Yep, one’s a hatch and the other a sedan but these are two all-wheel drive, turbocharged nut-jobs with a rally heritage… We referee Subaru WRX STi Vs Ford Focus RS.

2018 Subaru WRX STI Spec.R

Pricing From $57,690+ORC Warranty three years, unlimited kilometres Safety five star ANCAP Engine 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder Boxer engine Power/Torque 221kW and 407Nm Transmission six-speed manual Drive all-wheel drive Body 4595mm (L); 1795mm (W); 1475mm (H) Weight 1525-1535kg Spare Space saver Boot Space 460 litres Fuel Tank 60 litres Thirst 11.2L/100km


2018 Ford Focus RS Limited Edition

Price $56,990+ORC Warranty three-years 100,000km Safety five-star ANCAP Engine 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol (Euro 5) Power 257kW at 6000rpm Torque 440Nm from 1600-5700rpm Transmission six-speed manual Drive all-wheel drive Dimensions 4390mm (L) 1823mm (W) 1480mm (H) 2648mm (WB) Boot Space 260L Spare mobility kit Fuel Tank 52L Thirst 8.1L/100km (combined – 95RON)

VOLKSWAGEN MIGHT have introduced the idea of the hot hatch but this rumble has nothing to do with that brand or its Golf R. This is a rumble between what you could arguably describe as being the most mental sub-$60k performance cars in the country. Nope, I’ve not forgotten about the Civic Type R, but in this battle, we’re after all-wheel drive at the very least, and the Type is a tail dragger.

What are we testing and why?

Both the WRX STI (in Spec.R guise for this test) and the Ford Focus RS Limited Edition are priced within cooee of one another, so, when it comes to cross-shopping that’s the first consideration ticked off.

The WRX STI is the pricier of the two, listing at $57,690+ORC while the Focus RS Limited Edition lists at $56,990+ORC. That said, there are non-specials of both these vehicles with the WRX STI starting at $50,890+ORCV and the Focus RS at $50,990+ORC.

More than just the price similarities, there’s also a shared experience between these two machines. Well, sort of. Okay, it’s a tenuous link, but it’s a link… See, back in the 2000s both Ford and Subaru were still competing in the World Rally Championship and the vehicles competing were the WRX and Focus RS (in 2009 factory outfits went head to head)… sure, the Focus RS that you and I could buy at the time was only a front-driver but, still, the link remains. So, the ancestors of these two beasties have done battle.

Fast forward to now, and the Focus RS Limited Edition launched late last year and recently tested by Practical Motoring, saw the already-a-bit-nuts RS ratcheted up a notch with the addition of shell-back Recaro seats, Quaife LSD at the front-end and grippy Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tyres. Similarly, the Subaru WRX STI Spec.R arrived late towards the end of last year, too, although it only really added a set of Recaro seats.

So, clearly the limited-run Focus RS takes the biscuit here as the limited-edition model that’s added the most functional kit for the extra coin over the standard model. Hold your horses, though… Don’t write off the WRX STI Spec.R as just a sticker and Recaro seat pack. Nope. See, the WRX and WRX STI was updated last year, the Spec.R is the top of the tree in refreshed line-up and part of that refreshing saw a bunch of ‘functional’ tweaks to keep the WRX STI competitive.

2018 Subaru WRX STI Spec.R Review

These were 19-inch alloys, the first time 19s have been fitted to the STI, bright yellow 6-pot front and 2-pot rear brake calipers clamping cross-drilled brake rotors. The new STI also gets red seatbelts, a front-view camera along with the side view monitor to keep you from kerbing your giant 19-inch alloys, adjustable Recaro front seats, and revised suspension. The engineers have tweaked the roll rigidity, coil springs and shock absorbers, they’ve upped the damper force at the front and rear and fitted bigger rear stabilisers.

Okay, so, now we have a fight on our hands.

What are the interiors like?

Let’s start with the Focus RS Limited Edition because, beyond its shell-backed Recaro seats and some blue stitching and a splash of RS badging here and there, there’s not a lot to distinguish it from a Focus ST or regular Focus. The plastics feel a little hard but it’s all very functional and comfortable.

The 8.0-inch infotainment screen seems small because of the fact it’s inset into the dash, but it does mean it doesn’t suffer from glare. It runs the latest Sync3 which includes Apple and Android connectivity.

The front seats are nice and grippy in the base but a little too wide in the back but I’m splitting hairs because the grippy suede-like seat covering keeps you in place when the cornering forces build. All of the major controls fall easily to hand from behind the wheel and everything is easy to see and use on the fly.

There’s a good amount of room in the back seat but there are no rear air vents or powered outlets, there are ISOFIX mounts for two outboard seats. The boot isn’t quite as big as a regular Focus because of the different rear axle in the RS. The boot space, with the rear seats up, is 260 litres, down from 316 litres in a standard Focus. There’s no spare, just a tyre maintenance kit, which is nothing but a can of goo.

