CARS.COM — Twenty miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles is the entrance to the fun zone: Highway 39. This winding road leads up into the San Gabriel Mountains and it used to connect to the Angeles Crest Highway before a massive landslide in 1978 wiped it out; it’s been cut off ever since, ending at a gated overlook up in the mountains.
That means there’s 25 miles of twisty road that leads up to a dead end, with no reason to head up that way other than to enjoy the drive. It’s the perfect place to test out the two competitors of this comparison: the 2017 Ford Focus RS and the 2017 Volkswagen Golf R.
Related: 2017 Ford Focus RS: Our View
This pair share many similarities. Both the Ford and the VW are hatchbacks and have all-wheel drive, turbocharged four-cylinder engines and European pedigrees. Both are excellent to drive. Both made me smile like a giddy teenager.
Where they differ is in execution. One is a great all-around vehicle, comfortable at all speeds and with a refined sense of style inside and out. The other is a crazy mayhem machine that’s only happy going fast.
Let’s look at how they match up:
2017 Ford Focus RS with RS 2 Package ($2,785)
Price as tested: $39,870 (including destination)
Powertrain: 350-horsepower, turbocharged 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder; 350 pounds-feet of torque; six-speed manual transmission; all-wheel drive
Fuel economy: 19/25/22 mpg city/highway/combined
2017 Volkswagen Golf R with Driver Assistance Package ($895)
Price as tested: $41,295
Powertrain: 292-hp, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder; 280 pounds-feet of torque; six-speed DSG automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
Fuel economy: 23/30/25 mpg
Though their zero-to-60 mph times are similar (4.7 seconds for the Ford Focus RS, 4.9 seconds for the VW Golf R), the Focus RS feels faster. The Golf R’s peak torque is supposed to kick in earlier at just 1,800 rpm (compared to 3,200 rpm for the Focus RS), but it somehow felt less responsive even in the low-to-mid rev range. It could be that the hint of lag on the Focus RS before it explodes and the world goes a bit blurry makes it feel like it kicks harder. I much preferred the engine in the RS.
It’s harder to compare transmissions, with the Focus RS offering a six-speed manual and the Golf R coming with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic. The Focus RS had a heavier clutch, which made it harder to drive in the city (more on that later), but it was excellent when pushing the car. The resistance made it easier to be accurate on the catch and sling out of corners. The automatic in the VW was also very good; slip the Golf R into “Race” mode and it holds gears for you all the way up to redline with enough throttle. But for really aggressive driving, you’ll want to take control of the paddles yourself, and it bangs out shifts quickly in that mode as well.
The bottom line is that neither of these hatches are slow – but one is more powerful and more importantly, feels faster. If you want to get your Ricky Bobby on, the choice is clear.
Winner: Focus RS
Both vehicles came with adaptive suspensions, which can change up their feel according to the driver’s preferences and which drive mode is selected. Once again, the Ford is the sharper of the two, especially if its adaptive shocks are flipped into Sport mode. That makes body roll practically nonexistent, and it stays incredibly flat in the turns even through quick changes of direction. One word of caution: Don’t use it on roads that aren’t well maintained. Every imperfection feels like it travels from the wheels directly to your spine. The Golf R has more body roll, even in its most aggressive setting, which makes you less confident in putting the power down coming out of corners.
Part of the reason for that is the difference between their all-wheel-drive systems. The Focus RS features what Ford calls “dynamic torque vectoring,” a rear-drive unit that has two clutches and can send 100 percent of the torque headed to the rear to either wheel. The 4Motion system found in the Golf R brakes the slipping wheel, and that transfers power to the wheel with more grip. Such a subtle change makes a big difference in application: The Focus RS really puts power down at corner exits and allows you to use the throttle to aid the steering. The Golf R’s system feels a bit like traction control.
The Ford Focus RS was also much grippier, although that could boil down to its more aggressive street tire setup: The Focus RS wears Michelin Pilot Super Sports versus the Pirelli P-Zeros on the Golf R.
Driving the Golf R hard was enjoyable, but it’s just not as sharp as the Focus RS both in handling and in what’s under the hood. It felt a small step behind in each area, but those steps add up. The Golf R is still really fun to sling around, but it’s going up against a car that made me say out loud to myself, “Why is it so good?” multiple times.
Winner: Ford Focus RS
How They Drive Slow
As much fun as it was to rip and run around in the mountains, it also meant spending an hour plus in traffic each way to get there, which gave me a good sense of how these cars handle the kind of snarl that Los Angeles is known for.
In my review of the Focus RS, I said “The things that make the Focus RS so great on twisty roads make it nearly as frustrating in everyday driving. Even with the dampers in Normal mode, the ride is unrelenting. Any imperfections in the pavement are heard (and felt), and the clutch’s takeup point is a bit on the high side, so moving the Focus RS in traffic is unpleasant.”
The VW Golf R is the opposite of that — its suspension may offer more body roll in the canyons, but that also means it can drive over broken pavement or through construction zones. The Golf R is refined and quiet at normal speeds. It also had comfortable seats (front and back) while the Focus RS came with optional Recaro sport seats, which are among the most uncomfortable I’ve encountered. Their aggressive bolstering is appreciated when driving fast, but at slow speeds, they’re annoying.
Winner: Golf R in a landslide
Interior and Technology
The Golf R’s interior materials and styling are much better than the Focus RS’s. The Focus RS is a $40,000 car with a $20,000 interior. We already covered the problems with the Ford’s front seat, but another issue is that backseat passengers are practically ignored: Not only is the bench uncomfortable, but there aren’t any climate vents or even a center fold-down armrest back there. It also has far worse second-row visibility — those Recaros block much of the forward view, and the side windows feel smaller as well, giving it a claustrophobic feeling, even if the two hatches have similar backseat dimensions.
On the technology side, the two are just about even. Both cars’ multimedia systems offer Android Auto and Apple CarPlay along with upgraded speakers and navigation. Ford’s Sync 3 is an easier multimedia system, however, especially if using the built-in navigation.
Winner: Golf R
When it comes to safety, it’s once again no contest in favor of the Golf R. The Focus RS doesn’t even offer any safety technology beyond a backup camera as options or part of a package. Meanwhile, the Golf R comes standard with forward automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert. My car’s Driver Assistance Package also adds front and rear parking sensors, lane keep assist and automatic high beams.
Winner: Golf R
The Focus RS and its singular mission of driving at the edge has appeal. To some, the concept of owning the sharpest instrument in the box could make other considerations irrelevant. I counted myself among those that could be swayed by it, but after living with the Focus RS for a week’s worth of errands and city driving in addition to those trips to the mountains, I’ve had to reconsider.
There’s a huge gap in living with these two day to day. The Golf R is comfortable, practical and still a lot of fun when the occasion calls for it. If this type of car was going to be my daily driver, it’d have to be the Volkswagen. It just has too much content for the Focus RS to keep up.
But as a weekend car or a second car, the Focus RS takes the cake. It’s so good at going fast that I (and my aching back) could deal with whatever foibles it has on occasion.
This might be a cop-out, but I can’t call one of these a loser — you win either way.