DANGER ZONE

WHEN A CAR IS THIS ENJOYABLE TO DRIVE, A LACK OF VISUAL SHARPNESS DOESNíT SEEM THAT BIG A DEAL

BY JAKE GROVES PICS ALEX TAPLEY


GO ON, ADMIT IT: if this Ford Focus wasnít painted in Orange Fury you wouldnít confidently say it was the new ST at first glance. An ST-Line maybe, but a full-on hot hatch? Surely not. And yet thatís exactly what this is. And its modest identity crisis is indicative of the very fine balance Ford has to strike with the ST, which is the first of our three hot hatches to go under the microscope as part of this here test.

In the ever-shifting, ever-improving, keenly contested world of the hot hatch, the ST has a lot of jobs to do. It needs to be bang on the pace when compared to other $45K-ish, 200kW-ish hatches, but it must also, in the absence of a more hardcore Focus RS, offer something to appeal to those tempted by the more powerful likes of the Civic Type R.

It has a lot to prove, the Focus ST. When MOTOR compared VW Golf GTI to Ford Focus ST and Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport back in 2015, the ST drew praise for being the most ĎMOTORí to drive. ďIf this was a test purely about the way these cars drive at the limit, the Focus ST would probably win,Ē wrote road-tester Scott Newman. ďItís the only true driversí car here, a car that you could own for a year and still feel youíre yet to get the best from it.Ē But it was the more complete-package Golf GTI that came out on top.

More recently, itís also been overshadowed by one of the biggest hot-hatch surprises in recent history, the Hyundai i30 N. Even the fortress of stability that is the Golf GTI felt the shockwave from this upstart brand Ė so much so that VW has mounted a honeycomb-addled, racecar-inspired counter-offensive with the new Golf GTI TCR. So weíve brought both the Hyundai and the Volkswagen along to test against the new hot Ford.

The Focus has the right stance, but it just looks too subtle next to the Hyundai and VW. Take away the curdling-custard paint and your only substantial visual cues are a double-pointed spoiler, red brake calipers and metal-tipped twin exhausts. The ST badges are easily missed.

Same story inside, too. The Focus is as gloomy to sit in as a doomsday bunker, though ergonomically itís absolutely bang on. Clear instruments, chunky steering wheel, a highly adjustable driving position that allows you to sit usefully low, ventilation controls that donít induce befuddlement and Fordís Sync 3 infotainment system that, while simple in design, works well, with crisp graphics and high-mounted screen.

But thereís little to differentiate it from a well-specified ST-Line, bar tremendously supportive and adjustable Recaro seats, and the drive mode and separate ĎSí (for Sport mode) buttons on the steering wheel. The previous model had no drive modes, but the new one gets three as standard Ė Slippery, Normal and Sport Ė and Australia also gets the lairy Track mode that loosens the ESC, increases steering weight, makes the throttle more responsive and sets the e-diff for maximum traction.

On the surface, not the greatest start when parked next to its rivals here. Who would have thought that, colour aside, a performance Golf and a Hyundai would look more aggressive than the traditionally yobbish Ford? If first impressions are important, this is a missed opportunity.


WHEN A CAR IS THIS ENJOYABLE TO DRIVE, A LACK OF VISUAL SHARPNESS DOESNíT SEEM THAT BIG A DEAL

Out on the road, though, those gripes fall by the wayside. Starting the ST brings back memories of the previous-gen Focus RS. But then it would, as the 2.3-litre EcoBoost turbo inline-4 used here is a detuned version of the RSís engine. In this car itís tuned for 206kW, and the 5.7sec 0-100km/h time smokes the Hyundai (6.1sec) and keeps it almost level with the Golf (5.6sec) on paper.

The figures show the ST has faster in-gear acceleration than the old RS (thank reduced weight and shorter ratios), and it feels it. It helps that the response of that pedal is sharp even if youíre in Normal mode, but pleasingly the engine is also more flexible than those of its rivals, pulling happily from low revs in sixth gear.

As for the noise, it emits pops and bangs in Sport between gearchanges to insert a fat smile on your face, even if itís not the full assault-rifle experience served up by the old RS. Inside, the noise is digitally enhanced in all but Slippery mode and, while itís not entirely convincing, itís a lot less PlayStation than the sound effects of a Renault Megane RS or Peugeot 308 GTi.

You can revel in the Fordís early biting, neatly weighted clutch, and a manual gearshift thatís happily devoid of the unnecessary resistance offered by, for example, the Megane RS. Fordís Performance Pack also throws in rev-matching on downshifts, handy for keeping things smooth for the eager but inexperienced. You canít turn the rev-matching off, though.

