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Ford Focus RS vs Mercedes-AMG A45 vs VW Golf GTI 40 Years

By David Morley | Photos Cristian Brunelli, 05 Dec 2016 Reviews

Ford Focus RS vs Mercedes-AMG A45 vs VW Golf GTI 40 Years

Ford’s drift-tastic Focus RS has received plenty of praise, but how does it rate against Europe’s hottest hatches?

It takes a pretty special kind of car to alter perceptions. But, in its own way, each one of these three hot hatchbacks has done just that.

The AMG A45, for instance, caused more than one punter to wonder aloud if they really needed the C63 or E63 after all. With all-wheel drive, a banzai launch-control system and 265kW (back then; 280kW these days) the A45 could sure as hell walk the AMG walk.

It might not have been a conventional AMG, but it was clearly cut from the same cloth. The A45 was also the car that made AMG buyers sit up and take notice of turbocharging so again, it broke new ground and expanded horizons.

Ford Focus RS vs VW Golf GTI 40 YearsThe 2016 Focus RS is another ground-breaker. It’s the first time the hottest Ford hatchback has benefited from all-wheel drive and that’s a concept some traditional hot-hatch fans have found a bit confronting. But the results certainly have people talking – and thinking.

On a bigger scale, the whole RS franchise has been, for decades, convincing people that their ideas about Ford only building ho-hum, get-you-to-work transport modules is wrong. There’s no cultural cringe with a Ford if it wears the RS tag.

And then there’s the granddaddy of all hot-hatches, the Golf GTI. Of course, conventional wisdom these days is that to go V.F. Fast in a Golf, you need the all-paw R model. But, in keeping with that altered perceptions thing, every time I’ve ever driven a Golf GTI Performance (on which this 40th anniversary model is based) I’ve walked away wondering if I really do need a Golf R.

VW Golf GTI frontOf course, based on the lessons of life, one of these three is going to be more deserving of your hard-earned than the others. And that’s what we’re here to find out. So let’s start at the dragstrip, Heathcote Raceway in rural Victoria, no less.

Straight-line thrust was once the preserve of big-inch, rear-drive cars, in this country anyway, but that’s really one of the first perceptions that gets hacked to bits by this fiery little brigade. The conventional wisdom about mid-range thrust and overtaking ability also takes a bath in this company, because here are three very fit turbomotors with as little lag as you’re likely to find.

Ford Focus RS rear drivingThe Focus RS is the trickiest to get across the quarter-mile cleanly. For a start, it’s a manual when the others are two-pedal jobs, but also it has launch control that you or I can beat. See, the launch function will only allow for about 4000rpm to spool up. But, switch launch off, and you can bang it off the limiter before dumping the clutch.

And because there’s so much grip, it’ll scuttle off down the strip even faster. And for those that thought the clutch in an all-wheel drive car was going to be the fuse: guess again, because even with such abuse, the clutch felt rock-solid. Didn’t make any sulky smells, either.

If anything, there’s a tiny delay between each upshift banging home – maybe that helps save the clutch a little. Get it spot-on and you’ll cover the first 400m in 13.08sec with 100 coming up in 5.04sec. It’s not the silkiest engine though, with a bit of vibeyness that kind of reminds me of a five-cylinder, but while it’s a bit grainy, it’s also the angriest and shoutiest, especially when you’re smacking it hard, when it sounds for all the world like it’s mid-stage somewhere in a Finnish forest.

Merc-AMG A45 frontThe AMG trumps the Focus by only 23kW, yet it fair dinkum slaughters the Ford – and the VW – on the strip. How so? Simply the A45 has one of the best launch-control system in the game. It turns a 13-second car into a 12-second one (12.41sec to be precise) and gets it out of the hole so sharpish that 100km/h comes up in 4.15sec.

The launch-control is, in the manner of these things, pretty violent, but you can’t argue with the results. The 2.0-litre also has some real personality with plenty of banging and popping on the over-run and lots of rushing-air noises. Use the paddles to short-shift it and you can almost play tunes. Farty, burpy tunes, but tunes nevertheless.

All of which makes the Golf GTI look a bit flat. I mean, 14-dead and 6.0sec to 100km/h is not mooching about with your hands in your pockets, but still… It’d be quicker if its launch-control wasn’t the polar opposite of the AMG’s.

Ford Focus RS vs Mercedes-AMG A45 vs VW Golf GTI 40 Years parkedWhere the A45 feels like a controlled explosion, the Volkswagen’s launch makes you want to hold its hand while you cross the street. You actually need to pedal the thing just before the one-two shift and it’s always odds-on to break into a strut-shattering version of axle-tramp if you’re too slow modulating the gas.

