Ford Focus ST vs Mercedes Benz A250 Sport vs Volkswagen Golf GTI

Ford Focus ST vs Mercedes Benz A250 Sport vs Volkswagen Golf GTI

A few years ago, the hot hatch genome inexplicably split in two.

One branch mutated with huge wheels, swooping coupé rooflines and bulging wheelarches, sacrificing practicality for style and supercar-rivalling back-road pace. Think Renault Sport Megane, VW Scirocco and the now sadly defunct-in-Oz Opel Astra OPC.

The other branch shunned such trendy bling, sticking true to the traditional hot hatch values, offering enthusiast appeal in everyday packaging. And there’s no better exponent of this than the car that has defined the genre for 40 years, Volkswagen’s Golf GTI.

It fulfils every criteria you could want in a car: fast yet fuel efficient, entertaining to drive but with room for five people plus luggage and all at a respectable price.

Focus st v golf gti v merc a250 sport frontBut the competition is getting stronger. The GTI has long been the ‘premium’ choice in this segment, but the relentless push downmarket by the German luxury brands means it’s now copping pressure from above, as well as below.

Case in point is the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class. Starting at $49,990, the A250 Sport could be seen as an expensive five-door hatch, but plenty of buyers are viewing it as a cheap way to park a three-pointed star in their driveway, as the baby Merc is flying out of dealers faster than it’s arriving on boats.

Focus st v golf gti v merc a250 sport drivingAt the other end of the price spectrum is Ford’s Focus ST. At $38,290, it’s the segment’s price leader, but its dynamic capabilities are anything but cut-price. Nestled neatly in the middle is the new seventh-generation GTI. Now only available as a five-door, it kicks off at a competitive $41,490 – for the base manual we have here – though the majority of buyers will add another $2500 for the self-shifting DSG version.

Step inside the new Golf, however, and you’d swear it cost much more. Material quality and fit and finish are excellent, the driving position is widely adjustable, and the level of standard kit – dual-zone climate, satnav, 5.8-inch touchscreen, leather multifunction wheel – might surprise those who can remember when the Germans thought it acceptable to charge extra for floormats.

Volkswagen golf gti turningIf only it was as sexy on the outside. The general consensus seems to be that VW has been too conservative with the new Golf’s styling, and it’s a point rammed home when parked next to the voluptuous curves of the A-Class. Squat and aggressive, particularly from the front, the A250 is a better looking car than the A45 AMG – to these eyes anyway.

Inside, the A-Class continues to impress. The driving position is good (though the brake pedal sits a lot higher than the accelerator) and the overall layout and design is impressively similar to models further up the Mercedes heirachy. Optional satnav and manually-adjustable seats feel a bit stingy in a $50K car, though.

Mercedes benz a250 sport drivingThen there’s the Ford. Oh dear. To be fair, the Focus’ interior does have its good points.

It’s well equipped, the Recaro seats hold you tight and the steering wheel’s size makes it a nice thing to hold. But then your elbow hits the seat bolster when changing gear because the lever sits too far back, the sat-nav screen is so small it’s like watching your telly from the front lawn, and the steering wheel layout means that simple tasks like adjusting the volume or cruise control speed requires taking a hand off the wheel.

Thankfully, you won’t care about any of this when you’re thrashing the Focus to within an inch of its life, which you will do, often, because it’s brilliant. At first, its hyperactive responses are a bit unnerving, like a dog that’s been fed illicit substances – you want to play with it, if only it would settle down for a second.

Ford focus st drivingThe super-fast variable ratio steering (just 1.8 turns lock-to-lock) controls a razor sharp front end. Turn in and it reacts immediately, so much so that the rear sometimes struggles to keep up. Lift the throttle sharply or dab the brake mid-corner and you’d better be ready with a healthy dose of opposite lock.

It’s slightly mad, though it can also play sensible. Driven more sedately, there’s plenty of grip and the ride strikes possibly the best compromise between body control and compliance.

It’s certainly better than the Mercedes, which is v-e-r-y firm. It’s not uncomfortable per se, but it reacts to bumps the others ignore and can get wearing on poor surfaces. Thankfully, the taut setup pays dividends in the bends. It’s hard to know what to expect from a Mercedes hot hatch, as it’s never built one before, but the way you can adjust the car’s attitude using throttle and brake proves the engineering team did its homework.

Mercedes a250 v focus st drivingWhile nowhere near as playful as the Focus, the Merc is an easy, and surprisingly entertaining, car to drive hard. With 2.7 turns lock-to-lock, the A250’s steering response initially feel a little ponderous compared to the dart-like Focus, but once you’ve recalibrated your brain, the weight and accuracy of the steering makes it a highlight.

