THE RENAULT MEGANE RS is the best hot hatch on the market. Given. Ford reckons its latest Focus ST is better. Maybe. Toyota believes its horizontally-opposed 86 has a decisive edge rear-wheel drive. Possibly. So which is the performance champion? That is the question we wanted to answer when a pre-launch Focus ST arrived at topCar for just a couple of days evaluation. Sure, the original VW Golf GTI created the market segment and each subsequent generation has been the default benchmark for any challenge to its class-leading status. However, the GTI has become, well, a bit sanitised over the years allowing other manufacturers to try and better the package but few have succeeded, if at all, and if so usually not for very long.
Renault is an exception with its current Megane RS Trophy derivative almost universally accepted as being South Africa’s hot hatch monarch. Now, Ford has come forward with a brand new Focus ST that, on paper at least, could seriously threaten the monarch. And not to be outdone, Toyota with a little help from Subaru offers a coupe hatch with a classic rear-wheel drive layout that surely must be an advantage. Is it? We took a round trip from Killarney taking in Melkbosstrand, Durbanville, Paarl, Du Toit’s Kloof Pass, Rawsonville, Villiersdorp and, where else?, the Franschhoek Pass to find out.
Interestingly, Ford has taken the decision to offer its global Focus in only five-door saloon and station wagon body styles, so (like the GTI) as a hot hatch it offers a bit more albeit not necessarily needed practicality than the usual three-door variety. It is an arresting shape with crease and swage lines all over the place that the signature Tangerine Scream metallic paint brings to life as strokes of highlights. The only dubious aspect is the large, almost Peugeot-like, matt-black honeycomb grille that gives Ford’s kinetic design language a slightly down-turned look that is more sad than aggressive. Unusually, clap-hands wipers effectively sweep the steeply raked windscreen. The front apron is relatively understated for a performance car, a trait that describes the whole car in fact, which is devoid of obvious appendages typical of the breed. There is a faint hint of a rear wheelarch flare but bulging sills are absent. The mandatory tailgate spoiler has a definite aero appearance but is a well integrated extension of the roof line. Dual exhausts exit centrally. Overall, a cohesive design.
There are three models in the Megane Coupe RS line-up base (R359900), Cup (R399900) and Trophy (R409900). We have the range-topping Trophy for this comparison that means it will be by far the most expensive of the test trio. The differences over the Cup version include bigger wheels, Xenon lights, red detailing and Trophy badging on the front spoiler, graphics on the doors and striping along the exaggerated sills. Front and rear wheelarches are pronounced too, and the ovoid exhaust outlet sits centrally in the diffuser style rear bumper, so the Trophy carries all the requisite boy-racer body kit. The near full-width mid to lower section of the aero-tweaked front end is finished in trendy piano-black that perhaps looks a little messy.
The Toyota 86 tested here in R329400 High Spec guise almost looks dainty in this company but is an attractive shape, well proportioned with really appealing humped front fenders and a sill line that sweeps up into a bulging hind quarter that helps create a four-square stance front and rear overhangs are short. There are distinctive creases in the roof and from some angles there is a distinct BMW look to the shape of the rear end, which boasts separate twin exhaust outlets. At the front, the headlamps create an almost Oriental look while the gaping lower air intake looks purposeful without being too open-mouthed. It is cute in a masculine way pity about the twee horizontally-opposed cylinders 86 badge.
Locally, Ford is to offer two of the three ST models available overseas, the base ST1 (R309530) and top-spec ST3 (a GTI-rivalling R363700), which practically is what we have here. The features list is comprehensive but, in the spirit of this test, for this category we will refer only to seating. All three cars have front sports seats that compromise the seats behind but the ST3 does boast rear doors that give access to passable rear accommodation, which betters that of the Trophy: the 86 has a scalloped bench for legless +2s. The ST3 has full-leather Recaros front and rear, the fronts being really comfortable and offering plenty of electric adjustment. Up front the Trophy has leather Recaros with perforated inserts that resemble pukka racing seats with one-piece backrests that hug the body accordingly. The leather-and-suede chairs in the 86 are more stylised and no less accommodating. Driving positions in all three are spot-on and no-one complained of being uncomfortable even after our 12-hour test day.
Against the clock, the Trophy is the one to beat. Its 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine puts out 195kW at 5500rpm and a healthy 360Nm of torque at comfortable 3000rpm. It whips through the 0-100kph sprint in an impressive 6.37 seconds and covers the quarter-mile in 14.52 seconds at 160.7kph. It has a maximum speed of 255kph. A gong announces when it is time to change up. The ST’s similarly-sized EcoBoost mill pumps out 184kW at 5500rpm and equals the Trophy’s 360Nm but with a flatter torque curve that begins at 1750rpm. It is two-tenths slower to 100kph 6.57 seconds and still two-tenths behind at the quarter mile but is running slightly quicker 161.5kph before topping out at 248kph. A green arrow indicates when the next cog should be engaged. In this discipline the 86 is found wanting not surprising given its power disadvantage. The engine is a Subaru flat-four with a relatively timid 147kW at a high 7000r/min and 205Nm at an equally dizzy 6400r/min you have to wring out the revs to make things happen. It takes 7.35 seconds to reach 100kph it will run to 226kph and a flashing red light indicates an upshift is due.