The steering ratio is 15 per cent faster than a standard Focus, and it has adaptive dampers (Fordís Continuously Controlled Damping) as standard. The crown jewel in this configuration is an electronically controlled diff, which helps stop the Focus ST descending into a torque-steery mess like its predecessor.

POPS AND BANGS INSERT A FAT SMILE ON YOUR FACE, EVEN IF ITíS NOT THE FULL ASSAULT-RIFLE EXPERIENCE OF THE OLD RS

It all helps make the Focus by far the most agile car here. The steering rack, while faster than a Fiesta STís, doesnít feel nervous off-centre. Itís so speedy you can keep your hands at quarter-to-three, even exiting 90-degree T-intersections. On track, that makes the ST hugely adjustable mid-corner, with the most eager front end; the e-diff is the least intrusive of the three, gently trimming your line and building confidence. On the road, you soon find yourself feeding in power through a corner where normally youíd be considering stamping at the brakes in a panic.

And these really are some brakes, with more stopping power than those on the RS. Even after a dayís blasting around a track, there was no sign of fade or fatigue, with a crispness to the brake pedal neither rival could match.

Those adaptive dampers are impressive too, but the Focus still claims the dubious honour of being the firmest car here in its most relaxed damper setting. The ride in everyday situations is generally bearable, but itís incredibly jiggly through a pothole-riddled village. Sport and then Track increase that stiffness, but the extra poise pays dividends when youíre working to maximise the STís performance Ė this is ultimately the more satisfying drive than either the Hyundai or VW. Itís a shame thereís no custom or individual mode allowing you to tailor your preferences.

Initial disappointment about the demure exterior design and plain interior soon feels irrelevant. When a car is this much fun to drive, a lack of visual sharpness doesnít seem that big a deal. And that driving enjoyment applies on track as well as on a good road.

Like the Golf, the Focus is also very amiable in town or on the motorway Ė but get out of town and the all-round talent of the sublime Ford surpasses the VW. Thereís a glorious precision to all the controls that the other two canít match, meaning that on every journey you feel connected to the ST and eager to explore its considerable potential, again and again.


THEREíS NO POINT in a quiet last hurrah. It makes sense, then, that the last edition of the Mk7.5 Golf GTI is significantly different from any other Golf, and draws visually on VWís touring car racers.

The changes between this and a regular Golf GTI are pretty stark. Most importantly, the 2.0-litre turbo is boosted by 33kW, taking the peak output to the same 213kW as the Golf R, and thereís a mechanical limited-slip diff and drilled brake discs as standard too.

Thereís no choice of gearbox: you get a seven-speed DSG, which Volkswagen is keen to point out is the same transmission used in its racing Golf. Tenuous link alert! Itís also why this GTIís bodykit is much more elaborate, with a gloss black front splitter and sledge-sized rear spoiler. The honeycomb door decals are, you may well be pleased to learn, optional.

You know at a glance itís a Golf, and thereís near-universal agreement that the Golf species still looks good; remarkable, really, that VW can make a car thatís as ubiquitous as red traffic lights yet still appealing.

The familiar Mk7.5 GTI interior here sits underneath several layers of polish, like your nanís immaculate mahogany sideboard. Itís the classiest car of this trio, despite its age. While the Discover Pro navigation system is starting to look dated, the high-gloss trim, digital instrument display and perforated leather steering wheel all add a premium feel. The seats are the stand-out feature, though, injecting much-needed colour into a sea of gloss black, with the traditional GTI tartan replaced by a geometric pattern bespoke to TCR cars. Itís just a shame they perch you as high as a tennis umpire.

Around town, the Golf has the most supple chassis here. Even upgraded from 18- to 19-inch alloys (which will be standard fitment in Australia), the Dynamic Chassis Control (again, standard in Oz, as it is on GTI and R) has a Comfort mode that means what it says. Daily driving a TCR is in all important regards just like driving any other auto Golf; if it werenít for the lewd decals and fat, shiny metal tailpipes, plenty of passengers and pedestrians might be none the wiser after a gentle commute.

The mechanical differential hinders the turning circle, which makes parking a little more cumbersome, but otherwise the Golf is understated, entirely usable and perfectly civilised when just pottering about.

Perhaps a little too civilised for its own good. Put your foot down and the GTI accelerates with the low-key efficiency of a sniper. Thereís a flat surge of power that never peaks or troughs Ė it just gets on and does its job, with an unintrusive raspy growl from the turbocharged four-cylinder engine, occasionally accompanied by a single exhaust pop.

