Hot hatch battle: Ford Focus RS Limited versus Hyundai i30 N
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The slightly curious might call this a mild mismatch. Experienced inquisitors would probably label these two cars complete opposites. And particularly filthy, unashamed cynics might simply suggest that they're only being compared here because we happened to have both in the fleet at the same time.
And ... well, no comment.
We're pretty familiar with the Hyundai i30 N and Ford Focus RS, having road-tested both of them separately in the past. But, these two are a little bit different.
The Hyundai is our first sample of a proper production model, built to the specs that Kiwis will be seeing more and more of on the streets soon enough. The Ford meanwhile is the Limited Edition model — a swansong, cranked-up-to-12 version of the beloved and already hardcore Focus RS.
Sure, there are differences here. The Focus has a 55kW power advantage and all-wheel drive, while the i30 is $22,000 cheaper and comes with the cache of being engineered by former BMW M Division wizard Albert Biermann.
But there are similarities as well. Both are “it”-cars in hot hatch fandom, both sound like WRC monsters when you poke them with a stick, and — most importantly of all — both claim to be an answer to the hot hatch question.
Deciding which one is better is sure to be complicated.
The production-model i30 N confirms some of the uncertainties from the pre-production model we drove in June. Adaptive cruise control disappears from the feature list, but a heated steering wheel and heated and electronically adjustable front seats (a hot hatch rarity) remain standard.
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The Focus RS Limited, meanwhile, comes with a stack of new performance goodies. Black 19-inch wheels wrapped in 235/35 Michelin Pilot Sport Cup rubber would probably shave a second or more off a standard car's metaphorical lap time alone. They are supported up front by a mechanical Quaife limited slip differential.
A few bits of blacked-out tinsel will give blue-oval anoraks a means of identifying RS Limited models on the street, and a pair of exclusive Recaro bucket seats ensure driver and passenger are as snug as a bug in a rug. All that comes for just $4000 more than the regular RS. Not bad.
As is tradition for all non-German hot hatches, neither car has a particularly appealing interior. The Focus looks and feels like something from 2011 (which it kind of is), and the i30 comes across a bit grey and utilitarian.
The Hyundai is easily the more functional of the pair, thanks to a much larger boot (381L compared to the Ford's tiny 260L), superior turning circle, and those heated and electronic creature comforts mentioned before.
Not that anyone who's actually buying either of these cars is likely to care too much.
The crux of any good hot hatch has never been interior plastics or turning circle. It all comes down to the driving experience, mixed in with a few points on liveability.
The RS gets an easy win when it comes to power-plants. Its turbocharged 2.3-litre four-cylinder EcoBoost engine has 300cc of extra capacity over the N, and you can feel it. Stab the throttle and dump the clutch, and its all-wheel drive system makes sure each of its 257kW of power and 440Nm of torque gets transferred to the road instantaneously — with a delightfully musical, almost five-pot exhaust note at certain points in the rev range.
The i30 N's turbocharged 2-litre four-cylinder was never going to scare the RS, with its more humble 202kW and 353Nm. But it's still a bubbly little unit that loves to venture to its 7000rpm redline — delivering all manner of pops and bangs with each shift.
On the overrun, burbling and gargling from the exhaust can be quite hysterical, as if the Gods of thunder are playing ping pong on the parcel shelf.
With minimal reluctance, our time with the RS and N was largely spent repeatedly bashing up and down Waitakere's winding backroads; each car's exhaust burps reverberating off the picturesque backdrop. What we discovered was that these two have totally different personalities.
The Hyundai has an incredibly impressive poise. The balance at speed presented by the chassis underneath you functions as a huge injection of confidence. Challenging turns feel like they can be taken with your fingertips thanks to a combined McPherson Strut and multi-link suspension set-up, a quick steering rack, and Pirelli P-Zero tyres engineered specifically for this car. The brake package might be an in-house set-up, but they’re more than capable.
Although the seat’s bolstering is rather mild, the driving position is near enough bang on — complimented further by a nice short-throw shift action from the six-speed manual transmission. Rev-matching functionality on downshifts is good fun; though purists who would rather heel-and-toe themselves can switch it off at the touch of a button.
Speaking of buttons, one of the clearest M Division — influences on the i30 N is the chequered flag ‘N Mode’ button. In a similar vein to the M Performance buttons you’ll find on BMW’s silliest creations, the N button functions as a one-touch fast track to the i30’s most hardened settings. Rev matching initiates, steering and suspension firms up, and the exhaust gets louder.
The i30’s steering in this mode is firm, which would be acceptable if it offered buckets of feedback — but, it doesn’t. Thankfully unlike some other hot hatches (the RS included), you can tailor the N’s settings to your preference. A second hit of the N button takes the car to your presets menu, where I found myself opting for the more forgiving suspension and steering settings.
One of the N’s other infractions is torque steer. Yes, it has an electronic limited slip differential and Pirellis, but it will still spin the tyres while exiting slow corners and off the line if you’re hustling. Note too that even with a good launch, the Korean hatch isn't particularly urgent compared to its contemporaries. Front-wheel drive and a 1500kg ballpark weight means a middling 0–100km/h time of 6.1 seconds.
No such issues in the Ford, of course.
The RS has always been a gun off the line (100km/h comes up in 4.7 seconds) and coming out of corners, and the addition of these new tyres only serves to help all that. You need to be driving pretty hard to feel the Limited Edition’s performance improvements. But, they’re there.
The RS’ brutish demeanour used to feel a bit too unhinged beyond eight-tenths driving. A lack of ultimate balance concealed by AWD and exceptional steering made the car a tough thing to master at the limit. But mechanical LSD and additional grip help temper the Ford’s dark side.
On longer corners in particular, you can feel it working underneath you. Combined with vectoring that can route as much as 100 per cent of available torque to a single rear wheel in 0.06 of a second, and AWD, the RS feels unflappable.
Unless you engage Drift Mode, anyway.
Still, to squeeze the absolute most out it you've really got to commit and rag the living daylights out of it — a tough task in a car that still ultimately lacks the finesse of some of its rivals. Next to the Hyundai, the RS feels like a bit of a blunt object — and an awkwardly tall driving position and oddly resistant and long shift throw don’t aid its cause. Nor does its much firmer ride and loud tyre roar.
The latter also means that the RS Limited isn't the easiest car to drive every day. On broken pavement and speed bumps in particular, you need to breathe in and brace for impact.
So, as a track toy, the Focus RS Limited Edition proudly places Ford back on the top step of the podium. It’s stupidly fast, with near limitless grip and a level of mongrel difficult to surpass in this segment.
But if you want a car you can use seven days a week, that’s arguably more fun at the limit and places a greater level of control at your fingertips, the i30 N is the winner here.
It's easy to live with, chuckable on command, and truly one of the most involving cars you can buy today.
Ford Focus RS Limited
Pros: Utterly brutal engine note, Limited represents value
Cons: Feels outdated in some areas, road noise, ride quality
Hyundai i30 N
Pros: Incredibly balanced chassis, adjustability, high fun factor
Cons: Sometimes struggles to put power down, dreary cabin