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2016 Volkswagen GTI vs. 2016 Ford Focus ST: Compare Cars

October 31, 2016

The hot hatch makes tons of sense to someone with a desire for driving excitement but needs more everyday practicality than a dedicated sports car might offer.

It's hard to imagine two hot hatches that better manage user-friendliness and driving engagement than the Volkswagen GTI and the Ford Focus ST. 

Both these models pack more potent turbocharged four-cylinder engines under the hood, and they stick with the simplicity of a front-wheel-drive layout. But in nearly every other respect these two models feel like they’re on opposite sides of a hot-hatch division. One thing to note is that both models offer an even hotter (and pricier) all-wheel drive version—the Golf R and the Focus RS. 

MORE: Read our latest VW GTI and Ford Focus reviews

The design of the current Focus, fundamentally, is getting dated; but it still manages to look fresh. It’s flamboyant, to say that least, and its wide-mouth grille and swoopy side sculpting are at their best in the ST, which is lowered slightly versus other Focus models. On the other hand, the GTI takes a conservative, understated path in its design; it could easily be mistaken for any other Golf (wheels and some trim differences are about the extent of it). Inside, both of these models aren’t much different than their mainstream equivalents, but its the Focus ST that’s a little more flamboyant in its trims and available Recaro performance seats. The GTI’s plaid upholstery can delight some, too, but it’s a different direction.

2016 Volkswagen GTI Clubsport S

2016 Volkswagen GTI Clubsport S

2016 Volkswagen GTI Clubsport S

2016 Volkswagen GTI Clubsport S

2016 Volkswagen GTI Clubsport S

2016 Volkswagen GTI Clubsport S

Under the hood, these two models both have turbocharged in-line four-cylinder engines. In the Focus ST there’s a 240 horsepower 2.0-liter, while the VW gets a 210 hp 2.0-liter (220 hp with the Performance Package). The two are quite close in torque, though, at 250 and 258 pound-feet respectively—or 270 lb-ft briefly for the Ford, in an overboost mode—and they both produce plenty of torque down low, without the need to rev into the upper ranges.

While both of these models offer a six-speed manual gearbox, the Volkswagen GTI offers a six-speed dual-clutch ‘DSG’ automated gearbox as well; it functions smoothly, like an automatic transmission when you’re driving gently, yet it can snap off quick, performance-oriented shifts as needed.

Behind the wheel, these two models couldn’t be farther from each other in personality. The Volkswagen GTI is fluid and unflustered through some of the tightest, most undulating roads. It’s immensely capable, coordinated, and composed, and the electronically operated, hydraulically actuated, mechanically clutched front differential system (working with some great stability controls) is one of the keys to that. At the same time, some may feel that it’s a little too composed and electronically assisted. The Focus ST is nearly the opposite way; it has electronics that allow a little more leeway, letting enthusiastic drivers get a different experience that’s looser and a little more involving and technical for the driver. Both have great variable-ratio steering, although the steering in the ST might transmit just a bit more feel of the road back to the driver.

In these days of multiple performance modes, neither of these two sporty hatches stoop to such gimmicks. The Focus ST does have a Sport (or full off) mode for the stability control, and both of these cars, through different means, pipe carefully curated engine sounds back into the cabin during faster-paced driving.

Inside, the Focus ST shows its weaknesses. It doesn’t ride in such a composed way as the GTI (which can be outfitted with a magnetic suspension), and its back seat is significantly more cramped; you could fit adults in the back seat of the GTI, provided you get the five-door model. The GTI is a bit better for cargo versatility as well —although in both you can flip down the seats and get what, for a performance model, is a very impressive expanded cargo space.

2014 Ford Focus ST

2014 Ford Focus ST

2014 Ford Focus ST

2014 Ford Focus ST

2014 Ford Focus ST

2014 Ford Focus ST

And that leads to another one of the key difference. While VW offers the GTI in a choice of three-door or five-door hatchbacks (or two- or four-door, depending on how you describe it), the Focus ST is only offered as a five-door.

Both of these models are build on some solid safety credentials. The main-line models (both the Golf and Focus, respectively) have great ratings; for now we’ve put the Focus a point ahead, but as soon as the Golf is put through federal testing it just might have the advantage.

In features is where the GTI also has a clear advantage. It’s offered with a very lengthy set of standard features, including power heated mirrors, heated seats, and touch-screen audio, and with the GTI SE you add things like a sunroof, keyless access, push-button start, a rearview camera system, rain-sensing wipers, leather seats, and Fender premium audio. The ST is a single model, with a very performance-focused feature set and two large option packages from which to choose (bringing everything from HID headlamps to full navigation and full-leather Recaros)

Summary

6.3
Expert Rating
The 2017 Ford Focus has great road manners and scorching high-performance editions, but it's compromised by a small back seat.
6.5
Expert Rating
There's a Golf for nearly every taste and need—Golf, Golf GTI, Golf SportWagen— and don't forget about the EV eGolf, which is very balanced and fun to drive.

Styling

5.0
Expert Rating
The 2017 Ford Focus remains one of the most extroverted compact-car designs on the market.
Read More
5.0
Expert Rating
The Volkswagen Golf is straight-laced and serious; far more conservative than most in its class.
Read More

Performance

6.0
Expert Rating
The Focus ST and RS have amazing hot-hatch tricks up their sleeve, but all Focuses can be fun to drive.
Read More
7.0
Expert Rating
The Golf can be as powerful and as quick as you like, but base versions are practical and competent.
Read More

Comfort & Quality

5.0
Expert Rating
Good front seats work for Focus drivers, but the back seat is skimpy.
Read More
7.0
Expert Rating
The 2017 Golf is one of the most refined compact cars on the road today.
Read More

Safety

6.0
Expert Rating
The Focus does well in NHTSA testing, but lacks the same IIHS scorecard.
Read More
8.0
Expert Rating
The entire Golf range has earned near-perfect scores from the IIHS, and very good scores from federal testers.
Read More

Features

8.0
Expert Rating
The base Focus is inexpensive, but lightly equipped; Titanium versions break the economy-car bank.
Read More
5.0
Expert Rating
Base Volkswagens aren't lavishly equipped, but a good infotainment system helps.
Read More

Fuel Economy

8.0
Expert Rating
The Focus spans a huge range of fuel-economy options; you can guess which ones aren't so good.
Read More
7.0
Expert Rating
Regardless of body style or engine, the 2017 Volkswagen Golf is fairly fuel-efficient.
Read More

MSRP

from $16,775
from $19,895

Invoice

from $16,188
from $19,099

Fuel Economy - Combined City and Highway

28
29

Engine

Regular Unleaded I-4, 2.0 L
Intercooled Turbo Regular Unleaded I-4, 1.8 L

Drivetrain

Front Wheel Drive Read Full Specs
Front Wheel Drive Read Full Specs
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