he bells, the bells! It’s just after 5am and I’m momentarily confused about where I am and what exactly is going on. Big, sonorous lumps of metal are ringing discombobulatingly and rather irritatingly loudly nearby, but why? Earthquake? Nuclear war? Alien invasion? I can’t hear panic in the hallways of the hotel so I assume none of the above. Then I remember. I’d done the usual thing when booking this hotel at the last minute, delighted at finding accommodation so close to the mountain road we wanted to use: Check TripAdvisor – yup, fair to middling reviews. Price is within budget. Sold. What I didn’t check was whether the hotel was attached to a Benedictine monastery. Silly me.

With the bells for morning prayer rousing the monks (and everyone in the hotel) from their slumbers, I lie awake thinking about the day ahead. Parked up outside in the darkness is the brand new, 345bhp Ford Focus RS, arguably the hottest motoring property of the moment. Last month Dan Prosser declared it part of a new breed, the ‘super hatch’, and so for the RS’s first group test we thought we should bring a couple of rivals out to Spain to meet it. Prosser stipulated that a super hatch should have four-wheel drive, so we picked the Volkswagen Golf R, which with 297bhp is down on power compared to the Ford but close on price, and the 362bhp Audi RS3 Sportback, which is up on power but rather dearer. Good benchmarks, we hope you’ll agree. Depending how it gets on here, we’ll then pitch the Focus against front-wheel-drive rivals such as the Renault Mégane and SEAT Leon when it reaches the UK (although nothing short of a Nissan GT-R will live with it according to some reviews I’ve read…).

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The second lot of bells drags me from a doze just after 7am and at breakfast I meet evo staffer Antony Ingram, who has brought the Focus up from Valencia, and James Disdale, road test editor for Auto Express, whose long-term RS3 we are using for the test. As we wander down to the misty car park an hour later, we realise that all three cars are shades of blue, respectively Nitrous, Night and Sepang. I head for the Malaysian Audi, which instantly feels like a very lovely place to settle into on a surprisingly chilly morning. The Super Sports seats look both impressive and luxurious, although they could be set a little lower, and a bit of Alcantara on a steering wheel is always welcome, even if it doesn’t extend the full circumference.

The driver’s door is still open as I twist the key and the volume of the noise that rents the cold air takes me by surprise (not for the last time on this test). The five-cylinder’s mellifluous exhalation is so loud that I can imagine it parting the swirling mist behind the oval tailpipes of the sports exhaust. The Audi might be £10k more expensive than either of the other cars here, but so far it is doing a good job of feeling it.

Paddles are the only option in the Audi, but the shifts from the seven-speed dual-clutch ’box are crisp on the way up, if not quite as responsive as the best on the way back down. While a manual would be nice for the interactivity, there is something about the paddles that suits the way the RS3 covers ground. It is staggeringly quick between the corners and feels totally locked down, making the designation of ‘super hatch’ seem almost too tame a name. The soundtrack dies away after the initial rumble on start-up, but re-emerges as you start holding on to gears and exploring the upper reaches of the rev range. There is real punch lower down when the turbocharger gets into its stride, but it is the top-end power that widens the eyes.

Of this intriguing trio, the one I’m most familiar with is the Golf R, partly because evo staff photographer Aston Parrott and I drove it the 1000 miles out here to Catalonia in north-eastern Spain. The current R is something of a hero car in its own right, finally stepping out of the GTI’s shadow and being snapped up by huge numbers of people happy to take advantage of some ridiculously good finance deals. On the long journey down it was as refined as you could wish a hatchback to be and on the few occasions the road allowed, it switched instantly from relaxing cruiser to something much more eager and entertaining. The gruff Subaru-like flat-four note from the in-line four-cylinder is a big part of the appeal, but so too is the way that the whole drivetrain is so keen, the revs rising cleanly and quickly every time you get on the throttle.

When we arrived at our chosen roads around Montserrat (the Caribbean island got its name – via Columbus – from this mountain) the Golf instantly felt at home on the fast yet technical terrain. I’m not sure I’ve ever driven a more resolutely neutral car. The steering is perhaps a touch light, leading you to feel as though the chassis will naturally push its nose wide when driven hard. But pile into a turn and the front end grips well, allowing you to get back on the throttle quickly. Lean on it harder still and the front tyres will scrub a touch, but it never threatens to wash wide and as soon as you lift a little or trail brake, the balance is immediately restored. Traction feels unburstable too, so you have a car that you can drive extremely hard and in which you can cover ground stunningly quickly without feeling like you are taking liberties or ever getting ragged. It’s not flamboyant, indeed it can feel as subtle as its rear wing, but it is extremely satisfying and rather addictive.

