Connect Four

The all-paw arms race comes to blows with three superpowers ready to settle the score

by LOUIS CORDONY pics NATHAN JACOBS

HUMANS are always seeking thrills in unlikely places. Whether weíre being crushed in a mosh pit, flung out of an aircraft, plunging over a waterfall or simply sat in a dark room having the wits scared out of us while munching popcorn, as long as that heart rate is increased weíre happy. The Ford Focus, Subaru Impreza and Volkswagen Golf are equally weird places to search for a buzz. In standard form, their engines prioritise economy over power, their bodyshells swallow groceries better than they distribute weight and their prices are too small to justify serious engineering.

But in 1994, Subaru delivered the bane of Porsche 911 drivers everywhere, the Impreza WRX STI. It took the rallying world by storm and gave grip to the masses in road guise. Subaru took the humble Impreza, added a turbocharger and rear driveshafts, then tweaked its handling and brakes to suit. Virtually nothing could drop a well-driven STI on a tricky road.

The Subie wasnít the first turbo all-wheel drive weapon, but its success forced others to forge their own. Fordís third-generation Focus RS switched to four driven wheels with devastating effect, rolling into Performance Car of Year 2017 and blowing away three supercars to snatch third place. Before that, it beat the Volkswagen Golf GTI 40 Years and Mercedes-AMG A45 in a comparison where neither could match the RSís involvement and handling genius.

Sadly, Fordís Saarlouis factory in Germany will turn its attention to the all-new Focus sometime this year, less than 24 months after the RS arrived. The good news is Ford wants to leave as much destruction in its wake as possible and has fitted a front LSD and sticky tyres as standard for the Limited Edition final act.

This inflates the LEís price to $56,990, but because Ford didnít have one available, weíve snaffled the standard $50,990 RS with the LEís Michelin Sport Cup 2 tyres instead. It arrives in Nitrous Blue, the only colour now available.

For the rematch the limited-edition Golf GTI 40 Years has tagged in its big brother, the R, which transfers the clutch-locking Haldex differential from the front axle to the propshaft for a better chance at slaying the RS. Volkswagen also refreshed the R last year, boosting outputs, tech, and sharpening its looks. Thankfully the price hasnít gone the same way, our six-speed manual-equipped version costing $52,990, only $250 more than the price which helped hoist it to a Bang For Your Bucks category top spot in 2014.

Speaking of previous BFYB champs, the WRX STI used to be virtually purpose-built for the award, but the receipeís been the same for a while now. Subaru dropped the Impreza nameplate, allowing the base car to move on a generation. Meanwhile, the standard WRX has adopted the companyís new FA-series engine with a more logical low-mount turbocharger.

The success of the Subaru WRX STI forced others to forge their own all-wheel drive turbo weapons

The Subaru settles into a deep, bassy throb loud enough to charm any boxer fan

SUBARU WRX STI Interior and exterior still littered with STI badging. STI-specific knob is coloured in with unique red. The classic Boeing-spec rear wing is now an option; perhaps an act of sacrilege for traditionalists

The largest revision made to the STI was in 2014 when Subaru flipped the location of the clutch and front differential, stretching the wheelbase 25mm. The budget clearly wasnít huge for the 2018 version, but worthwhile changes have still been made.

A facelift, larger 19-inch wheels, bigger six-piston Brembo front brakes and a fine-tuned centre diff sharpen the Subieís fangs. Our Spec R variant also sports electrically-adjustable Recaro front seats. As a result, the STI enters the ring as our most expensive competitor at $56,682. Under the bonnet is the same 2.5-litre boxer four thatís propelled the carís last three generations. Itís far from the latest and greatest Ė the port-injected unit offers the same 221kW and 407Nm it did a decade ago Ė but still splits the other two on the spec sheet.

The Golf Rís revised EA888 inline-four features unique pistons, dual-injection and variable valve lift and has spiked 7kW. This takes European engines to 228kW/400Nm, but our crappy fuel and searing temps smother the 2.0-litreís full potential, capping numbers at 213kW and 380Nm.

Still, the Focusís 2.3-litre inline-four shades them both. Sharing its basic architecture with the Mustang Ecoboost engine, special cooling passages swarm through its block, while a larger turbocharger cranks the direct-injected unit to 257kW and 440Nm, or 470Nm on overboost, for RS duties.