The performance is quite an achievement, but the seven-speed DSG transmission stops you getting particularly involved in the experience. In town or on the motorway itís an undoubted boon to be able to leave the car to shift for itself. But when youíre keen to engage fully with the driving experience, the GTI doesnít want to go all the way. The light clack from the wheel-mounted paddles and consequent push back into your seat is about as much involvement as youíll get here, which feels a littleÖ off. Driving the Golf back-to-back with its two manual rivals makes me yearn for the Volkswagenís golfball stick shift.

PUT YOUR FOOT DOWN AND THE GTI ACCELERATES WITH THE LOW-KEY EFFICIENCY OF A SNIPER

Itís a similar case when it comes to the handling. When the going gets twisty, the Golf is pliant and stable but lacks that final bit of finesse to make it a properly brilliant driverís car. Thereís a looseness to the steering that the Focus simply doesnít have and that the Hyundai does a better job of curtailing.

Thereís also a general bias towards understeer if you get overzealous with corner entry speeds. Thereís less of a pivoting action at the centre of the car than in the others, the Focus in particular. Instead, the Golf just deals with whatever road surface or corner itís presented with, neither complaining nor getting particularly enthusiastic. Thatís a long way from the classic Ė often quite ragged Ė hot-hatch experience.

The Golf is definitely more road than track car, which is ironic given VW is playing on its international touring car campaign with the GTI TCRís badging, visuals and marketing. Compared with the eager and light-footed Focus and the adjustability of the Hyundai, the Golf feels inert and heavy on track.

Itís properly quick yet feels safe and solid to drive quickly, without offering the glorious combination of feedback, engagement and zing that defines the other two.


THERE WAS quite the buzz when Hyundaiís i30 N hot hatch was first announced, with R&D boss Albert Biermann putting years of experience at BMW M into an all-new product for a manufacturer that had only previously dabbled in the segment with the Veloster Turbo.

The i30 N certainly delivered when we first drove it in 2017. It looked like a hot hatch, sounded like a hot hatch, drove as well as the most accomplished on the market, and was competitively priced.

Nothing has changed since then (aside from a slightly softer suspension set-up, in line with i30 N Fastback models), but the Hyundai i30 N had to be in this test, simply because it toppled the previous Focus ST as a hooliganist pocket rocket and made the increasingly senior Golf GTI seem way too sombre. Can it continue to impress against the new Focus ST and the feistier Golf GTI TCR?

As standard, Australian buyers get a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine that sends 202kW to the front wheels and includes 19-inch alloys, an electronically controlled limited-slip differential, uprated brakes, active exhaust and faux suede-and-leather seats.

Even after a couple of years, the Nís looks havenít gone stale; red trimmings on the front and rear splitters, a gaping front grille, two bazooka-sized exhaust pipes and details like a rear wing with a triangular third brake light do just enough to hint at the potential without going over the top.

Inside, itís much like the Focus in that itís dominated by textured grey plastic. But itís also incredibly user-friendly and neatly laid out, with an equipment list that if anything is marginally better than the Fordís: cruise control, heated steering wheel, parking sensors and rear camera, keyless entry and go, sat-nav and wireless charging. The Nís seats provide the best thigh support too, which is great for taller drivers.

Light-blue winged paddles inset on the steering wheel open up a world of drive mode configurations. ĎNí mode is for maximum attack Ė everything becomes either heavy, loud, firm or devoid of electrical helping hands Ė but you can adjust it via ĎN Customí, so long as you have 10 minutes spare to sift through the configuration menu. Rev-matching for the manual gearbox is toggled via a simple ĎReví button on the wheel, accessible even in the i30ís more docile drive modes. Unlike the Fordís rev-matching, the Hyundaiís can be fully deactivated.

As the quoted 6.1sec 0-100km/h time suggests, the i30 Nís acceleration is slightly tardier than the Fordís and VWís, but this never feels like a slow car.

Its fantastic noise helps. If the Focus makes you grin, try selecting Sport Plus in the Hyundai because the Gatling gun impression from its active exhaust is downright hilarious.

The i30 N is a workout to drive aggressively, but on the right road itís such a rewarding car. The steering is heavy even in its most relaxed setting, and requires more muscle the further up the drive-mode tree you climb. At its heaviest, it feels leaden compared with the Focus, sapping away any precise edges to your steering inputs. Still, the Hyundai is more adjustable than the VW on track and can be eased into oversteer if provoked mid-pivot, just like the Ford.

A similar amount of hard graft is involved with the pedals and gearshift. The clutch is supremely well weighted for driving like your hairís on fire, if a touch too heavy for long traffic-jam crawls. Sharper throttle response would also be welcome. The gearshift has a heavy-duty action and some of our road-testers complained about its notchiness. The Focus certainly has the sweeter shift, but the i30 Nís gritty edge has a mechanical, sporty appeal.