Such is the pace, the distinctive wavy-edged cast-iron brakes begin to suffer after an extended run along our ridge route, and even after cooling them down the sweet smell of hot materials wafts into the car as I pull back into the car park. Apparently this car, with 9000 miles on the clock, has seen some abuse on track, but even so, perhaps the optional carbons (carbon-ceramic brakes on a hot hatch!) might be necessary.

And so to the Ford, which I think looks rather good. While a little bit of me misses the pugnacious wide-boy style of the three-door Mk2, I think the new five-door treads the line between aggression and acceptability pretty well. The seats in this example might only be the standard Recaros rather than the optional buckets, but they are still by far the most supportive in the test. Some seats are good at locating your upper body and others are great at securing your legs, but the Ford’s do both, leaving you feeling very snug indeed. The steering wheel feels like it needs a few centimetres more reach adjustment, but everything else falls easily under hand or foot.

In terms of ambience, the Focus’s cabin is pretty good, too. It lacks the sharp design and flashes of aluminium of the Audi, but the plastics aren’t scratchy or flimsy. The only bits that jar for me are the dials, which look typographically crowded and cheap, and the gearknob, which I’m sure must be from a mistaken over-order that Ford bought when the Scorpio was still in production.

Setting off down the road, the sensations are immediately good. There is an instant feeling that this is a big brother to the brilliant little Fiesta ST, with all the control weights matching and giving a reassuring feeling of gentle resistance to inputs.

Like the Fiesta, the ride feels firm, too. It’s not unpleasant, but there is a slightly bobbling bounce over small road-surface imperfections. Out of interest I press the damper button awkwardly situated on the end of the indicator stalk, summoning up the stiffer Sport setting and briefly indicating right at the same time. The result is palpable even on smooth Spanish asphalt and it’s only out of road-testing curiosity that I keep it activated for more than 200m. I’ve never found myself in an earthquake, but I imagine tremors of around five on the Richter scale would give a similar queasy jiggling sensation.

The drive modes are the next things to investigate, via a button by the gearlever. ‘Normal’ is an apt description for the default mode. A couple of prods progress the settings to Sport, which is what I will spend most of the rest of the test in. This weights up the steering, perks up the throttle response nicely and activates an exhaust mode that elicits a staccato volley of pops and bangs every time you lift off. I can see how the aural confection could be irritating  – just as some people don’t like the crackling from a Boxster or Cayman in the sports exhaust mode – but I rather like it. The other modes are Track and Drift, neither of which are really intended for the road but one of which we’ll come back to in a moment.

The Golf feels light after the Focus. Not the 48kg lighter that the claimed kerb weights would suggest (the Audi, at 1520kg, is just 4kg lighter than the Ford), but more in terms of the control weights. Pedals, steering and gearshift all have a slightly more assisted quality to them and the R feels less purposeful as a result. However, there is nothing flimsy about the way the Golf attacks a road. It stays pretty flat in corners, even with the adaptive dampers in their softer setting, but you can really lean into the lateral grip mid-corner and feel the tyres digging into the surface. Fast bends in particular are a forte, with the VW making a composed, clean line look beautifully easy.

Don’t be fooled by the demure, almost dowdy spec of this car, either, because as soon as you wind it up it absolutely begs to be thrashed. Charging back up the wide, smooth BP-1101, I can’t help but wring every last drop from the free-revving engine. Hustling the Golf into corners, the brakes don’t feel as secure as the Ford’s, but they are effective and you find yourself leaning on them really late. I had expected the VW might feel a little lacklustre in terms of pace after the RS and RS3, but not a bit of it.

Another run in the Ford on a narrower, rather dusty side road clarifies the character of the four-wheel-drive system in the Focus RS. To recap, it has a central clutch and then a rear drive unit that uses two clutch packs to distribute the power between the back wheels as an ECU sees fit. Torque vectoring, in other words.