The Focus doesnít shout about this advantage, at least from the inside. The starter button treats bystanders with a raspy growl that carries a hint of WRC car, but itís a bit lost in the cabin. Thereís no such problem in the Subaru. It settles into a deep, bassy throb loud enough to charm the fussiest boxer fan, inside or out, though early-risers who want to retain an invite to their neighbourís BBQ should look to the Golf. The gruff note played by its quad tips isnít meek or lacking intent, just more sensible in this company.

Open the taps and the Golf changes tune, literally. A small microphone in the intake tract feeds the speakers, weaving a boxer-esque rumble into its muffled blare. Itís loudest in Race mode, but can be adjusted Ė along with damping, steering, and engine response Ė in the ĎIndividualí drive mode.

Launch control doesnít lurk in these sub-menus, though. Because our Golf R packs a six-speed manual to match its rivals, your feet are in charge. Select Race mode, disable ESP, and pin the clutch to select first gear. Half-throttle has the needle hovering about 3750rpm, where you should briskly drop the clutch.

Volkswagenís new seven-speed dual-clutch would fling the R from rest with more fluency. But once engine and wheel speeds match, you surf a creamy, linear powerband that stretches from 3000rpm to redline. The 2.0-litre unit loves to rev more than its undersquare dimensions hint, even though it stops at 6750rpm Ė short of the indicated cut-out on its fancy new 8.0-inch digital cluster. We canít compare quarter mile times as Heathcote drag strip wasnít available for this test, but on past experience the Golf R would struggle to shame the WRX STI in a straight line, even with a 100kg advantage.

The STI requires brutality, though; it needs as many revs as possible to overcome three limited-slip differentials, so stepping off the clutch is like plunging the lever connected to a dynamite stack. Try to launch at anything less than redline and the Subaru hops, bogs, and falls out of its tightly-packed powerband.

The way the RS front end is attracted to apexes proves the Twinsterís effectiveness

Thank the engineís high boost pressure and low compression ratio for its slug of thrust, which swells at about 3000rpm. Once the turbo wakes up itís like the carís chained to a passing bullet train and the slackís suddenly run out. The thrust fades near 6000rpm, but the boxerís oversquare dimensions spin the crank so fast itís easy to reach the 6700rpm redline.

If that sounds fun then youíll like the Ford Focus RS. Itís claimed to hit 100km/h from rest in 4.7 seconds, but not without flat-shifting. Forget launch control, too, as like the Subaru the Ford needs as many revs as possible to leap away from the line.

Drop the clutch and the revs land nicely in a torque crest, which reels you into the engineís mid-range. Itís here the Focus RS channels its predecessorís five-banger vibe, its 2.3-litre engine feeling half-a-litre larger than it is. The engine bayís sound-pipe injects a hint of warble into the cabin, too, for those missing the old soundtrack.

Second gear will kiss 100km/h, but the Focus engineís drawcard is its 204Nm-per-litre specific output (on overboost), which towers above the Golfís 190Nm per litre, and the Subaruís 163Nm. Attempting to channel 440Nm through the front boots in the last RS is undoubtedly why Ford summoned AWD.

The Golf steers with clarity and plushness at no expense to its speed. Itís the ultimate all-rounder

Torque steer remains, as the Focusís steering wheel tugs a touch under power. But the drivetrainís real trick is 70 per cent of its stonk can drive a chosen rear wheel to push the nose in the direction youíre pointing. Or, as youíve seen on A Current Affair, cut a skid. Yes, the Focus RS will be the first to tweak its rear under power in the wet, but the way that front end is magnetically attracted to apexes proves the Twinster setup is amazingly effective.

Super-quick steering helps. The electrically-assisted rack might feel slightly elastic and simulated, but its solid weight and accuracy are reassuring, especially after blasting the Subaru across bumpy surfaces. Itís like different engineering teams worked on the STIís front and rear suspension and never shared notes.

As the only car here with passive dampers, our cratered testing roads tie the Subaru in knots. The rear suspension absorbs ruts with stability, but the shockwaves through the steering can be strong enough to knock the wheel from your hands. The ESP can catch it, but will grab the fronts and force understeer. It doesnít help that the hydraulic rack is slow-geared and lacks any meaningful weight at speed.

Switching to the Golf R on these roads is like finding the right frequency on the radio. Thereís no more harshness, noise, or vibration. We expected more suspension travel and the rear axle jumps a touch in Comfort mode, but switch into Race and the chassis is supple yet adjustable, with expertly tuned variable steering that feels linear. Itís super sharp, well weighted, and the easiest to handle.

