Comparison Test: 2015 Ford Focus ST vs 2015 Volkswagen GTI

 

So your life is going pretty well. School seems like ages ago; you’re making great progress with your career, and all those grown up responsibilities are ostensibly mounting by the day.

When you’re not working, there is no shortage of household responsibilities. And family responsibilities. And, well, do you ever get time to do anything for yourself anymore?

Why not turn your commute into something more rewarding, something interesting? Something for you. Something… better.

Sure blowing the life savings on a new, obnoxious, mid-engine, 12-cylinder hyper exotic machine would give you some instant gratification, but imagine the stress of returning home each night to your cardboard box because the house was sold to afford it. And where will the kids’ hockey bags go? Heck, where will the kids go?

No, that’s a silly idea. Instead. Buy one of these two cars. It doesn’t matter which one really, because they both achieve the same thing. They’re both fitted with four doors to easily put the family in; a hatchback to contain all your junk; and an efficient little engine to keep your fuel budget in check.

But here’s the best part: both possess enough performance chops to be honestly and truly fun to drive. 

Still, wouldn’t it be nice if someone could just tell you which one is better? Well, driving enthusiast, that’s what we’re here for.

 

The Looks

Look, neither of these is a sleek and sexy coupe or roadster. These two cars are based on more plebian machines, and thus their appearance is largely dictated by utilitarianism. Still, when fitted with 18-inch wheels wrapped in low profile performance rubber and bodies painted a bright crimson, a certain sporting intent is communicated to the other driving species in the urban jungle. And then there’s the $500 strips of black vinyl that have been affixed to the Focus’s hood, roof and hatchback that virtually shout “Hey cops, I’ma gonna do something I shouldn’t, just you watch!” Plus everyone knows that stickers add at least five horsepower, so how could you forego the stripe package?

While handsome and clearly more sporting than lesser Golfs, the GTI is bland – almost dowdy – parked next to the Focus ST. Sure the GTI is handsome, but in a my-hair-has-been-nicely-parted-and-I-have-my-best-sweater-vest-on kind of way.

For 2015 both cars are updated, and while this year’s GTI is all new, those who aren’t VW aficionados will need to study the details carefully to pick out a new GTI from last year’s model. Ford has made some subtle updates – a few extra hood creases here, some nice-looking wheels there – and of course those sassy stickers – but otherwise, this year’s Focus ST is not a whole lot different than last year’s.

And yet the Ford is definitely the more eye-catching car. Its grille is particularly aggressive and defines the attitude for the rest of the design from nose to tail. The greater rake to the rear hatch and bigger rooftop spoiler also give the Focus a more sinister profile. The GTI, meanwhile, is clean, mature and business-like.

Exterior Styling Score – GTI: 3.5/5 ST: 4/5

 

The Guts

Inside is much the same. Each car wears its biggest flourish on its seats. Volkswagen brought back the classic plaid fabric a generation or two ago, and the look remains every bit as polarizing as it has ever been. Senior Editor Yarkony and I both give the cloth “Clark” interior a big thumbs up.

Volkswagen has made sure those seats not only look good, but function properly too. The padding is firm and the seat shape is both comfortable and supportive without being constricting. The same cannot be said for the leather Recaros found inside the ST. While they’re ideally suited for hard-cornering maneuvers, the bolstering is so large and aggressive, that anyone of an average-size-or-larger carriage will find them too confining, if not downright uncomfortable.

The Ford’s dashboard styling is also over the top next to the Volkswagen’s simple-yet-effective layout. Common sense largely dictates the look, feel and placement of touch points inside the GTI. The Focus’s controls appear haphazardly placed with strange angles, arcs and shapes not always working harmoniously toward a cohesive design.

Still, while the Volkswagen may look richer, Ford has worked with a lot of decent, soft-touch materials for the Focus too.

