The Hot Hatch War Begins: 2016 Focus RS, WRX STI, Golf R

Two days ago, Ford announced the all-new 2016 Focus RS, which has more than 315hp from the 2.3L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, mated to an AWD system.

This effectively puts the Focus RS into the competition with other hot hatches in the market, such as the Subaru WRX STI and also the Volkswagen Golf R. The current 2015 WRX STI is in the sedan form, but we can safely bet the hatchback version is coming very soon, therefore we include it into our discussion here.


Generally speaking, Subaru WRX STI is the most hardcore vehicle for rally purpose, while it has lower refinement; the VW Golf R has the best refinement, but its AWD system is the weakest among the three candidates. Ford Focus RS sits just between its two rivals.

Talking about hot hatch, people usually focus on these factors: handling, all-wheel-drive system and the engine. I will briefly discuss these three cars based on the above factors.

Subaru WRX STI


The WRX STI has the best AWD system among the three: it has a true planetary-gear center differential (rear-biased) with electronic multi-disc clutch to act as slip control. As we have mentioned in our previous AWD system review, this is a rather advanced design, currently Lexus IS/GS and also the Porsche Cayenne are using this same design in their center differential.

We all know for AWD cars, at least 3 differentials (or something equivalent to/acts like a differential) are needed. In addition to the center differential, WRX STI also puts extremely good treatments to its front and rear differentials: it uses a helical-type limited slip front differential, and even employs a Torsen differential for the rear wheels. Therefore, the WRX STI can be considered to having the best possible AWD system in all non-SUV cars. Currently, only the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution can compare to it.

However, the US-spec WRX STI has some disadvantages to its engine: it is still using the aging EJ257 2.5L turbo 4-cylinder, which has been around since 2004 (it received some minor enhancements in 2008 though), not Subaru’s latest FA20DIT direct-injection engine. Although the EJ257 has higher output, its outdated turbo design and lacking of the latest technologies leads to a significantly slower throttle response and worse turbo lag, as you can see from our previous report and analysis.

However, Subaru has been busy working on the STI version FA20DIT engine. The current Japanese domestic market FA20DIT already has 300hp, so we are sure when the FA20DIT equipped WRX STI comes to production, its output will be well over 300hp.

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Volkswagen Golf R


Although Golf R is claiming itself to be all-wheel-drive, it does not have a “real” center differential. The AWD on the Golf R is using the 5-generation Haldex system, which uses an electro-hydraulic clutch to send power to the rear wheels.

Because clutch type coupling system will generate lots of heat and wear under heavy load/long time operation, Golf R’s rear wheels will receive meaningful power ONLY when the Haldex ECU thinks it is necessary (for example the front wheels are slipping). Under normal driving conditions, more than 95% of the engine output is routed to the front wheels, which means the rear wheels are receiving less than 5% of power, effectively equal to nothing. There is no mechanical limited slip hardware in the front/rear differentials too. The limited-slip feature is implemented through the help of brakes and ABS, similar to other normal cars on the road.

Summary: the Golf R is more like a front-wheel-drive car, its AWD is just a part-time feature and cannot work for long time under heavy load. This is the reason that it is not as hardcore as the Subaru WRX STI.

But Golf R has VW’s latest EA888 engine, with 296hp and 280 lb-ft of torque across a broad range from  1,800 to 5,500 rpm; and probably it also has the best refinement among its competitors. For example, it has lots of noise insulation materials placed around the engine bay; its interior design and material quality give people an impression similar to some Audi vehicles.

2016 Focus RS


If you have paid attention to the Ford press release, you may find it to be very similar to Acura’s SH-AWD system. For example they both has mechanical torque vectoring feature for the rear wheels, and the rear wheels can receive up to 70% of engine output. The Focus RS AWD is still a front-biased system, rear wheels only get large amount of power when necessary, So it is more like the Golf R AWD system plus the rear wheel torque vectoring. Do not make joke of the torque vectoring here: it helps the Focus RS to achieve a RWD-like characteristic when cornering, you need to try it yourself to believe.

The Focus RS uses the same 2.3L EcoBoost engine found in the 2015 Mustang EcoBoost (of course, with different tunning). Mustang engine aftermarket modification is a pretty large industry in US, this will also help the Focus RS too. So consider this as a plus, if you want to mod your Focus RS.