At seven tenths there just feels like there is excellent traction out of corners, the meaty four-cylinder thumping you up the road with the stubby gearlever notching up shifts in relatively quick succession. Push harder still, however, and you can actually get the tail pushing round on the exit of corners, particularly the slipperier ones (it’ll be interesting, possibly brilliant, on a wet road). It’s rarely the case that you have to dial in any opposite lock, it’s more that you just have to bring the wheel back to the straight-ahead more sharply. It’s a very nice sensation to have and dynamically much more grown-up than I was expecting.

Our chosen test route has a particularly good, wide, fast, second-gear right-hander that is too inviting not to try the Drift mode on for the camera. I have a few runs through and it’s all a bit curious. You need to carry speed, turn in hard to the point where the front end is almost slipping and then simply stand on the throttle. After this, there isn’t really much more to do, which is odd. The RS definitely slides, but it seems to be on a predetermined trajectory that you have to keep the steering wheel straight and the throttle wide in order to maintain. You are in a slide, the car is travelling at an angle, but weirdly you don’t have any control other than when it all ends. Modulation is out.  Talking of which…

There are various settings for the Audi’s character, from Comfort through Auto to Dynamic, but as none of these quite hits the spot, it’s easier to set it to Individual and then have a tinker. Obviously the exhaust should always be set to Dynamic, the engine and gearbox can be left in Auto or Dynamic as you choose, but the steering feels best in Dynamic as it’s too light in Comfort. The tricky one is the suspension.

There is nothing wrong with the ride quality in Dynamic mode, but it locks the car down to such an extent that it feels like it corners far too flat. The front end in particular never feels like it leans and gets the tyres working on the way into a corner. Things are better in the Comfort setting, which loosens the adaptive suspension, brings back a bit of roll and gives you more confidence on turn-in, but sadly even in this mode the RS3 only seems to want to push its nose wide when you drive hard. Where the Golf will react to a lift and the Ford steers on the throttle, the Audi doesn’t budge. The only way to drive is slow in, fast out, waiting until you’re past the apex to fire up the quattro drivetrain and slingshot out.

Some people are quick to blame the Audi’s Haldex four-wheel-drive system, but I don’t really see that as the problem. After all, Haldex is good enough for the 991 Turbo and Aventador (albeit in the reverse orientation) and you can feel how quickly the power (up to 100 per cent of it) is shunted rearwards in the RS3 once you get on the throttle. There is a real sense of the back axle pushing the car up the road when you’re accelerating. The problem is that you can’t access this until far too late in the corner because the RS3 doesn’t have a willing front end, even with this car’s slightly wider optional front wheels and tyres (255-section instead of 235). The Golf could be better, too, but at least it allows you to chuck it into corners more aggressively and responds better to a little lift to tuck the nose back in so that you can get on the throttle earlier.

By the end of the afternoon, fuel warning lights have begun illuminating in all the cars, so a group outing to Manresa down in the valley is required. Heading back up the mountain towards the monastery in the dark is the best drive of the day. I’m in the Ford and the sharp reports from the exhaust every time I back out of the throttle sound just like anti-lag. I can almost imagine spits of flame lighting up the rear of the car in the dark. It feels like a night stage in Corsica, too, such is the relentless way the road is chucking the turns at us. The Ford is fantastic, up on its toes and yet leaning on huge reserves of grip. Braking late and hard, the big, 350mm front discs and four-pot Brembo calipers combine to give fantastic power. The couple of times I ask more of the Michelin Pilot Super Sports as a corner tightens, winding on a fraction more lock, the RS simply bites harder and scoots round. Through a set of direction changes the body control is extremely impressive, too, the tail just nicely mobile – enough to help the whole car turn. However, Disdale is chasing me in the Golf R (we left the Audi fuelling up) and those quick direction changes are almost the only times I notice the headlights recede a bit in my mirror.