Around Killarney, the Trophy lapped in 1min30secs but we know that an impressive 1min28secs is possible on fresher tyres than the test car’s previously abused rubber. The ST went round in a still-not-shabby 1min30.3secs while the 86 posted 1min34secs.
Petrol pump performance reveals a claimed 8.2/100km average consumption for the Trophy, which equates to a 190g/km CO2 level. On our fuel economy run that meandered from Killarney to the Engen 1-Stop on the N1, we recorded an average of 9.5/100km. Ford claims 7.2/100km for the ST’s combined cycle average 169g/km CO2 and the impressive figure was backed up with a 8,4/100km reading on our economy run. The 86’s official figures are 7.8/100km and 181g/km but we registered 9.1/100km on the test run and throughout the day it did seem to be a tad thirsty by virtue of having to work hard to keep apace with the other two.
Performance is one thing, but handling is what makes or breaks a hot hatch’s credentials and from the outset let us not lose sight of the fact that making a front-wheel drive car with power outputs approaching 200 kilowatts handle like the Trophy and ST is nothing short of miraculous. Limited-slip diffs and traction/slip controls play their part of course, but nevertheless barrelling into a corner at full chat, braking, turning-in then powering away from the apex with the confidence all three of these cars instil is an engineering marvel. That such extremes of braking, steering and drive are transmitted at the same time through just two palm-sized patches of rubber almost defies the laws of physics.
Starting with the master, the Megane RS Trophy is something special. As already noted, the test car’s 235/35 R19 Bridgestone Potenzas had previously done some serious track lappery resulting in rounded sidewall tread and less grip but the car’s driver aids helped overcome this handicap and never ceased to elicit smiles on the lips of testers Angus, Wayne and myself. The Trophy remains rock solid and goes wherever the steering sends it, with the back-end following faithfully. It is a precision tool. The engine revs freely and there is a kind of two-stage action to the accelerator that says go on, bury me and see what I can do?. No fiddling with suspension settings, but engaging Sport mode sharpens-up accelerator and steering responses to create an even crisper driving tool, aided by an LSD. The Trophy is demanding to drive quickly, but utterly rewarding a complete everyday/track day missile.
So, dear ol’ Henry, how does your Focus go? Well. Exceptionally well, actually. Not surprisingly, being around 60kg heavier and with 11kW less power the ST’s power-to weight ratio is down on the Trophy’s but a clever torque vectoring system in place of an LSD helps deliver optimum drive to the 235/40 R18 Goodyear Eagle F1s. As with the Trophy, there is no understeer, the well-geared steering is razor-sharp and turn-in is as if on rails. Accelerator action is more linear than the Trophy’s and the engine devoid of the old car’s five-pot rumble but crackly in a different octave feels unburstable. The longer, taller but narrower ST feels less stiffly sprung than the Trophy, resulting in a body that rolls just a little but the brilliant dynamics soon dispel any thoughts that the tail will wag the dog.
By comparison, the 86 is not in the same league because a) it lacks the grunt of the other two, and b) it is rear-wheel drive. And it is these very factors that make it such fun to drive. You have to do something silly to get it out of shape and once you adjust your mind to the powertrain’s demands keep the revs up and be smooth the little deuce coop is an absolute hoot. Neutral handling and the ability to steer with the accelerator and hang out the tail are techniques almost forgotten in the everyday world of front- and all-wheel drive dominated performance cars. The 215/45 R17 Michelin Primacy rubber is surprisingly chirpy but offers fail-safe grip characteristics. It is easy to understand why the 86 is an instant sales success. The more you drive it the more you will like it promise.
We knew the Toyota 86 would be a left-field rival but nevertheless it is an option worthy of consideration, especially at the price. In the end it was not outclassed but rather out-gunned it simply cries out for more power a TRD or RSi version Toyota? because the underpinnings will certainly handle it. Hot it may not be, but anyone seeking fun motoring with a capital F should not overlook the 86’s classic sports car attributes.
Which leaves us with the Renault and the Ford. Both cars are staggeringly adept at what they do and represent the ultimate in front-drive hot hatchbacks. Trying to decide between them is nigh-on impossible. But let us try. The Megane RS Trophy remains the No.1 road/track day machine by virtue of still being the quickest and best handling hot hatch around. The Focus ST is a gnat’s whisker behind in terms of performance and handling but dial-in its five-door practicality and it establishes a new dimension in hot hatches. And consider that the range-topping ST3 costs nigh-on the same as the base Megane RS and undercuts the Trophy by no less than R46200. The Megane dare I say it? is more focussed as a driving tool while the Focus offers near-identical thrills in a more practical and much cheaper package. Pay your money and take your pick.