s a known known. And the Golf… It’s great but it’s not that exciting and I don’t feel engaged by that car.

“But you ask me, as a normal person, ‘Of these three, which one should I buy?’ The Golf. But which one would I have? I’d have the STI. But if I’m recommending one, it’s the Golf.”


So, which is best? The Ford Focus RS, Subaru WRX STI, or Volkswagen Golf R?

Well, if nothing else, this marathon two-part road and track comparison made one thing painfully clear: these are three very different cars, but all three perform exceptionally well.

Both on road and on track, all three impressed. At no point across our two days of testing did one car reveal itself to be the weak one. None of them struggled, none of them fell away, and none of them failed to compete against the others.

The new Focus RS is a bit of a tricky car to broadly recommend as it is easily the most compromised of these three. However, some buyers will love it for that, as it’s also the most exciting.

Regardless of where you stand, or of which car ends up in your driveway, to own any of these three circa-$50k performance cars would be a joy. It just comes down to what you need, what you want, and what you like.

Still, I can’t wait to see what the already-spied 2017 Ford Focus RS500 will be like… Watch this space.

Click on the Photos tab for more Ford Focus RS, Subaru WRX STI and Volkswagen Golf R images by Tom Fraser.

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