While competitors have come and gone, the Volkswagen GTI has been the model of cheap and practical performance for more than three decades. The current GTI is the sixth iteration of a progressively more perfect icon and the very definition of the hot-hatch niche. As recognition of its excellence, we have named it an All-Star five times and Automobile of the Year in 2007 and 2010.
That's not to say the GTI has always been king. It was eight years ago when Volkswagen last saw its mantle threatened. Its unlikely rival came not from fellow Europeans or the Japanese, but from a small group of Dearborn engineers working outside of their wheelhouse. Small, affordable, and competent, the 2002-2004 Ford SVT Focus was a rare achievement for Detroit, which traditionally had no problem covering the first two of those attributes but so often came up woefully short on the third. The SVT Focus was different. It was a car so involving and so well-rounded that we invoked both the BMW M3 and the Lotus brand in declaring victory over the GTI and three other sport compacts in a 2002 comparison. Then, as quickly as it arrived, the SVT Focus disappeared. Ford let the Focus languish in the North American market (while rolling out a new car in Europe) and failed to follow up on the SVT. Soon after, the GTI resumed its reign.
Now that your local Ford dealership once again has a Focus worthy of worldwide sales, there's once again a Focus worthy of competing with the GTI. Ford's new Focus ST is a paragon of the One Ford global product mantra. Engineers developed a single steering calibration, a single suspension setup, and a single tire for more than forty worldwide markets. The SVT badge is nowhere to be found because there's even a single, global name: ST, for Sport Technologies.
This battle isn't just ST versus GTI. It's also about Focus versus Golf for leadership in the compact class. The popular Ford has evolved into a bolder and more sophisticated compact car. Even though the launch of the brand-new, seventh-generation Golf and GTI is less than a year away, the outgoing version of the hatchback from Wolfsburg still oozes flair and ability.
The ST beats the strongest GTI -- equipped with the optional dual-clutch automatic transmission -- against the stopwatch, but the gap between these two contenders is small. The ST wins the 0-to-60-mph acceleration duel (6.2 versus 6.7 seconds), and it secures the maximum-velocity trophy (154 mph versus 130 mph). On paper, the Volkswagen is more economical, eclipsing the Ford's 26 mpg with an EPA combined rating of 27 mpg. Over the long weekend we spent with both cars, however, the ST had a very slight advantage, and both cars averaged slightly less than 20 mpg. Too thirsty? On an empty autobahn and on the twisties in the hinterlands near Munich the pair is always on the wrong side of the 20-mpg mark. But in Austria or Switzerland, where ubiquitous speed limits are strictly enforced, both cars put on their eco masks, curb their thirst, and practically double the driving range. Just as the performance numbers don't settle anything, money isn't the decider, either. The four-door Ford has a base price of $24,495 and the two-door VW comes in at $24,765, for a price differential of only $270. (Adding two doors to a GTI costs $600.)
Perhaps the most obvious point in favor of the ST is its energetic 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder, which develops 252 hp -- 52 hp more than the GTI's turbocharged 2.0-liter. A high-performance, front-wheel-drive Ford? This description brings to mind the short-lived, European-market Focus RS rated at 301 hp and 325 lb-ft. Its makers claimed that they had exorcised torque steer by means of a trick front knuckle and a Quaife automatic torque-biasing differential. Despite these grand promises, the RS was notorious for excessive steering fight, so it does not come as a huge surprise that the ST displays similar tendencies.