Beyond that, it’s fine. Of course, even with the equal of the AMG’s launch control, and not even because of the whole front-drive thing, the GTI’s 195kW would still feel a bit light on (in this company, you understand). But, man, is it a sweetie. The torque curve feels very linear and while there’s a feeling of some real meat in the delivery and feel, it’s tractable and has plenty of personality.

It’s not just straight lines where this lot excel, of course. None of them have what you’d call a boulevard ride, but if you can live with that, then not too much is going to be quicker A to B on a twisty section. Actually, a lack of plush in the ride department is more than just something you might comment on, because on longer runs over patchy turf, you might just find them too uncompromising.

VW golfgti -interiorAn hour on a back road is pretty much enough for most backsides to cope with, but if there’s a preferred hatch for such work, it’d have to be the Golf. In fact, the Volkswagen seems to have a broader spectrum of acceptability when it comes to not knocking your teeth out and it’d definitely be our first choice for our typically crook regional roads. Yeah, it’s firm (even in Comfort mode), but only enough to make it corner flatly and beyond that, it feels remarkably like any other modern Golf. It’s the quietest inside of this lot, too.

The Focus is at the other end of the scale and, over rough stuff, feels like a prizefighter just before the bell for round one, bobbing up and down on the balls of its feet, just waiting to swing the first haymaker. And, like a boxer, it seems pretty keen to beat you to a pulp if you don’t dodge the lumpy, knuckly bits. The adjustable suspension does make a difference but you won’t be needing the sportier settings much.

Merc-amg rear drivingSomewhere in the middle of all that sits the AMG. It can feel a little crashy over short, sharp, crumbly bits of bitumen and, let’s not beat around the bush here: with the dampers set on Normal, it’s hard. On Sport, it’s too hard. In fact, Sport is so fidgety, it feels very tippy-toed on a damp road.

What saves the A45, though, is that it feels like it has more suspension travel. It’s not exactly lopey, but it does feel like it’ll soak up a bit more crap at the extreme end of things – with the dampers switched to Normal – even if a bump with some lock on briefly reveals the unsprung mass of that all-wheel drive set-up. It also relies on its front end and there’s a distinct front bias, which makes it benign on back roads.

Merc-AMG interior drivingAnd that’s in stark contrast to the Focus RS, which is tuned to oversteer at the limit and therefore makes the Ford feel less of a compromise, especially with the stiff ride. You can’t argue with the Ford’s devotion to the cause, however. The slight downside is that the steering feels particularly artificial: it points accurately but it never loads up, despite offering plenty of self-centring. Slightly weird, but not unusual in a world where an electric motor, not hydraulic fluid, is doing the pushing.

The VW probably owns the steering-feel trophy and, again, it backs up the theory that the Volkswagen-Audi Group product has nailed electronic power-steering the best. It’s certainly the most natural steerer and the only gripe is that the tiller plays a little dead when you’re right in the entrails of the torque curve and the front end simply has too much to deal with, at which point torque-steer appears briefly and banishes the last few per cent of feedback.

VW golf gti rearBut that sensational limited-slip diff almost accounts for a driven rear axle and means you can get on the turps extremely early and without much in the way of finesse. Way before the apex, in fact – and at least as early as the all-wheel drive pair.

At the very real risk of oversimplifying this, the AMG is probably going to be the quickest point to point, the VW the comfiest and the Focus the most entertaining. Bear in mind, however, that to anyone, they’re all fast from A to B, all jolly good fun but only the VW is anything approximating comfy.

Given that none of these cars costs peanuts, it’s interesting to see the different approaches to making an interior look and feel the part. While the GTI 40 Years ditches the retro tartan seat trim for a racier set of stripes, the overall effect works well with the rest of the package. What is wrong is the shifter’s manual mode (yes, I know it also has paddles) that – to me – works the wrong way around, with upshifts handled by pushing the lever forward.

Ford focus frontThe Focus, meanwhile, immediately reminds you of well, a Focus. It’s dark in there and although the central gauge pod reminds me of a Focus XR5 Turbo (another of my all-time fave cars) it does look like a bit of a tack-on. The seats are truly lovely, but they tend to sit you pretty high. Throw in the obscured starter button and the only tiller not to have some suede sections and it’s all a tad downmarket.

The AMG, by rights, should be the luxo-interior king, what with its price-tag and all, and in a way it is. It certainly makes a bold statement. It’s the only one with powered chairs and although the front pews are hard, they’re actually really nice to sit in even if you have to lever your butt-cheek over the side bolster to get in or out. The wheel, though, is lovely and my only real question surrounds the carbon-fibre-look dashpad.

For one, I’m not a fan of using CF in a non-structural application. Second, I’m even less fond of fake CF, which it is in the AMG. But thirdly, I’m absolutely baffled as to why you’d bother with fake carbon-fibre and then make it soft-touch as AMG has, when any nerd knows that it’s the rigidity of CF that give it cred. Those crazy Chermans!