IF THE FOCUS MAKES YOU GRIN, THE i30íS ACTIVE EXHAUST IN SPORT PLUS IS DOWNRIGHT HILARIOUS


ITíS AMAZING how three front-wheel drive hot hatches can feel so different from each other, while all being highly impressive in their own right.

Any VW Golf still remains an attractive choice, even after 40 years and more than 2.3 million sales. The solid, classy competence of the regular models is joined by a healthy dose of thrills when you step up to a GTI Ė even more so in the case of the TCR. But the great progress made by VWís many rivals and imitators is clearly evident here. The TCR is very good family transport and a hugely competent performance car, able to switch between the two roles in the blink of an eye, but ultimately it loses out to both the Focus and the i30 in terms of driver engagement.

Itís very close. The VWís speed and handling would be regarded as superb by most standards, but here itís outshone as a hot hatch by the Ford and the Hyundai. They both deliver on the same brief with a little more dynamic finesse and fun.

Weíve liked the i30 N from the off, and it remains a great deal of fun at a very good price. Few hot hatches get the basics so right on a gut level. The Hyundai is loud and proud, likes to be treated roughly and gives as good as it gets. It also has quite a thirst. For some tastes, itís all a bit much.

Thatís what makes the Focus ST the best balance between logic and emotion. Itís not cheap any more, and weíd like it to look a little more exciting. But itís by far the best car to drive here: eager, adjustable, punchy, precise, and more than capable of hanging its back end out. It can make loud noises and get lairy on request, and you can have it painted in the same colour as a Love Island contestant. But itís still a Focus, and this generation in particular is very good family transport.

The ST has grown up from its warbling five-cylinder childhood and gone through torque-steery puberty to emerge a mature hot hatch that can be as rewarding on a track or back road as it is well suited to family life. It has a decent boot, good rear legroom and driving position, and itís easy to manoeuvre. With 206kW and infallible front grip, itís the winner.

Buy the Golf GTI with your head and youíll have a sound, speedy package. Buy the Hyundai with your heart and youíll have a great driverís car. But buy the Focus ST and you can have both.

03 FAST FACTS

FORD FOCUS ST

ONE. Itís all-new, takes a lot of inspiration from its fantastic Fiesta ST sibling, and is keen to throw a punch Hyundaiís way. Plus, the standard Focus is a previous comparison test winner, so the ST comes from good stock.

TWO. Previous-generation Focus RS 2.3-litre heart with anti-lag turbo tech, an e-diff, drive modes and adaptive dampers for the first time on a Focus ST. For performance fans, thereís also a lairy Track mode, launch control and rev-matching to smooth your downshifts.

THREE. Five-door manual hatch with a high level of specification goes on sale in Australia around March 2020, priced at $44,690. Seven-speed paddleshift auto will be available as a no-cost option.

03 FAST FACTS

VW GOLF GTI TCR

ONE. It wouldnít really be a front-drive hot-hatch test without a GTI, would it? Volkswagen has injected some racing car steroids into the TCR, producing a model thatís the Mk7.5 Golf GTIís last shot at glory before it is replaced next year.

TWO. Mechanical limited-slip differential is standard (the others have electronic diffs), as are drilled brake discs. TCR Performance Pack de-restricts top speed, lowers the ride by another 20mm and adds adaptive dampers. The TCR will likely come to Australia some time in 2020, but specs and pricing have not yet been announced.

THREE. The auto-only TCR is the newest, most hardcore GTI. A 33kW power increase over the GTI Ė taking it to Golf R outputs Ė makes it the most powerful and quickest-sprinting car here. TCR models have a more aggressive bodykit, stainless steel exhaust and optional honeycomb-shaped acne across the doors.

03 FAST FACTS

HYUNDAI i30 N

ONE. Grabbed everyoneís attention from the off by being a fantastic hot hatch from an unlikely source. Became much loved among the MOTOR team for its value, its Albert Biermann-fettled handling and the fact it has a silly side Ė a hard-to-define quality thatís an important part of any hot hatch.

TWO. Everything you need is included straight out of the box, which isnít always the case. This Oz-equivalent N Performance version has e-diff with torque vectoring, launch control and active exhaust. Revcounter and shift lights ape BMW and Ferrari respectively, and add a bit of racecar theatre.

THREE. The i30 N was the surprise performer in PCOTY 2019, placing fifth in a field that in price (Megane RS280 aside) ranged from double to seven times its $43,485. An absolute performance car bargain, and a dual-clutch version is expected soon.