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?

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Cover Story - JOSHUA DOWL­ING NA­TIONAL MO­TOR­ING EDITOR joshua.dowl­ing@news.com.au

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.

VER­DICT

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.

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