Sitting at a turnout in the San Gabriel Mountains, above the Angeles National Forest tree line, our Four Seasons 2016 Volkswagen Golf R is ready to meet its hot-hatch brother from another German mother (don’t be fooled by the all-American badge, the 2017 Ford Focus RS is a German-American hailing from the city of Saarlouis; our VW, of course, hails from Wolfsburg).
At first glance, their spec sheets are almost identical. Both are all-wheel drive hatches that feature turbocharged four-cylinder engines separated by only 0.3-liters of displacement. The Focus RS is slightly larger and slightly heavier, but both are decidedly in the same weight class.
Look slightly deeper, however, and the differences become more apparent.
The Focus RS’s 350-hp 2.3-liter I-4 provides it with a 58-hp advantage over the 292 hp made by the Golf’s 2.0-liter; the difference in torque is greater still, with the Focus and its 350 lb-ft holding a 70 lb-ft gap against the Golf and it’s 280 lb-ft.
Yet, both cars make the jump to 60 mph in a delicious 4.5 seconds. Part of this is due to the Golf R’s snappy DSG dual-clutch automatic, which can sequence rapid-fire shifts faster than any driver could dream of using the Focus RS’ six-speed manual.
Choosing between these two is going to be like choosing between the Kobe steak and Bluefin filet. The server will have to come back several times to ask if we’re ready to order.
We start things off in the Focus RS. This is an angry little car, barking and howling at the road and anything in its way. Lift off the RS’ throttle and shockwaves will emanate throughout the cabin and echo off the canyon walls as its maniacal turbocharged engine snaps, crackles, and pops, sending all animal life in a three-mile radius scrambling for shelter.
Launching the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2-wearing Focus RS into a straight will send your head slamming back into the hard Recaro, but it’s in the corners where the Ford provides its biggest shock. Come to a tight bend with considerable speed, turn the steering wheel as your foot is stapled to the throttle, and you’ll witness the car tucks in as the dual differentials do their power modulation dance. The front open diff can send up to 70 percent of its power to the rear, where every last bit can be distributed to either rear wheel. Without needing so much as a lifted finger on the part of the driver, the system helps rotate the car through corners without using the brakes, maintaining momentum and increasing the feeling of fluidity from apex to apex.
There’s a price to pay for going on this raw roller coaster ride. The stiff and unforgiving suspension, grippy tires, and genius differentials do not grant your body a moment’s rest from gravity as long as the car is in motion. Core muscles will get a workout, heads will be shaken, and necks will be strained. The aggressively bolstered Recaros will keep you in place when cornering, but they do little to alleviate the gravitational abuse, which is actually exacerbated during daily use by the high seating position.
By contrast, the taciturn-looking Golf R offers soft, squishy leather seats. These more conventional buckets do almost as good of a job as the Focus’ Recaros of keeping your torso in place on mountain roads, but do so without crushing your sides, staying comfortable on long drives and daily commutes.
On the same exact road, the Golf wears a stony, unflappable poker face while the Focus roared and screeched in delight. The Volkswagen’s Bridgestone Potenza RE050s never complain, even with the accelerator buried; through faster sections, the Golf R feels bonded to the road, even without the optional Dynamic Chassis Control.
The electric power steering’s weight is measured and feedback feels natural, as if the road’s idiosyncrasies are plugged into to your fingertips. The wheel buzzes and vibrates, telegraphing every rock and pebble. It doesn’t take long to understand just why we endowed both the Golf R and its GTI sibling with our coveted All-Star awards.
The only negative aspect is that while its engine and smart-shifting dual-clutch automatic gearbox are eager to pull the Golf R out of corners; when hurling towards a curve there is a wisp of understeer. This is a somewhat of an inevitable characteristic of VW’s seasoned Haldex all-wheel drive, but it’s in no way a deal-breaker for what’s otherwise a fiercely fun and willing performance car.
As we pull into another turnout, the metaphorical server returns to ask if we’ve decided between the raucous sensory overload of the Focus RS or the understated Teutonic professionalism of the Golf R.
Both are seductive in ways more purposeful sports cars aren’t. These aren’t just serviceable modes of transportation, but machines worthy of adoration. In a perfect world, we’d have both, but if forced to choose, we’d pick the Golf R. (Again). The well-rounded Volkswagen is not only capable of humiliating cars with more performance prestige when called to, it delivers quiet luxury daily without fuss.
Looks like we’re having the steak. Medium rare. And since we’ve got a couple more seasons left with our Golf R, we’ll take it to go.
Our 2016 Volkswagen Golf R
|MILES TO DATE||7,986|
|FUEL TO DATE||351.4 gallons|
|OBSERVED FUEL ECON||22.7 mpg|
|ENGINE||2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/292 hp @ 5,400 rpm, 280 hp @ 1,800 rpm|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine AWD hatchbach|
|EPA MILEAGE||23/30 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H:||168.4 x 70×8. 56.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.5 sec|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph|
2017 Ford Focus RS Specifications
|PRICE||$36,775 (base), $39,460 (as tested)|
|ENGINE||2.3L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/350 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 350 lb-ft @ 3,200 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine AWD hatchback|
|EPA MILEAGE||19/25 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L X W X H||172.8 x 71.8 x 58.0 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.5 sec|
|TOP SPEED||165 mph|