What’s not a highlight is the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, its refusal to accept downchange requests made more galling in comparison to the other cars’ slick six-speed manuals.

Unsurprisingly, the GTI strikes a balance between the two dynamically. Like the Focus, it has variable ratio steering – just 2.1 turns lock to lock compared to a normal Golf’s 2.75 – but VW’s system feels more natural and intuitive than Ford’s, while still making sure the driver never has to shuffle their hands on the wheel.

One of the biggest changes for the seventh-generation GTI is the adoption of adaptive dampers as standard – in Comfort or Normal modes, the GTI offers a level of ride comfort the others can only dream about, while being just as tied down in Sport. It doesn’t quite have the ultimate grip of the Focus, but the GTI is so easy and forgiving to drive fast, flowing effortlessly down the road.

Where the Golf does fall down is getting its power to the ground. Despite the XDL electronic diff lock, the GTI is too eager to waste time with wheelspin, particularly on slippery surfaces. This is no doubt thanks to the increase in torque for the new model.

Volkswagen golf gti enginePower from the revised EA888 2.0-litre is up only 7kW (to 162kW), but measures like mounting the turbo directly to the cylinder head using an electronic wastegate and dual-pressure fuel injection, have led to an extra 70Nm (now 350Nm) from 1500-4400rpm. The resulting efficiency and driveability gains are welcome, as is the rorty soundtrack, but it does mean the GTI does have trouble flexing its new-found muscles.

With 184kW/360Nm from its 2.0-litre Ecoboost four, the Focus is similarly afflicted, with the steering wheel always keen for a wrestle when you put your right foot down. Ford engineers claimed that the torque compensation ability of the new electric steering meant that we wouldn’t miss the mechanical diff and trick front suspension of the Focus RS. They were wrong – we do – though in faster corners the ST’s front end does nail itself to the ground impressively well under power.

Focus st v golf gti v merc a250 sport driving frontThe Mercedes doesn’t feel as fast as the others, because, er, it’s not. With 155kW and a healthy 350Nm, it’s certainly not slow, but it lacks the urgency of the other two all the way through the rev range. Christmas deadlines meant we weren’t able to performance test them back-to-back, but at last year’s Bang for your Bucks the A250 clocked 7.48sec to 100km/h, miles away from Merc’s 6.6sec claim.

Tested on the same day, the Focus managed 7.24sec to 100km/h, a time which reflects the difficulty of launching it cleanly more than any lack of outright speed. The GTI, tested at PCOTY in DSG form, leaves the others trailing with 0-100km/h taking just 6.44sec.

Once rolling, however, the more powerful Ford blows the others away. At the end of the quarter the Focus is showing 160km/h compared to 157.6km/h for the GTI and just 152.3km/h for the A250. Overtaking acceleration is another clear win for the tangerine ST, taking just 3.29sec from 80-120km/h versus 3.8sec for the VW and 4.54sec for the Merc.

Focus st v golf gti v merc a250 sport turnsSo the Mercedes is last on the drag strip and that’s also where it finishes in this test. But that’s not the whole story. At its first attempt, Mercedes-Benz has delivered a hot hatch that’s good to look at, good to sit in and good to drive. The trouble is, the other cars here are even better to steer and cost substantially less.

If this was a test purely about the way these cars drive at the limit, the Focus ST would probably win. It’s the only true drivers’ car here, a car that you could own for a year and still feel you’re yet to get the best from it.

But for everything that’s brilliant about it (chassis, engine performance, price), there’s something equally annoying (the torque steer, the interior layout, a turning circle the size of a bus), and these warts stick out like the pimples on a teenager’s face when you’re up against a car that has very few flaws.

Focus st v golf gti v-merc a250 sport stillAnd that car is Volkswagen’s new Golf GTI. It’s made huge strides in refinement and comfort, making it a better day-to-day proposition, yet it’s faster and more capable than ever before. Though if you want to be entertained, make sure you spec the manual.

Some will criticise it for not being ‘aggro’ enough, but to make it more hardcore would be to lose part of what makes it such a great car. There may be others faster or more agile, but the GTI remains the car that best fulfils the hot hatch criteria.

Cockpit Comparison

Ford focus st interiorFocus’s dash layout may look like a dog’s breakfast, but once you’re familiar with it (which takes time), it does work reasonably well. Well equipped, too, with bi-xenon headlights, reverse camera, dual-zone climate, keyless start and entry, rain-sensing wipers, tyre pressure monitoring and sat-nav (though the screen is tiny) all standard. Those of larger stature will curse the hip-hugging Recaro seats, but scores points for a proper old-school handbrake.