Moving to the WRX STI and it’s good and bad news, yes, this car’s been refreshed, but it lags other models in the range in key areas and lags the Focus RS too. Let’s take the infotainment, for instance, it’s a generation behind the system in the new Impreza, XV and Outback, meaning there’s no smartphone mirroring, just Bluetooth and wired audio streaming.

2018 Subaru WRX STI Spec.R Review

There’s more soft touch stuff in the cabin and gloss black inserts that lift the ‘feel’ of the interior above that of the Focus RS, despite the infotainment shortfall. The Recaro seats in the STI Spec.R are electric, while the shell seats in the Focus RS are manual. The seats themselves aren’t as heavilyt bolstered as the seats in the Focus RS, they’re more like those in the Focus ST, but the side bolstering is more effective in the STI than the Focus RS, but the Focus wins with better bolstering in the base of the seat to keep you from sliding about.

The back seat offers a similar amount of room as the Focus RS and, similarly, misses out on rear air vents, although the Subaru offers vents under the front seats which pipe either warm or cool air into the back.

In the back, wide-opening rear doors reveal a continuation of the red and black theme from the front. Even with a small sunroof fitted there’s good headroom in the back for taller passengers, and there’s a reasonable amount of leg, knee and foot room even for an adult.

Yes, we’re comparing a hatch with a sedan, so, the WRX STI wins the battle of the boots, but there’s more to this fight than luggage capacity but it is a significant factor if you’re buying one of these things to use as a family car. The STI gets a 460-litre boot and unlike the Ford gets a space saver spare which I reckon is much better than a can of goo.

What are they like to drive?

These two are always going to be about grip and go. And both are incredibly impressive when it comes to the way they get to and then go around corners, without being totally unlivable around town. So many performance cars trade livability for capability, not these two.

The Focus RS gets a slightly smaller engine than the STI, with a 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder making 257kW at 6000rpm and 440Nm of torque from 1600-5000rpm. Mated to this is a six-speed manual transmission which is beautiful to use and matched with a perfectly weighted and feelsome clutch that’s not overly heavy in its action, meaning it’s not a chore in stop-start traffic. It gets its grunt to the road via permanent all-wheel drive which also includes torque vectoring, allowing for a shuffling of grunt front to rear but also side to side. And then there’s the addition of the Quaife LSD at the front on this Limited Edition.

2018 Ford Focus RS Limited Edition Review

There are four drive modes to choose from, Normal, Sport, Track and Drift; the first two modes are intended for the road while the other two are best left for the track, so, for most Australian buyers, they’re buttons that’ll remain unpressed. These modes tweak everything from steering weight, throttle response, engine and exhaust settings (Sport is louder than Normal), the adjustable dampers (Sport stiffens them slightly) and the stability control (loosened in varying degrees depending on the mode). There’s also a Launch Mode, but that’s a ridiculous inclusion in any car.

There’s been no change to the WRX STI’s engine and that means it’s a 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine making 221kW at 6000rpm and 407Nm of torque at 4000rpm. It drinks 11.2L/100km combined. The engine is mated to a six-speed manual transmission and there’s permanent all-wheel drive. The driver can specify a 50:50 split via the Multi-Mode Driver-Controlled Differential (DCCD) and up to 41:59 for a rear bias set-up.

2018 Subaru WRX STI Spec.R Review

So, despite the bigger capacity, the WRX STI is down on both power and torque compared to the Focus RS, more than that, peak torque is arriving at 4000rpm in the WRX STI whereas there’s 440Nm arriving at 1600rpm in the Focus RS which then hangs around until 5000rpm. And you absolutely notice that difference in torque delivery.

Unlike the Focus RS which has grunt everywhere and all the time, the WRX STI feels very much like an old-school turbocharged car in that you’ve got to wait for the power to arrive; indeed, the STI doesn’t really pick up its skirt until it’s got about 2800rpm on board, but from there on it’s off like a scalded cat.

And that’s what sets these two apart. The Focus RS feels powerful from the off with its low-growling exhaust and urgency lurking beneath the throttle. It’s almost impossible to be caught in the wrong gear and, even if you’re are a little too high, it only takes a moment for the revs to build and then the RS is off like a shot. On the other hand, driving the WRX STI is very much a game of constantly needing to have a weather eye on the tachometer, because there’s not a lot of exhaust note leaking into the cabin. And that’s because the moment the revs drop and the thing comes off boost, well, the Focus RS will have loped away.

2018 Subaru WRX STI Spec.R Review

And then there are the transmissions. Both cars have a six-speed manual transmission but for me the one in the Focus RS is the pick. Yes, the current transmission in the WRX STI is easily the best-shifting one ever, but it’s still very notchy and the clutch travel is short and with no feel. This means it’s not as smooth to use as the Focus RS.

