COM­PAR­I­SON: AUTO HOT HATCHES

FOR­GET THE MAN­UAL, FOR THE MOD­ERN FIVE-DOOR HOT HATCH IT’S THE TWO-PEDAL SALES RACE WHERE THE STAKES ARE HIGH­EST

Motor (Australia) - - CONTENTS - BY LOUIS CORDONY + PICS ELLEN DE­WAR

Ford’s torque con­verter auto Fo­cus ST bat­tles twin-clutch Re­nault Me­gane RS300

F YOU BELIEVE it’s Nur­bur­gring lap records that drive nat­u­ral se­lec­tion in the front-drive hot hatch world, that’s okay. We too en­joy know­ing lap times to the tenth and of­ten squeeze on-board videos into the last min­utes of our lunch break.

But we’re also wise to their role in mar­ket­ing a brand. As cyn­i­cal as that sounds when al­most ev­ery hot hatch is signed off at the fa­mous track, you can’t drive an ac­tual ’Ring record car off the show­room floor in like-for-like guise – un­less you bring your own semi slicks or roll cage.

The thing is, as far as car com­pa­nies are con­cerned, the last hot hatch will be left stand­ing on a dif­fer­ent bat­tle­ground. Like the one un­der our con­tenders here.

What makes them so spe­cial? Right now the Re­nault Me­gane RS and Ford Fo­cus ST are the only hot front driv­ers with au­to­matic trans­mis­sions. We’ve been told that when it comes to a man­ual or au­to­matic, buy­ers choose the lat­ter four out of five times. So while a Honda Civic Type R is prob­a­bly the best front driver, or even hot hatch, you can buy, these two are what peo­ple will ac­tu­ally get for the next while.

Hyundai’s i30 N dual-clutch is com­ing... it keeps say­ing. Mean­while the VW Golf GTI, for all in­tents and pur­poses, is await­ing its eighth gen­er­a­tion. Re­nault’s Me­gane RS has used an Ef­fi­cient Dual Clutch (EDC) since 2018 but Ford now wades into these wa­ters with its first-ever au­to­matic Fo­cus ST.

Plenty of sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween these two prom­ise a blood bath. Four hun­dred and twenty New­tons apiece, for starters, through the front wheels. Along with front sus­pen­sion built around trick lim­ited slip dif­fer­en­tials and spe­cially en­gi­neered torque-steer-fighting mount­ing points.

Both use in­line-4s with twin-scroll tur­bocharg­ers. Each seats five, has five doors and mea­sures just un­der 4.4 me­tres long. Both ride on 19-inch wheels with spe­cific per­for­mance rub­ber. And both have been sent from Europe to try sat­isfy a well-es­tab­lished Aussie pen­chant for front-drive hot hatches.

Given the Tro­phy’s birth­place in Dieppe is only hours from Paris, it’s no sur­prise it catches your eye with a sense of style and ag­gres­sion that’s miss­ing on the Fo­cus. Its ex­clu­sive Re­nault Sport body­work pumps guards to thrust tyre tracks 32mm and 37mm fur­ther out than the ST’s. That gen­uine rear dif­fuser, along with a ground-hug­ging front lip, also set off its heav­ily stylised LED lights.

De­signer fash­ion’s not cheap, though, and it doesn’t help that Re­nault could only sup­ply the RS300 Tro­phy EDC. It tops the range at $55,990. For the cash, though, you get spe­cial design wheels, bi-ma­te­rial front brake discs, a low­ered seat­ing po­si­tion and an ac­tive ex­haust. It also squeezes 221kW/420Nm from its 1.8 litres.

You can buy a softer Sport chas­sis for $50,490 with the 205kW/390Nm RS280 EDC pow­er­train. And, hon­estly, it might have been the bet­ter pick on price. That is, how­ever, un­til one learns that if you want a Torsen LSD in your six-speed du­al­clutch Tro­phy (and you do), you can only get it with the stiffer Cup chas­sis. We’ll get to why that’s so im­por­tant in a mo­ment.

Our Ger­man-born ST, mean­while, is fresh from an Aus­tralian launch and of­fers an au­to­matic in the truest sense. It bor­rows an eight-speed torque con­verter from the ST-Line, but swaps in new gear ra­tios, mi­nus one, to match its grunty 2.3 litre.

Ford ad­mits it saved money by avoid­ing a dual-clutch

HOT HATCH BUY­ERS CHOOSE THE AUTO FOUR TIMES OUT OF FIVE

trans­mis­sion. So you’ll only need $44,690, or as much as the six-speed man­ual ST, to nab one. The real cost, though, is on the scales, where it adds 26kg; or also be­cause it ditches the man­ual’s launch con­trol soft­ware.