Mercedes benz a250 sport interiorMercedes’ interior goes some way to justifying its price premium. It’s impressively put together, small touches like the carbonfibre-look dash and red stitching lift the perception of quality and the driving position is, bar the strange relationship between throttle and brake pedals, quite good. Access to the rear is tricky, though, and charging extra for sat-nav (particularly $1190) feels pretty mean.

Volkswagen golf gti interiorThe interior of the Mk VII Golf is a thing of beauty, setting new standards for the class. All the major controls are, unlike the Focus, laid out in an intuitive fashion. Material quality and fit and finish are benchmark, while 99 per cent of the population should be able to find a comfortable driving position. Those tartan cloth seats are infinitely preferable to leather during an Aussie summer, too. Only the very busy multi-function steering wheel and electronic handbrake could possibly attract criticism.

    Ford Focus ST   Merc A250 Sport   VW Golf GTI
    4 out of 5   3.5 out of 5   4 out of 5
Body   5-door, 5-seat hatch   5-door, 5-seat hatch   5-door, 5-seat hatch
Drive   front-wheel   front-wheel   front-wheel
Engine   2000cc in-line 4,
DOHC, 16v, turbo
  1991cc in-line 4,
DOHC, 16v, turbo
  1984cc in-line 4,
DOHC, 16v, turbo
Bore/ Stroke   87.5 x 83.1mm   83.0 x 92.0mm   82.5 x 92.8mm
Compression   9.3:1   9.8:1   9.6:1
Power   184kW @ 5500rpm   155kW @ 5500rpm   162kW @ 4500 - 6200rpm
Torque   360Nm @ 2000-4500rpm   350Nm @ 1200-4000rpm   350Nm @ 1500 - 4400rpm
Redline/Cut   6500/6800rpm   6250/TBCrpm   6000/6900rpm
Power-to-weight   127kW/tonne   113kW/tonne   122kW/tonne
0-100km/h   7.24sec (tested)   7.48sec (tested)   6.44sec (tested)
Top Speed   250km/h (claimed)   240km/h (limited)   250km/h (limited)
Consumption   7.4L/100km (claimed)   6.6L/100km (claimed)   6.2L/100km (claimed)
Emissions   172g/km (claimed)   148g/km (claimed)   153g/km (claimed)
Transmission   6-speed manual   7-speed dual-clutch   6-speed manual
Weight   1454kg   1370kg   1324kg
Suspension   A-arms, anti-roll bar (f);
multi links, coil springs,
anti-roll bar (r)
  A-arms, anti-roll bar (f);
multi links, coil springs,
anti-roll bar (r)
  A-arms, adaptive dampers,
anti-roll bar (f); multi links,
coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (r)
L/W/H   4362/1823/1484mm   4355/1780/1430mm   4349/1799/1491mm
Wheelbase   2648mm   2699mm   2620mm
Tracks   1554/1544mm (f/r)   1542/1541mm (f/r)   1538/1516mm (f/r)
Steering   electrically-assisted
rack and pinion
rack and pinion
rack and pinion
Lock-to-lock   1.8 turns   2.7 turns   2.1 turns
Brakes   320mm ventilated discs,
4-piston calipers (f);
271mm discs,
single-piston calipers (r)
  320mm ventilated discs,
4-piston calipers (f);
271mm discs,
single-piston calipers (r)
  312mm ventilated discs,
4-piston calipers (f);
300mm discs,
single-piston calipers (r),
Wheels   18 x 8.0-inch (f/r)   18 x 8.0-inch (f/r)   18 x 7.5-inch (f/r)
Tyres   235/40 R18 Bridgestone
Potenza S001 (f/r)
  235/40 R18 Bridgestone
Potenza S001 (f/r) 
  225/40 R18 Bridgestone
Potenza S001 (f/r)
Price   $38,290   $50,400   $41,490
Price as tested   $38,290   $51,590* *Becker
satellite navigation ($1190)
  $44,940* Bi-xenon headlights with LED DRLs ($2150);
Driver Assistance Package ($1300)
Positives   Riotous handling;
fastest of the trio;
value equation 
  Exterior design;
handling ability;
quality interior
  Refinement and ride;
interior quality;
engine flexibility
Negatives   Ergonomic issues;
ridiculous turning circle;
‘fake’ engine note
  Firm ride; not that quick;
expensive compared
to the others
  Traction difficulties;
can’t switch ESP off;
lacks a bit of soul

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