Each car has a meaty, leather-wrapped steering wheel framing a pair of analogue primary gauges for the speedometer and tachometer, with traditional white fonts on a black background, just the way they ought to be for legibility. Ford fits the Focus ST with an extra binnacle of meters atop the central dash, providing oil temperature, oil pressure, and in this press car’s situation, a paralyzed boost gauge too lazy to rise off a 0 reading no matter how hard the throttle was stomped.

Both cars have a set of easy-to-use climate control knobs topped by an infotainment system. The Ford’s Sync system touchscreen is larger and features more modern (and brighter) graphics than the now-dated-looking 5.8-inch unit in the GTI (set to be updated next year). While I’ve always been a fan of Volkswagen’s bright and clear Fender-tuned sound systems, Mr. Yarkony’s musical tastes seem to require the deeper, more powerful bass afforded by the Ford’s Sony set up. He likes big beats, and he cannot lie.

Interior Styling and Ergonomics Score – GTI: 4/5 ST: 3.5/5

 

The Practical Side

It’s likely that many folks will use these cars as their all-season, all-situation daily driving machines. Others will have them as a second car occasionally doing duty with trips to the Home Depot or Costco. Fortunately, the hatchback format means that both of these cars will do just fine in either scenario. However, that rakish styling that earned the Focus an extra point in the fashion department costs it in terms of usable cargo space.

At 674L with the seat up, Ford is claiming a 30L victory over the GTI’s cargo hold, however we can’t see it. The Ford’s cargo area floor is high and its roof low, though maybe its greater length gives it some mathematical advantage. But the wide-open space of the GTI should prove more accommodating and usable in real world circumstances. Once the seats are dropped, the appearances catch up with the numbers and the GTI boasts a maximum cargo volume of nearly 1,500 L versus the ST’s 1,269 L.

When not folded down, the rear seats in the boxy Volkswagen are more livable thanks to greater headroom and legroom for rear passengers. Overall interior volume is slightly greater for the GTI as well.

Not only is the GTI more capacious, it also wins practicality points for its miserly fuel consumption. With government ratings of 6.9 L/100 km Highway and 8.3 City, the Volkswagen betters the Ford’s 7.3 and 8.9 ratings by enough to be actually noticeable in your wallet over time. On our drive day, we saw the Ford average in the low-to-mid 10’s, while the Volkswagen consumed its premium fuel at a rate that was 1 L/100 km better.

More space, more comfort and better efficiency means the GTI is the hot-hatch for more responsible adults.

Practical, Grown-up Stuff Score - GTI: 4.5/5 ST: 4/5 

 

The Drive

Right, so either one of these cars can zip out and pick up a dozen boxes of Pampers or a few flats of petunias – whoop-de-do – so can any number of mundane, affordable hatchbacks. At the end of a hectic week, it’s the joy of finding your favourite twisting back road on the way home – that extra 20 minute detour – in an honest-to-goodness FUN to drive machine that can set your world back on balance.

As the road opens up before you, grab that shifter, drop down a gear and let’s hear the induction sound fill the cabin as we’re thrust forward at a pace that muscle cars only wished for not that long ago. 

Here comes a curve. Hard on the brakes, grab another gear down and bend the angry little machine into the corner. Wooo! This thing is frisky! The steering is quick – borderline darty – but the grip from the Goodyear F1 summer rubber is impressive. 

And now, hard on that accelerator again, the wheel tugs slightly back and forth from torque steer and you’re off toward the next corner, sweat forming on your brow and a quickened heart rate in your chest.

Except that scenario describes only the Ford. The ST’s extroverted styling is true to its raucous driving personality. It’s 2.0L EcoBoost engine sounds better than the GTI’s 2.0L and it reminds the driver that it’s not only got 252 horsepower, but a whopping 270 lb-ft of torque, too. Our GTI tester is a five-door “Performance Package” car which sends only 220 hp (10 more than the non-Performance Pack GTI) and 258 lb-ft of torque through the front wheels and so is quick, but not as exciting as the Focus.