But the ST proves that’s no drama at Heath­cote Race­way in dry, cool Vic­to­rian weather. After build­ing up 2250rpm against the stall, it’s ob­vi­ous it doesn’t need launch con­trol to hit its 6.0sec 0-100km/h claim. The 235mm Miche­lin Pi­lot Sport 4 S tyres waste lit­tle time with wheel­spin – of­ten the prob­lem with man­ual front-driv­ers – and the shift map­ping in sport ESC dis­patches the first two gears well be­fore the 6625rpm red­line.

By con­trast Re­nault’s launch con­trol sys­tem is less in­tu­itive. After vi­tal tem­per­a­tures warm up, pull both pad­dles and three green lamps light up the dash. It next tries to con­tain the fury that hard-charg­ing 1.8-litre un­leashes on its wider 245mm Bridge­stone Potenza S001s, but the revs hang in first gear for a mo­ment too long.

Up­shift­ing knocks it out of this daze. But you must hold each gear un­til the 6875rpm cut-out or you risk fall­ing out of the tur­bocharged power­band. And while these two are neck and neck up un­til 80km/h, after that it’s a wash in the Tro­phy’s favour. It just never lets up. It tags 100km/h in 5.90sec but only once you fac­tor in its slick dual-clutch, a 100kg-plus ad­van­tage and 15 ex­tra kilo­watts can you grasp how hard the Tro­phy punches at the strip’s fast end. It storms across the 400m line in 13.92sec and 6.5km/h faster.

That shouldn’t take away from the ST’s po­tency, though. The au­to­matic and elec­tro-hy­draulic LSD work ex­cel­lently to find trac­tion. Longer gear­ing in sec­ond might even see it match, or even beat, the Tro­phy or a man­ual ST to 100km/h from rest. There’s only a bit in it for shift speeds, as well.

That long-stroke 2.3-litre dishes out good mid-range torque. It spreads its 420Nm across 3000-4000rpm and its ‘anti-lag’ tech – that keeps the throt­tle body open after you’ve lifted off – sharp­ens re­sponse. The sound gen­er­a­tion de­vice also blasts a de­cent, al­most nat­u­ral-sound­ing war­ble into the cabin and the en­gine map­ping oc­ca­sion­ally ig­nites fuel to squeeze out pops on the over­run.

But the Tro­phy’s 1.8-litre four is packed dense with more mus­cle. Its dual-en­try in­take, ac­tive ex­haust and shorter

THEY’RE NECK AND NECK UP UN­TIL ABOUT 80KM/H, AFTER THAT IT’S A WASH

stroke al­low it to pull harder in its up­per revs, while the Tro­phy’s spe­cial ce­ramic tur­bine wheel broad­ens torque de­liv­ery. It’s ex­otic, gives more and uses that snap­pier du­al­clutch to fire a ri­fle-crack at the ST in its wake.

After the Tro­phy takes the drag strip we dash across coun­try roads to as­sess our pair at cruis­ing speeds. What’s ob­vi­ous, though, is the Tro­phy’s Cup chas­sis has done it no favours. While drive-mode cus­tomi­sa­tion can ad­just everything from steer­ing weight, pow­er­train re­sponse, ex­haust noise and even the rear steer­ing (which we’ll get to later), with­out adap­tive damp­ing the ride is one size fits all.

Up­rated springs, dampers and a rear tor­sion beam set a high in­ten­sity and trans­mit everything that rolls un­der its Bridge­stones. Hy­draulic bump-stops, that Re­nault says are like ‘dampers within a damper’, slow down fast com­pres­sions and save it from crashy big wheel de­flec­tions. But we’d still warn pas­sen­gers be­fore big trips.

The ST fea­tures three-set­ting adap­tive dampers and in­de­pen­dent sus­pen­sion all around. In Nor­mal mode it re­minds us of the Me­gane’s Sport chas­sis, where back­ing off the damp­ing 20 per cent makes the ride more bear­able than the Tro­phy by al­most half. It’s still firm. Multi-link rear sus­pen­sion adds a touch of so­phis­ti­ca­tion and fil­ters out im­per­fect roads with more fi­nesse. Sport mode, how­ever, stiff­ens the ST’s ride like it’s tipped con­crete into the damper tubes, while Race mode is for the smoothest of race­tracks only.

Ford says the elec­tri­cal ar­chi­tec­ture in the Fo­cus’s C2-plat­form doesn’t of­fer the abil­ity to sep­a­rate the ST’s sys­tems into dif­fer­ent modes. Weirdly, the steer­ing wheel’s ‘S’ but­ton can en­gage Sport, but only press­ing ‘mode’ cy­cles out of it. For any fast driv­ing, though, the damp­ing needs to be amped for you to ex­pe­ri­ence its po­ten­tial.

It’s more will­ing to shift weight around in Sport mode and that com­ple­ments a steer­ing ac­tion which is won­der­fully

lin­ear in how it weighs up or points into a cor­ner. There’s sim­ply no slack. Just point and the car re­sponds. Or stab the brakes, lighten the rear and ad­just your line. It’s bal­letic.