Ford focus rs interiorDo you care about the back seat? Well, we took the time to check it out and, in reality, some owners will use the rear pew from time to time. I mean a lot of a hot hatch’s appeal is its practicality, right? Exactly. So, on that basis, the Focus scores okay with plenty of head and legroom in the back, but a flat, park-bench of a seat. It’s also very boomy back there and there’s not a grab-handle to be found. Let’s call it a very occasional four-seater.

The Volkswagen is next best and although there’s still plenty of room, it hasn’t come at the expense of seat padding, and the bench is a lot plusher than the Ford’s while also being quieter and there’s more headroom. All of which makes the AMG first choice for a three or four-up trip to the snow. There’s a bit less headroom thanks to the styling, but the A45 has clearly the best rear-seat ride.

The other caveat imposed by the styling is that the view out from the rear is very restricted if you’re short and can’t see over the waistline. And nothing separates a nipper from his or her stewed pears quicker, we’ve found.

3 hot hatches sideSo where does that leave us? Well, there’s clearly not a dud card in the deck and there’s not even a real deal-breaker for me apart from the AMG’s price-tag. But it is a more grown-up car if you’re a grown-up yourself and have access to the requisite coin. I am not, and therefore don’t.

Which leaves me with the Volkswagen which I could happily own and love and drive like a mad bastard for the next 20 years. Provided, that is, I was never made aware of the existence of the Focus RS for roughly similar money. Because the Focus really clicked with me; it’s hooligan, perky, fun and decent value. And like I said earlier, when you’re talking a Ford with the RS badge stuck to it, there’s no cultural cringe. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The numbers

Hot hatch engines

Numbers that matter

It’s not the size of the dog in the fight...

Body 5-door, 5-seat hatch
Drive: all-wheel
Engine: 1991cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo
Bore/stroke: 82.0 x 92.0mm
Compression: 8.6:1
Power: 280kW @ 6000rpm
Torque: 475Nm @ 2250-5000rpm
Power/weight: 189kW/tonne
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch
Weight: 1480kg
Suspension(f): struts, coils, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Suspension(r): multi-links, coils, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
L/W/H: 4367/1780/1417mm
Wheelbase: 2699mm
Tracks: 1557/1561mm (f/r)
Steering: electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion
Brakes(F): 350mm ventilated/drilled discs, 4-piston calipers
Brakes(R): 330mm ventilated-drilled discs, single-piston calipers
Wheels: 19.0 x 8.0-inch (f/r)
Tyre sizes: 235/35 ZR19 91Y XL (f/r)
Tyre: Continental ContiSportContact 5P
Price as tested: $77,816
Pros: Incredible pace; improved ride; brakes
Cons: Not that involving; expensive in this company

Body: 5-door, 5-seat hatch
Drive: all-wheel
Engine: 2261cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo
Bore/stroke: 87.38 x 94mm
Compression: 9.4:1
Power: 257kW @ 6000rpm
Torque: 440Nm @ 2000-4500rpm (470Nm o/boost)
Power/weight: 163kW/tonne
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Weight: 1575kg
Suspension(f): struts, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar
Suspension(r): multi-links, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar
L/W/H: 4390/1823/1472mm
Wheelbase: 2648mm
Tracks: 1547/1524mm (f/r)
Steering: electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion
Brakes(f): 350mm ventilated discs; 4-piston calipers
Brakes(r): 350mm ventilated discs; 4-piston calipers
Wheels: 19.0 x 8.0-inch (f/r)
Tyre sizes: 235/35 R19 (f/r) 
Tyre: Michelin Pilot Super Sport
Price as tested: $50990
Pros: Potent performance; handling wizardry; price
Cons: Stiff ride; bland interior; sit too high

Body: 5-door, 5-seat hatch
Drive: front-wheel
Engine: 1984cc, inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo
Bore/stroke: 82.5 x 92.8mm
Compression: 9.6:1
Power: 169kW @ 4700-6200rpm
Torque: 350Nm @ 1500-4600rpm
Power/weight: 124kW/tonne
Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch
Weight: 1364kg
Suspension(f): struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Suspension(r): multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar
L/W/H: 4268/1790/1442mm
Wheelbase: 2631mm
Tracks: 1538/1516mm (f/r)
Steering: electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion
Brakes(f): 340mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers
Brakes(r): 310mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers
Wheels: 19 x 7.5-inch (f/r)
Tyre sizes: 225/35 R19 (f/r)
Tyre: Dunlop Sport Maxx GT
Price as tested: $48490
Pros: Great steering; brilliant diff; interior quality
Cons: Limited build numbers; firm ride on 19s