Earlier today a video comparison was released by Motor Trend on the Mark 7 Golf R and the brand new Focus RS. Both these cars are on the short list of vehicles to replace my Fiesta ST with, so this video is of some significance to me. That being said, I bought the Fiesta ST based on the rave reviews and the staggering amount of automotive journalists who purchased the FiST for themselves. And since then I’ve developed what I feel is a healthy skepticism towards automotive journalism and some of the inherent biases and flaws in logic that exist in this realm. Don’t get me wrong, the Fiesta ST has been great but I do have some gripes with the car that were never really mentioned in any reviews or perhaps brushed aside given the low price point of the car. I do have a few problems with Motor Trend’s Head 2 Head comparison of these two cars which highlight why I generally take automotive reviews with a grain of salt.
When comparing hot hatches, there’s two main things to look at: how hot it is, and how good of a hatchback it is. The first part is easy to get right for guys like Motor Trend, they have the resources to throw the cars through canyons, on track, and drag race them. The latter always seems to be a bit more difficult and didn’t really get the emphasis that I think it deserves in this particular comparison. The whole reason why people are searching for a 5-door hot hatch is that they need to find a daily-drivable car that works well on the commute and can still hold its own around a racetrack. There’s a reason why these cars aren’t often compared to FR coupes like the Mustang, Camaro, or GT86, and so the criteria for reviewing them needs to be re-calibrated as well. In this Head 2 Head however, the interior quality and ergonomics are hardly discussed, nor are the trunk or rear seat space. And while they did rag on the R for having a sloppy manual shifter, they forgot to mention that it’s the only car here with an automatic option (and what a great one it is). It seems irresponsible for a Southern California based outlet to not point that out given the insane amounts of traffic these guys sit in. In fact, this is one of the reasons why Matt Farah is getting rid of his RS after just a couple weeks of ownership, as it’s rather hard to make a case for a manual daily driver in LA gridlock.
The Golf R comes with factory Continental ContiSportContact 5P tires, not a terrible Summer tire but they’re about 2-3 steps behind those Pilot Sport Cup 2’s on the Focus RS. As objective as journalists strive to be, even the best journalists can’t filter out that significant of a tire difference from their impressions of a car. In a court setting, having such a significant difference in tires should render the evidence inadmissible and considered extremely prejudicial. Tires absolutely transform the feel and performance of a car, and in both track day and autocross environments (aside from seat time) tires are the easiest way to compete with cars that have 15-20% better power to weight ratios. In the context of these vehicles it’s like having an extra 40-60 horsepower! The tires dramatically affect the way a car turns, brakes, and accelerates so it’s unfair to compare a car equipped with average street summer tires and one with exceptional competition tires. In a recent episode of Ignition however, Motor Trend compared the Fiat 124 with the Miata and recognized this disparity and swapped one car’s tires onto the other to level the playing field. Given their close ties with Tirerack I feel like a more comparable tire could have been fitted onto the RS for the test.
I’m sorry but the Focus RS brakes caught on fire on a 2 minute canyon run but Motor Trend barely mentions it. This is one of the biggest and most consistent problems I’ve had on my Fiesta ST and on my car it’s because of the way Ford has designed the brake-torque vectoring. Not only that but braking problems hurt the Focus ST’s ranking significantly in the 2013 Motor Trend Best Driver’s Car competition. From an objective viewpoint, I understand that perhaps less than 1% of Focus RS owners will push their cars to the point of their brakes catching on fire but to that 1% it’s the difference between enjoying yourself on a track day and ending up in the wall. This isn’t a pre-production car and quite a few have already taken ownership of their RS’s. While I’m sure aftermarket brake upgrades will surely be available, frankly I don’t think there’s any excuse for a performance oriented car with factory R-compounds to have any issues with its brakes, be it on road or track.
All this being said I agree with their conclusion and would still give the win to the Focus RS. The better steering feel*, more interesting styling, and better price point make it a no-brainer. The last point is an interesting one as the US price of both cars in base trim has the Golf R at about $3k (USD) more than the RS. In Canada it’s the other way around, the base RS starts at about $8k (CAD) more than the R, which is huge! If this comparison took place in Canada, a much stronger case could be made for the VW given the much more attractive price point. The points mentioned above are all but asterisks in the grand scheme of things and for the same money the RS deserves the win.