Best affordable hot hatch revealed
Supporters will tell you the Volkswagen Golf GTI is more than a car. It's a foundation for the hot-hatch genre, a cultural touchstone for scores of enthusiasts and a symbol of affordable performance.
In the same way millionaires and uni students might have the same smartphones, you'll find the GTI tucked next to Ferraris in the climate-controlled garages of ritzy mansions or on the kerb outside working-class apartments.
Rival manufacturers continually strive to emulate its success and build a better car. The latest contender comes from the Blue Oval.
FORD FOCUS ST
The new Ford Focus ST looks good on paper. A punchy 2.3-litre engine offers 206kW and 420Nm maximums (that's 26kW and 50Nm more than the Golf), driving the front wheels through a choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic transmissions.
Ford's conventional torque converter automatic is sporty enough without truly impressing, although the rotary gear selector on the centre console isn't a popular feature.
This is the first time Ford has put an auto in a hot hatch, recognising many buyers won't - or can't - shift their own gears. Volkswagen ditched manual transmissions in favour of its dual-clutch auto a couple of years ago, claiming most customers preferred two pedals.
Hyundai is about to go a similar way with the i30 N, giving customers a choice of transmissions.
It's no accident that the Ford's drive-away price of about $49,000 is within a few hundred dollars of the Golf's $48,990 drive-away sticker.
While that's a lot more than the previous-generation ST cost, Ford loads the Focus up with goodies such as Recaro seats partly trimmed in leather, a 10-speaker Bang & Olufsen stereo and wireless smartphone charging you won't find in the Golf.
Both brands offer five-year warranties, but the Ford is much cheaper to maintain at $299 per visit, saving customers about $800 over five years.
A thirst for premium unleaded undoes some of the service department's good work, as the ST needs at least two litres of fuel more than the Golf for every 100 kilometres of travel.
Though both cars wear 19-inch alloys, the Blue Oval opts for pricey Michelin Pilot Sport 4S rubber in a wider size. The Ford has more traction in wet or dry conditions as a result, hanging on tenaciously when the GTI's Pirellis start to slip.
Better still, Ford's aggressive approach to chassis tuning gives keen drivers more options when pressing on - grab the Focus by the scruff of the neck and it will tighten its line with a little slip from the rear end while the Golf slides wide.
"Focus" is an appropriate name for a car that feels sharp in all conditions, with hyperactive steering and an engine that just won't quit.
But unlike the Golf - or almost every other performance car with multi-mode suspension - you can't have blend a relaxed shock absorber setting with an angry engine, which is an oversight on bumpy roads.
That requires compromise on a driver's part from time to time. It's not an ideal situation, but not a deal-breaker by any means.
VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI
It's hard to believe the current Volkswagen Golf is a car at the end of its life.
Sporting commentators like to say "form is temporary but class is permanent" and the Golf's fundamental qualities keep it toward the top of the small-car category.
The Golf looks contemporary inside and out, with crisp lines and high-resolution displays that put rivals on the back foot when it first arrived in 2013.
Outstanding visibility, clear instruments, well-weighted controls and a familiar dashboard layout make the Golf a welcoming environment. Tartan cloth trim is standard on the GTI but the test car had the optional black leather, digital dashboard and oversized central display, which lend a businesslike vibe to the Volkswagen and cost about $4000 more than the Ford as tested.
There's an element of give-and-take to this pair. The Golf's seats are more accommodating for everyday driving but less supportive when cornering quickly, it's quiet and easy to live with but doesn't feel as purposeful as the Focus, and VW offers back seat occupants air vents but no power outlet (Ford takes the opposite approach).
Volkswagen's contender rides well at low speed but is more likely to be flustered by mid-corner bumps, and the grabby brakes of our test car lacked progression compared to the Ford.
The GTI's thin-rimmed, flat-bottomed steering wheel has a light and easy response, and the anonymous-sounding engine has an unobtrusive quality that's welcome when commuting but underwhelming in the hills.
Customisable drive modes lend flexibility missing from the Ford's fixed settings. Then again, the GTI struggles to match the Focus' composure. It's more mild than wild, and nowhere near as quick as the Focus ST.
A claimed 0-100km/h time of 6.2 seconds is about half a second slower than the Ford, which is a significant difference on the road. The GTI labours when the Focus lunges up steep hills, feeling noticeably doughy compared to the deep-chested Ford.
The GTI is still a great car and a safe bet for many. A next-gen model due next year promises to take it to a new level. But here and now, the ST does a better job of being a hot hatch than the GTI, feeling more special on a run to the supermarket or a Sunday morning blast.
FORD FOCUS ST VITALS
Price: From about $49,000 drive-away
Engine: 2.3-litre 4-cyl turbo, 206kW/420Nm
Warranty/servicing: 5-yr/u'ltd km, $1495 for 5 yrs
Safety: 5 stars, 6 airbags, auto emergency braking, active cruise, lane keeping assistance, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert
Cargo: 375 litres
VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI VITALS
Price: From $48,990 drive-away
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo, 180kW/370Nm
Warranty/servicing: 5-yr/u'ltd km, $2300 for 5 yrs
Safety: 5 stars, 7 airbags, auto emergency braking, active cruise, lane keeping assistance, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert
Cargo: 380 litres
Originally published as Best affordable hot hatch revealed