As with skinning cats, an odd pursuit at the best of times, there is more than one way to win the hot hatch war. Judging by the Golf R, Volkswagenâ€™s preferred method is by diplomacy. Fordâ€™s, looking at the Focus RS, is by hand-to-hand fighting.
When they were launched, both these cars hit the ground running, and at quite a speed too. That was impressive enough, but whatâ€™s even more noteworthy is how well they have clung on to their lofty positions since they burst onto the performance car scene.
The Volkswagen has recently had a light going-over to take its power output over the 300bhp mark. The Ford has come in for Â£899 worth of attention from Mountune, as a result of which it now puts out 370bhp in this FPM375 form.
Both cars fall into the under-Â£35k, all-wheel-drive category, but thatâ€™s where the similarities end. Springing from the multi-purpose middle-class darling that is the Golf, the R is resolutely luxurious and urbane. It represents the ultimate extension of the brand.
Volkswagen Golf RÂ
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged, petrol
Torque: 280lb ft
Gearbox: Seven-speed dual-clutch auto
Kerb weight: 1483kg
0-62mph: 4.6sec (claimed)
Top speed: 155mph
CO2/tax band: 160g/km, 31%
The RS, on the other hand, is unapologetic in its refusal to ramp up brand expectations. First and foremost itâ€™s a blue-collar Focus, as the stupidly high driving positionÂ and much of its entry-level cabinware will attest. The big difference is the triple helping of horsepower thatâ€™s attached to its clawing but also slideable chassis.
The Golf R usually wins this comparison because itâ€™s more accomplished than the Ford. An Â£899 Mountune kit of revised software code and breathed-on bits doesnâ€™t alter that. You only need ten Golf R minutes on a Welsh B-road to know that not only would you happily drive it around the whole of Wales until someone came to take the keys away, youâ€™d also be pretty content with the idea of having it as your only car for the rest of your life. Itâ€™s that good. Put it down to the optional (but in our view essential) adaptive dampers, the suppleness of the ride, the accessibility of the power and the precision of the steering. You could give anyone a free choice of real-world performance rivals, including the sometimes grating but always cheerily willing Ford, safe in the knowledge that the Golf R will be challenged by very few of them, and disgraced by none.
Ford Focus RS FPM375
Engine: 2.3-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged, petrol
Torque: 376lb ft
Gearbox: Six-speed manual
Kerb weight: 1547kg
0-62mph: 4.5sec (claimed)
Top speed: 165mph
CO2/tax band: 175g/km, 34%
Even when you turn off public roads and onto private racetracks, the R isnâ€™t exposed. The mechanical grip is mighty and the 4Motion system astonishingly neutral. Ultimately, the handling is nose-led â€“Â thatâ€™s for safety and stability â€“Â but this is no submissive trackday flop. You can adjust your line in the middle of a corner simply by modulating the throttle. Thereâ€™s no big risk in it. Add in a seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox that will supply 4.6-second 0-62mph times all day long and youâ€™re in R-brand heaven.
Enter stage right, abruptly, the Focus RS. This car was designed to take hot hatchery to race-level rambunctiousness. Yes, the standard Drift mode is arguably a bit more about marketing hype than driver reality, but the RS can nonetheless do wondrous, very un-five-door family hatch things when a good gob of power is going to the back axle. The FPM375â€™s extra power alone doesnâ€™t cue in a celestial choir, but the 376lb ft of torque available from 2000rpm is very adept at helping the car to pivot around its middle.
Higher bhp makes the Focus a whole second quicker round Llandow, but you drive it with a sensation of prickliness that you donâ€™t get in the Golf, a feeling that youâ€™re play-fighting with an MMA champ whoâ€™s taking it easy with you. If weâ€™d taken these two cars to a rallycross stage, the Ford would have ripped the VW a new one for sure. But how many rallycross stages do you drive on?
The question at the end of the day is, how do you want your hot hatch thrills, snarly and slidey, or supremely sophisticated? Thereâ€™s merit in both approaches.
The Golf R is like the light that comes on when you open the fridge door. Itâ€™s comforting and massively predictable, in a good way. And itâ€™s nearly as exciting as the Focus. If you want your entertainment seasoned by practicality, comfort, and classlessness, itâ€™s got to be the Golf R.