The Tro­phy is as ath­letic, but its laces feel tied to­gether. While the steer­ing is slightly more ar­ti­fi­cial in weight its quick ra­tio holds a tight grip of its chas­sis. It also sum­mons tremen­dous grip on dry tar­mac.

But its 4Con­trol rear-steer sys­tem spoils any chance of find­ing a true, mean­ing­ful con­nec­tion. When the rear wheels steer the op­po­site way to the fronts it be­comes hard to pre­dict. The Tro­phy can sud­denly turn-in too fast, or de­lay let­ting go, re­quir­ing you to slow steer­ing in­puts or rush them.

Both cars find in­cred­i­ble trac­tion un­der power. Drop the right pedal and the ST’s BorgWarner e-LSD turns that into ex­plo­sive speed. Mean­while, the Tro­phy’s me­chan­i­cal unit re­lies on the fancy dual-axis front hubs, that split the knuckle’s steer­ing and sus­pen­sion du­ties, to sniff out grip.

As you tear away there’s a whiff of torque steer about each sys­tem, with the ST’s spe­cial soft­ware mak­ing it more ob­vi­ous. Yet in brak­ing zones the ST trumps the Tro­phy on brake feel and power. And test­ing re­vealed the Tro­phy needed al­most an­other two me­tres to stop from 100km/h.

Trans­mis­sion-wise, the ST’s torque con­verter ac­quits it­self well. It obeys down­shifts un­der power, up­shifts swiftly and

BOTH CARS FIND IN­CRED­I­BLE TRAC­TION UN­DER POWER

is mapped well when left to its own de­vices. Only thing we’re un­sure about is the new ro­tary gear se­lec­tor dial that has taken the place of a tra­di­tional lever.

Then again, in the Tro­phy it’s just as easy to over­shoot re­verse into park with its lever and mount­ing its gor­geous me­tal shift pad­dles on the steer­ing col­umn is a worse mis­take than leav­ing the ST’s as plas­tic.

Their tacky feel hints Ford built the ST to a price. But it’s also ob­vi­ous that money was spent well. The ad­mit­tedly firm sus­pen­sion has a so­phis­ti­cated touch miss­ing in the Tro­phy. The same goes for the steer­ing, brakes and NVH. The auto is no deal breaker, ei­ther. In a way, the ST is what Re­nault wanted the Me­gane RS to be, a ma­ture per­for­mance hatch with teeth only when it needs them.

The Tro­phy, mean­while, dom­i­nates in some ways. The pow­er­train is a small but fu­ri­ous fighter with the sound­track and trans­mis­sion to match. The front-end, too, is a class act of­fer­ing tremen­dous levels of grip and re­sponse. It’s also a nice place to sit, with ma­te­ri­als that echo its up­mar­ket po­si­tion.

Ul­ti­mately the per­for­mance pack­age falls short of an in­te­grated whole. We know the Tro­phy had a rep­u­ta­tion to up­hold. And like be­fore, it’s tough and pretty. It’s fancier feel­ing in­side. We also love how the driv­e­train feels race-bred. Un­for­tu­nately, though, its ride does too. While its han­dling is con­fused and it’s priced a lit­tle too far over its head.

Only Re­nault diehards will look past the Fo­cus ST. It’s sim­ply more well rounded. But it won’t be long un­til some new blood will chal­lenge its good stand­ing. Stay tuned.

IN A WAY, THE ST IS WHAT RE­NAULT WANTED THE ME­GANE RS TO BE – A MA­TURE HATCH WITH TEETH ONLY WHEN IT NEEDS THEM

TOP Ford calls the ST’s adap­tive damp­ing CCD, for Con­tin­u­ously Con­trolled Damp­ing, that drops ride height 10mm on a boggo Fo­cus MID­DLE The ST rarely gets the chance to use sev­enth in Oz, since it sits on 1620rpm at 110km/h BE­LOW BorgWarner is re­spon­si­ble for the ST’s elec­tronic LSD that can be fully locked un­der power

OP­PO­SITE TOP 4Con­trol turns the rear boots in the op­po­site di­rec­tion to the front up to 60km/h. Race mode in­creases it to 100km/h and turns off the ESC OP­PO­SITE MID­DLE The cylin­der block’s bores are plasma coated – like they are in a Nis­san GT-R or Mus­tang GT OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM Dig­i­tal in­stru­ments can be switched be­tween tacho or two bars that close a gap as you near each up­shift. Very French

BE­LOW The Tro­phy al­lows a max­i­mum of five launch con­trol starts be­fore a 10 minute cool down, and 1500 in to­tal be­fore dis­abling

ABOVE Won­der­fully sup­port­ive Re­caro seats are one of the ST’s cabin highlights, along with gen­er­ous room. Cen­tre stack is now in­fin­itely bet­ter look­ing than be­fore

ABOVE Re­nault 8.7-inch touch­screen cleans up the cen­tre con­sole. Tro­phy al­can­tara wheel is chunky, yet wieldy, and the seats are flat but hold you tight

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