So, to the twists and turns. The WRX STI is well-known for its grip and the ability to adjust its drive bias via the DCCD is great for track driving as it allows you to tailor the attitude of the vehicle when cornering; it’s less relevant out on the road. The suspension tweaks for the 2017 model year made the STI a little firmer again, but not so much that you’ll be rattling your teeth loose. As such, there’s less bodyroll mid-corner than ever before but the tune on the suspension is such that the WRX STI easily deals with out-of-nowhere hits with ease… just because the suspension is firm doesn’t mean it’s hard and there’s a difference.

The steering is probably the vehicle’s weak point, well, that and the peaky nature of the engine meaning you’re constantly working the gearbox to keep it ‘on song’. Indeed, the steering lacks feel and the weighting on-centre is inconsistent, and there’s sponginess on-centre too.

In isolation, the WRX STI is still every bit as impressive in its grip and point to point speed, but it’s not as good as the Focus RS. The steering is meaty, consistently weighted and there’s good feel through the wheel, too. On-centre weighting is perfect. For this type of vehicle, it’s hard to imagine how the steering could be any better.

And, so it is with the suspension set-up. It’s firm, like the WRX STI, but not hard. The Focus RS was put through its paces across the same roads as the WRX STI, albeit at different times, but the Focus RS feels more compliant than the STI. There’s the same level of resistance to bodyroll, but its ability to soak up rubbish roads is a step ahead of the WRX STI.

Simiarly, the mid-corner grip is a notch ahead of the STI and that’s not something I ever thought I’d write, not at this price point, anyway. Whereas the STI takes bites out of the corner as it goes around, the Focus RS simply locks onto the apex and goes around the bend and at a higher speed than the WRX STI too. The STI is impressive, but the Focus RS just feels more natural, and flattering to the driver, doing its thing.

What about safety features?

Both vehicles have a five-star ANCAP safety rating, but while the Focus RS Limited Edition adds autonomous emergency braking, the WRX STI misses out. Instead, the STI gets Subaru’s Vision Assist pack which features, blind spot monitoring, high beam assist, lane change assist, rear cross traffic alert and both front and side view monitors. It also offers hill start assist and a reversing camera. There’s also the usual complement of airbags, traction and stability aids and a genius all-wheel drive set-up.

The Focus RS gets the already mentioned AEB as well as airbags for the driver and passenger and curtain airbags reaching into the second row, there’s all-wheel drive, traction and stability controls, auto high-beam, emergency assistance via Sync3 (if your phone is connected), rear parking sensors and reversing camera with dynamic lines, remote central locking, tyre pressure monitoring and ISOFIX for the two outboard seats in the back.

So, which one wins and why?

Sure, one’s a hatch and the other a sedan, but the philosophy of these two is so close that it’s impossible to think of one and not the other. The Golf R would be the third all-wheel drive variant in this mix, but as Volkswagen Group Australia doesn’t believe Practical Motoring offers a different enough audience to our competitors they are not prepared to loan us vehicles for testing we can’t talk about the Golf R, which is a shame – we’ll continue to run reviews of all new VW and Skoda product via our awesome Paul Horrell; but I digress.

The Subaru WRX has long been the template for all-wheel drive turbocharged corner carvers and was the last vehicle standing after the Mitsubishi Evo was retired. But that’s not the case anymore. There are plenty of more expensive machinery, like the Audi RS 3, and this similarly-priced Focus RS. And, while the STI’s interior looks a little glitzier than the Focus RS, when it comes to the use of the vehicle, it’s the Focus RS that stands out.

Both vehicles will swallow a family and handle schlepping around town with ease, but it’s the Focus RS that’s the more enjoyable and engaging of the two.


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  1. The STi seems to be everyone’s whipping boy in these comparison tests. However, after two Fords and two Golf GTIs, I am on my second STI…It’s in a different league. The build quality, the reliability, the resale value, the analogue feel of the car…in my opinion, nothing else compares

    1. I’m on my second fast Focus (an XR5 now an ST) and they’ve never missed a beat. Residual on the XR5 when I sold it was excellent too. But I’ve never owned an STI so I cannot compare, although I just bought my wife a Forester and my daughter has an Impreza . . . .

  2. The RS’s seats fold flat…just lift up on the back of the rear seat cushions, rotate up to vertical, snugged up against the front seat backs, and the rear seatbacks will then fold flat (remove headrests first).

    1. No need to remove the headrests, just lower them to the lowest setting and the seats will fold just fine and flat as you describe.

  3. Isaac. Thanks for the story. I hope Subaru has read it. I wish Subaru would tweak the STI engine to match RS performance. “Shirley” it should be a straight forward tweak?

    Why not just buy an alternative to the STI? There’s the suspicion that Einstein is correct in his commrnts about Subaru quality and resale. But I doubt he can explain why his one light second long train appears to be different lengths … depending on the position of the observer! 😉

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