Power isn’t everything, of course, and frankly, Volkswagen has done a much better job of making the GTI a very refined, all-round nice car. If we had had a race track at our disposal and the ability to push these two cars to nearer their limits, this Volkswagen with its summer rubber, electronic limited slip differential and dynamic chassis control would surely have little trouble keeping up with the Ford.

While the Focus ST also wears proper summer tires and has Ford's electronic Torque Vectoring Control, it's the adaptive suspension on the Volkswagen that is the most impressive element of the $2,300 Performance Package upgrade. In its stiffest setting, the GTI corners flatly, but at the expense of its ride quality. No problem, zap it up to Comfort mode and the car is transformed into near-luxury car ride quality.

Ford’s engineers have tuned the Focus ST’s chassis admirably. It feels like a European sports sedan, carefully balancing a reasonable ride with a suspension taut enough to not trip over its own feet in the corners. Still, the electronic sorcery Volkswagen has instilled in the GTI enables it to be more things to more people, rather than compromising somewhere in between as the Ford does.

In both cars, the steering wheel communicates what the tires are doing reasonably well, but the Ford’s wickedly quick 1.8 turns lock-to-lock (versus the VW’s 2.2) means the Focus is more frenetic in its directional changes than the GTI. Mr. Yarkony dislikes the ST’s handling personality, finding it more challenging to drive in a spirited manner, and there’s no question the VW’s refinement makes it an easier car to drive fast. 

But the GTI is so smooth, so polished and so composed that it asks much less of its driver, meaning that those back road shenanigans are less exhilarating in the German car than they are in the feisty little Ford. The Focus ST, when driven with zeal, is a more engaging experience both dynamically and aurally.

Fun To Drive Score- GTI: 4/5 ST: 4.5/5 

 

The Verdict 

If we tally up the scores from above, Volkswagen’s GTI earns itself 16 out of 20 points. The Ford, meanwhile, shows… aw crap, 16 out of 20 as well. Of course, your own personal needs are likely to weight the scores differently depending on your priorities. Here outright performance and practicality trade off equally, but if you’re willing to sacrifice one much more than the other, your answer should become fairly clear between these two.

 

Both Jonathan and I came away from our test day in agreement that Volkswagen’s GTI is the better car. It’s handsome design inside and out won’t offend anyone, and its driving manners are even more agreeable. The level of refinement baked into every new Golf (not just the GTI) is head and shoulders above virtually everything in the compact car class. Toss in the impressive go-, stop- and turn prowess of the GTI, and it truly becomes a world-class machine. It blends reasonable value, common sense, comfort and fun better than pretty much anything else on the road today. 

 

And yet, even knowing that the Volkswagen is the sensible pick, if given the choice, it’s Ford’s Focus ST that I’d rather take home and use as a daily-life stress-release mechanism. It is raw, boisterous and uncouth (especially with those ridiculous racing stripes) compared to the GTI, but that’s what makes it so engaging and so fun. It’ll still haul the groceries, but it’ll give your heart a better workout in doing so.

That’s what a hot hatch is supposed to be all about.

 

2015 Ford Focus ST
Warranty:
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 5 years/100,000 km roadside assistance

 

2015 Volkswagen GTI 5-door Performance Package
Warranty:
4 years/80,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/80,000 km roadside assistance

Competitors:
Ford Fiesta ST
Mazda3 Sport
Mini Cooper S
Subaru WRX

 

So your life is going pretty well. School seems like ages ago; you’re making great progress with your career, and all those grown up... 7/26/2015 10:32:01 AM
2015 Ford Focus ST 2015 Volkswagen GTI 5-door Performance Package
Base Price $29,999 Base Price $36,590
Optional Equipment Technology Package, $1,250; Navigation System, $800; 18” Premium Painted Wheels, $600; Black Exterior Stripes, $500. Optional Equipment Technology Package, $695.
A/C Tax $100 A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,565 Destination Fee $1,605
Price as Tested $34,914 Price as Tested $38,990
Optional Equipment