The new battlefield
Holden versus Ford is one of the great rivalries. But with the V8s headed for extinction, what’s next for the faithful?
IT’S a rivalry that has lasted for decades. But with the locally made Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon headed for extinction, which cars will carry the banner for future generations of the Red Team and Blue Team?
As Australians join the global shift to smaller vehicles, it will be hot hatches like these that will deliver bragging rights.
If the red car looks familiar, that’s because it has returned to our shores wearing a Holden badge after a hiatus.
It was sold here briefly a couple of years ago as an Opel, the European division of General Motors.
But it was withdrawn from sale not long after it arrived after GM figured out Opel cars sell better in Australia with Holden badges.
Meanwhile the Ford Focus ST has just been given a minor facelift that has included some technology upgrades.
The Focus ST is not a wellknown model but, as we discovered, is highly capable and has a growing fan base.
The Ford has also given the benchmark Volkswagen Golf GTI the occasional black eye in contests here and overseas.
With the recent showroom arrival of this pair, we needed little excuse to conduct a newage Ford versus Holden contest.
HOLDEN ASTRA VXR
Holden has taken the knife to the Astra’s pricing, trimming it from $42,990 to $39,990 plus on-road costs.
It’s also added 20-inch alloy wheels as standard to help sharpen the deal and the driving experience.
In every other regard it remains unchanged apart from the badges.
Standard fare includes sports seats, adjustable suspension (via a button that chooses between three modes), and satellite navigation.
Unfortunately, the fussy arrangement of the cabin control buttons has not been changed.
And, rather incredibly for a car of this price, a rear view camera is not available at all, even though it is now standard on $14,990 hatchbacks.
The VXR’s 2.0litre turbo engine is one of the most powerful in the business but against our stopwatch it was just as quick in the industrystandard 0 to 100km/h dash as the Ford Focus ST.
In slightly damp conditions we managed to post a 0-100km/h time of 7.0 seconds in both cars, but performance magazines have clocked them both at 6.4 seconds on dry tarmac.
Translation: they’re not as fast as V8 Falcons and Commodores but they’re certainly just as much fun.
There is a delay in the VXR’s power delivery until about 3000rpm, at which point all hell breaks loose and a strange vacuum cleaner noise dominates the cabin.
It’s the engine sucking in as much air as it possibly can, which is the aim here, but it could do so with a little more aural finesse.
The six-speed gearshift feels a little long and imprecise compared to the Ford (and other hot hatches).
The VXR has ample grip but the steering doesn’t feel quite as linear as the Ford.
While the steering wheel doesn’t try to wriggle out of your hands like the Ford does under full power — even on smooth surfaces — the VXR can get upset by big bumps in the middle of a bend.
An unexpected ripple in the road nearly ripped the VXR’s wheel out of our hands. In the same bumpy corner the Ford was more composed.
FORD FOCUS ST
Squint and you won’t spot the changes to the Ford Focus ST. The headlights are a little sleeker, the wheels are now charcoal not silver, and there is red paint on the brake calipers. Power from the 2.0litre turbo engine is unchanged, but the suspension and steering have been tweaked to deliver minor revisions to an already brilliant chassis.
The big news is inside. The Recaro seats remain but the fussy button layout is replaced by a simpler design with a larger touchscreen, and the Focus ST joins the growing list of performance cars with a flatbottom steering wheel.
Price has risen slightly (by $700 to $38,990 plus on-road costs) but the long list of standard equipment continues, including navigation, rear-view camera, a sensor key and automatically folding mirrors.
A $2000 optional technology pack includes automatic emergency braking, blind spot warning, lane departure warning and autodipping high beams.
The Focus ST may be less powerful than the Astra VXR but the stopwatch and the driving experience shatter any perceptions you might have from glancing at the brochure.
What the Focus ST lacks on paper it more than makes up for on the road. The engine is lively from low revs, making it a thrill to drive whether you’re going to the shops or on a favourite stretch of road.
It’s unclear what exactly Ford has done to delight the senses but we know this much: the engine always seems to be in its peak power band thanks to the well-matched ratios from the six-speed gearbox — and it sounds brilliant.
The Ford’s steering has a more precise feel than the Holden. However, both these cars have hideous turning circles, in part because they must contend with wide tyres that would scrape if allowed to turn full lock.
The Astra VXR needs 12.3 metres to make a U-turn while the Focus ST needs 12.0 metres. Both are broader turning circles that a Toyota LandCruiser Prado (11.8m).
The Astra VXR has bigger brakes than the Focus ST, and yet the stopping power of both cars is equally excellent. Subjectively at least, the Ford has a more precise and more responsive pedal.
The Ford’s smaller 18-inch wheels mean the Focus ST has more rubber to soak up bumps and thumps. That said, the suspension of both cars is firm on bumpy surfaces, but not bone-jarring.
It’s a fair compromise for hot hatches. If you’re after a plush ride they may not be for you.
The return of the Astra VXR adds some much needed polish to Holden’s image.
There is just one problem. The competition is a lot tougher than when Holden last had Opel cars in its showrooms.
The Focus ST was already a winning package before Ford gave it a tune-up. This update ensures it stays at the front of the hot hatch pack.
The fact that the Ford is cheaper, better equipped, more practical, and yet more fun to drive than its peers simply seals the deal.