Again, Ford employed plenty of countermeasures to address the problem, although this time they're of the electronic variety. Even equipped with Torque Steer Compensation, Torque Vectoring Control, and Cornering Under Steer Control (long live the highly imaginative marketing squad!), our bright blue hatchback nonetheless indulges in steering battles of the tallest order. Especially through tight corners, on bumpy roads, and on wet surfaces, the steering and the front wheels constantly struggle for control. The electronics can't entirely compensate for the potent coalition of power and torque. The one element that contains viable antistress vitamins is the variable-ratio, electrically assisted steering. At 1.8 turns lock-to-lock, it is sufficiently quick to let you tear through hairpins without taking a hand off the wheel. That's the good news. The bad news is that the turning circle is more F-150 than Focus. At 39.4 feet, the ST, which is shod with eighteen-inch tires, needs three more feet to move between curbs than its lesser stablemates. The turning circle of the Volkswagen is a commendably tight 35.8 feet -- so much smaller than the Ford's that you'd even notice the difference making a U-turn in the middle of a wide-open red state.
The Focus benefits from a three-stage stability control system. In addition to on and off, there is a sport mode that permits enough drama to frighten an unsuspecting passenger while avoiding proper tail-out antics. With the system deactivated, the Focus can be coaxed quite easily into some pretty hairy, Ken Block-inspired, lift-off oversteer action, but with a relatively modest 252 hp on tap, the maximum inertia rarely shines longer than through the first third of any given corner.
The GTI employs its own bevy of electronic aids to manage the front-wheel-drive dynamics: an electronic differential lock, traction and stability control, and the optional dual-clutch automatic transmission. At the limit, the Volkswagen feels better balanced and smoother than the spicy Ford, which can break away rather suddenly. Stability control can't be defeated in the GTI, and while this may be a good thing on the approach to an icy, blind, downhill switchback, it certainly affects the fun factor on the racetrack, where the VW simply cannot match the more emphatic cornering attitude of the ST.
Ford has lowered the ST chassis by 0.4 inch compared with the regular Focus and fitted firmer springs along with fixed-rate, stiffer dampers. The ST-only rear knuckles are new, as is a larger-diameter antiroll bar. The tires are 235/40YR-18 Goodyear Eagles mounted on Y-spoke aluminum wheels. The brakes are ventilated 12.6-inch discs in the front and solid 10.7-inch rotors in the back. Despite only modest changes over the standard Focus, it all works superbly: the stopping mechanism is one of the ST's undisputed strong points, especially when compared with the GTI, which is not exactly a champion of deceleration. This comes as a surprise. After all, the VW's brake discs are only a tad smaller (12.3 and 10.7 inches front and rear) and the basic setup is very similar, but the effect is less riveting than the instant response experienced in the Ford, which has more confidence-inspiring pedal feel and more stopping power at high speed. The brake pedal of the GTI is a little soft by comparison and needs more effort to deliver. It performs best in the 30 to 70 mph range, but its stamina on back roads leaves something to be desired.
Even without adjustable dampers, XXL footwear, and a paddleshift gearbox, the Focus is a pure and poised driving machine. This is a one-flavor-fits-all car, a hot hatch conceived by the global performance vehicles group for the world market, a common denominator of Ford's best-in-class ride, handling, and roadholding philosophy. The ST is not as uncompromising as the radical Focus RS, but it is more focused and more entertaining than the GTI. Take, for instance, the new EcoBoost engine. Its torque curve, which is shaped like Cape Town's Table Mountain, runs nearly flat from 2000 to 4500 rpm, producing 270 lb-ft in the process. After fifteen seconds of full-throttle acceleration, the ST will cut the overboost and chop the torque plateau to about 250 lb-ft, but it still has a sizable advantage over the Volkswagen. Yet while the GTI can muster only 200 hp and 207 lb-ft, it feels like a bigger-displacement unit and is less dependent on high revs. The GTI happily trundles along at 1500 rpm in fourth or fifth gear, pulls cleanly from 2000 rpm in sixth with whiplash vigor, and upshifts absolutely seamlessly. The 252-hp ST engine is tuned for more revs, a sportier power delivery, and more rapid throttle response, but it is busier, noisier, and not as linear as the VW engine. Thanks to a sound symposer (Ford-speak) and a sound generator (VW terminology), which establish acoustic links between the engine bay and the passenger compartment, both powerplants are remarkably melodious travel companions.