Besides the drivetrain, the Focus RS also has some interesting tweaks that improve the handling. For example: it is utilizing the RevoKnuckle design to address the torque steering issue (a typical problem common in high output FWD platforms, caused by physical limitations).


Summary: the Focus RS has a better AWD system setup than the Golf R, still not as hardcore as the WRX STI; its engine represents the latest Ford technology. One more thing worth mentioning: the Focus RS will be built in, and imported from Germany. Yes you heard me right: the US market 2016 Ford Focus RS, is made in Germany. Therefore, its material/build quality will be different from your typical impression of other Ford vehicles sold in the US.

Which one you like most? Share your opinion in the below comments section.

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16 comments to The Hot Hatch War Begins: 2016 Focus RS, WRX STI, Golf R

  • Brett  says:

    The article is a little misleading. It says “Yes you heard me right: the US market 2016 Ford Focus, is made in Germany.” which is just not correct. ONLY The RS will be imported from Germany. The rest of the focus lineup is built at Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne Michigan.

    • Editor  says:

      Thanks for pointing it out! We have corrected this typo.

  • CM  says:

    Well given the issues Ford has with reliability (at least base on my experience with their cars), I cannot imagine how many issues a 315HP turbocharged, AWD one could have. I can see this thing falling apart in 30k miles. I don’t think the engine will stack up against the STI for performance or reliability, and I don’t think the AWD will stack up either. If the price point is similar, then I see no way Ford could be competitive.

    • JP  says:

      Basing your opinions on anectodetal evidence is folly. Basing them on one anectdote is ridiculous. When that one anecdote is your own, you are defining confirmation bias. JP

      • CM  says:

        I’ve owned three Fords over the last 20 years and each of them has experienced serious issues before reaching 60k miles. I would hardly say that’s anecdotal. Given none of them were the same year, make, or model and were always maintained, I would have to doubt they were all lemons and points to shoddy manufacturing and design. I think that’s a decent sample size over a period of time to base my opinion on.

    • Mike  says:

      Sti is Not reliable. Just go to the forums and see for yourself. I would rather have vw”s cam follower issue than sti”s engine blowing Ringland issue. That being said I’m excited for focus rs….it might even have good mpg considering the heavy mustang gets 30+ mpg

      • Andy  says:

        I’m interested in seeing the Focus, and I’m not worried too much about it’s reliability. Ford has stepped up their game in recent years.

        And as for STi reliability, my WRX has over 255k miles and is still purring. I’d still probably choose the new WRX over the other two, although they should all be pretty fun to test out.

      • CM  says:

        I have an STI with 175k on it, and have never had a single issue with it. But by all means, go buy a Ford of similar performance and let me know if you ever get to 175k without any issues.

  • IdleWanderlust  says:

    Im curious as to why you think a hatch version is coming of the STi? Unless I missed something which I admit is possible Subaru has been quite clear that there is no hatch planned. On a personal note I always found the sedan to be the more attractive variant so lack of hatch is of no concern for me and hatch only is a good way for me to not look at your offering.

    • nana  says:

      the Levorg (not available in US market) makes us hopeful.
      to be quite honest, unless Subaru brings a hatchback model back to the WRX lineup, I’m not interested. I can’t see myself ditching the versatility for a sedan – at the moment I’m taking a much more serious look at Ford.

  • RBH58  says:

    The Focus RS still has the same limitation as the Golf R with it’s ability to send power to the rear axle. All it can to do is lock the front and rear axles together to deliver a 50:50 split. Sure, the RS can then send 100% of the power the rear axle power to one side or the other, but the “70% of the power can be sent to the rear axle claims” are as big a baloney as VW’s claims that the Golf R can send 100% reawards under some circumstances. The RS system is superior to the Golf’s system (and is seemingly identical to the SH-AWD system Honda put on the Legend, but the STI’sAWD system is the only true AWD here.

  • Johnathan Brewer  says:

    I like the Ford, it looks sweet

  • Jar_moose11  says:

    With any of these cars you only experience the max performance of the car about 5% of the time. You experience the interior 100% of the time. The RS interior just looks plasticy and bulgy in the center. However it will probably out perform the sti and golf. Each car has its pros and cons.

  • Sparky C  says:

    Subaru bring the Levorg to the US! Call it something different, but bring it.

  • Ed w  says:

    Still I would choose a wrx the price for those other two cars is going to be something ridiculous!

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