VW GOLFR

Where confidence evaporates in the STI and plateaus in the Golf, it blooms in the Focus RS. Yes, it has stiff damping and spring rates, and the damperís Sport mode is strictly for a racetrack if you value your teeth, but the RS attacks shoddy roads that are dusty, off-camber, and downhill with the composure of Roger Federer on match point. It doesnít flinch, remaining controlled and flat the faster you go, as if the dampers can stretch as long as telegraph poles. You can easily pile on another 10-20km/h in the RS, as if it looks at you, steely-eyed, asking ďIs that all youíve got?Ē

Smoother tarmac lets the Subaru shine. While you canít adjust the suspension, you can adjust the lockup of the centre-diff. Leave it open for more agility, lock it up for more traction, but really itís best left to its own devices in Auto.

The Golfís all-wheel drive technology pales next to the others, relying on its single-piston brake calipers to shuffle torque from side to side. It doesnít fire off corners like the WRX or pivot like the RS, however, its Pirellis never protest under power, its circuitboards clearly knowing how to best distribute its 380Nm.

As for shift work, the Golfís clutch is softly sprung, easy to engage, and feels light. The lever slots with ease and the bulbous shift knob moulds nicely to your palm. Itís worlds away from the Subaruís, which can snatch and needs to be man-handled into each gate. The clutch has a firm spring, and the bite point is brief, but it oozes mechanical charm. The Focusís is the most involving device, with a slick, long throw and more purposeful knob design. But a non-linear clutch feel spoils ultimate refinement. Weíd match the Golfís clutch feel to the RSís shift action for the ideal setup.

Subaruís made a clear effort to push the WRX STI into premium territory with the Spec R. Itís replaced the foggies with swivelling headlights, moved the rear wing to the options lis, and installed electrically-adjustable Recaros. Carbon-fibre inserts are banished for piano-black items and the crappy old DivX infotainment system is now a slick 7.0-inch touchscreen. But itís still a league behind the Golf R for refinement and class while asking for more money. Itís also hard to believe those wide, flat seats come from a Recaro factory.

Bolt-ons wonít fix the STIís problem. Yes, it offers huge performance, the all-wheel drive system deploys furious power with ease and its new brakes can pop your eyes out with their power. But it lacks the compliance and solid steering to play these tricks on any road surface. The engineís also over a decade old and while some might like its explosive nature, it sorely needs its power curve ironed out. The current WRX STI might be walking through an R&D wasteland at the moment, but Subaru hints a new oneís on the way. Letís hope the people in charge target the STIís steering and engine, not its standard specification list.

Best to leave luxury to Volkswagenís golden child. The Golf Rís updated cabin brims with technology and brilliant build quality. The seats hug better than the STIís and it steers with clarity and plushness at no expense to its speed. If you had to lock in one car for the next decade to share with your family, the R would be fun for you, comfy for her (or him), and docile enough for L-platers. Itís the ultimate all-rounder.

Ford Focus RS

Manually adjustable Recaros are magnificent, even if theyíre mounted a touch high. The insideís ugly to look at, and the throttle pedal seems irregularly placed, but all of this fades the first time you stick the RS into a corner. Turns lock to lock: 1.95.

VW Golf R

Easily the best design, materials and technology of the lot. The new standard digital cluster looks stunning, better than some luxury brands. Silly Ďeco tipsí appear far too often, though, even in Race. Turns lock to lock (while stationary): 1.8.

Subaru WRX STI

The Subaruís cabin is improving in ambience, but the materials and cluster design (like the Focus RS) date it most. Red seatbelts are new, we only wish they lashed better seats. Engine torque maps nowhere near as fun to use as the centre-diff control. Turns lock to lock: 2.35.

However, while we expected the Golf to school its track-focused competition on ride composure, it failed to master the bumps. Maybe the Mk VIII R coming in a couple years will bring even better damping and an engine that can max out in our conditions. These are, admittedly, among the worst surfaces weíve ever used, but this rough terrain is what hot hatches and WRX STIs must rule.

And the Ford Focus RS does rule. Its interior might resemble a melted Nokia omelette, and its ride is challenging, but when you slide into its wonderfully grabby seats itís like dropping the visor on Sebastien Ogierís helmet. The way it points, the grip it pulls, the speeds and mistakes it lets you get away with are the hallmarks of a legend. Its single-mindedness will tire some, but the punishment worth the reward. If you buy one, drive it hard. Because thrills like these donít happen often.

If you buy an RS, drive it hard, because thrills like these donít happen often

The Specs

The skinny on our super-grip weapons