By comparison, the Ford’s front end darts into bends as soon as you ask and the rear axle is always helping, following the front so that it’s perfectly poised when you get on the throttle. For me, this is the feeling you want from a four-wheel-drive car. Greater traction might be the foremost reason for getting power to each corner, but a good four-wheel-drive setup should also allow greater agility in the chassis – you can allow the car to turn in more quickly because you know that you have also got the increased traction to pull you through the corner. The best iterations of the Mitsubishi Evo have arguably been the greatest exponents of this, the whole car alert and reactive, always set-up with a flighty front end so that you could get on the power the moment after corner-entry. Incidentally, a car that reminded me of this recently was the new Audi R8, which is set-up in a very similar way. Turn in and you can have the steering wheel straight again very quickly, the rear axle instantly on your shoulder ready and waiting. It’s a fantastic feeling and Quattro GmbH clearly knows how to achieve it, so it’s all the more frustrating that it hasn’t allowed the RS3’s nose to latch into corners a bit more like the R8’s.

At the top the first thing Disdale says is that the Golf feels like it has at least ten per cent more than the quoted 297bhp, and I know exactly what he means. I think part of it is that the Focus’s torquey 2.3-litre engine encourages a slightly early upshift, whereas the lithe, free-revving 2-litre unit in the Golf simply sings to its 6500rpm red line. As a result, you find yourself hanging onto second where the Ford would have a brief foray into third before dropping back down again under braking.

There is no doubt that the Focus RS wins this test, though. It is the most adjustable, most fun and most rewarding car here. The Audi RS3 Sportback is fast, sounds fantastic and has a next-level feel to the cabin, but it just isn’t engaging when you find a good bit of road to hustle it down, which is frustrating.
The Golf also sounds great and as an ownership proposition I can completely understand why some would prefer its subtler charms and more Germanic cabin over the Ford. But although its chassis can be grabbed by the scruff and made to work into and out of a corner with real grace and pace, it feels like a bit more effort for a little less reward than in the Ford. In short, when the monastery’s bells inevitably wake me up again at 5am tomorrow, it is the Focus RS that I will want to grab the keys to on my way out of the door.  

FORD FOCUS RS
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 2261cc, turbo CO2 175g/km
Power 345bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque 347lb ft @ 2000-4500rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, four-wheel drive, torque vectoring, ESC
Front suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension SLA independent with control blade, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes 350mm ventilated discs front, 302mm solid discs rear, ABS, EBD
Wheels 8 x 19in front and rear
Tyres 235/35 R19 front and rear
Weight 1524kg Power-to-weight 230bhp/ton
0-62mph 4.7sec (claimed)
Top speed 165mph (claimed)
Basic price £29,995 On sale Now
evo rating:
★★★★★

AUDI RS3 Sportback
Engine In-line 5-cyl, 2480cc, turbo CO2 189g/km
Power 362bhp @ 5500-6800rpm
Torque 343lb ft @ 1625-5500rpm
Transmission Seven-speed dual-clutch, four-wheel drive, torque vectoring, ESC
Front suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, adaptive dampers, ARB
Brakes Ventilated discs, 370mm front, 310mm rear, ABS, EBD
Wheels 8.5 x 19in front, 8 x 19in rear (optional)
Tyres 255/30 R19 front, 235/35 R19 rear (optional)
Weight 1520kg Power-to-weight 242bhp/ton
0-62mph 4.3sec (claimed)
Top speed 155mph (limited)
Basic price £40,795 On sale Now
evo rating:
★★★★☆

Volkswagen GOLF R
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 2261cc, turbo CO2 175g/km
Power 345bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque 347lb ft @ 2000-4500rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, four-wheel drive, torque vectoring, ESC
Front suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension SLA independent with control blade, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes 350mm ventilated discs front, 302mm solid discs rear, ABS, EBD
Wheels 8 x 19in front and rear
Tyres 235/35 R19 front and rear
Weight 1524kg Power-to-weight 230bhp/ton
0-62mph 4.7sec (claimed)
Top speed 165mph (claimed)
Basic price £29,995 On sale Now
evo rating:
★★★★★

LOSING THEIR
GRIP?

Our first drive of the Focus RS showed that the pre-launch hype was largely warranted, but has it got the intensity and finesse to beat its four-wheel-drive super-hatch rivals from VW and Audi?

by Henry Catchpole
PHOTOGRAPHY by aston parrott

‘nothing short of a gt-r will live with a focus rs according to some reviews I’ve read…’

‘The Audi might be £10k more expensive than the other cars, but it does a good job of feeling it’

‘There’s an instant feeling that the new focus RS is a big brother to the brilliant little fiesta st’