2014 Ford Focus ST vs. 2015 Subaru WRX Comparison
Practical Traction: Two Budget Sportsters with Seating for Five
When Subaru's then-rally-bred WRX first came to U.S. shores in 2001, it was a force to be reckoned with. Though the WRX was already well-known globally in previous iterations, it didn't take long for U.S. enthusiasts to embrace the bug-eyed sedan and hatchback, what with its turbocharged 227-hp, 2.0-liter boxer four, rock-solid all-wheel-drive chassis, and impressive performance: 0 to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, by our testing. Few other cars could touch the WRX on the smiles-per-dollar factor, with a base price just north of $20,000.
Around the same time, Ford was keen on injecting a little sporting pedigree back home in the States with its global Focus platform. The result was the Focus SVT (available in three- or four-door configuration) with a Cosworth-tuned 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-banger under the hood, a Getrag six-speed transaxle, and some sporty chassis tuning to keep it all on the road. With 170 hp available to the front wheels, the SVT didn't pack quite as much punch as the day's WRX, but what it lacked in oomph, it made up for in handling and responsiveness.
Now, more than a decade later, the U.S.-spec WRX is in its latest iteration alongside the similarly evolved hot-rod Focus, dubbed the ST. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Well, mostly anyway.
For the 2015 model year, the WRX is all-new. The four-cylinder boxer engine is back to its original 2.0-liter displacement (from 2.5 liters in the 2014 model), the turbo is a new twin-scroll design and moves from the top to the bottom of the engine, and a new six-speed manual transmission replaces the previous five-speed (a CVT is optional). Power is up slightly, with 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, but weight is also up a little. Curb weight for the last 2013 WRX SE sedan we tested was 3195 pounds, and this new car hit our scales at 3330.
Meanwhile, the Focus ST is merely newish. After a 2013 debut, the car enters its second year of production with the same 252 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque from the same turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four as last year. That turbo means that, unlike in 2002, the Ford holds its own, in power, with the Subie. A six-speed manual is standard equipment here too, and as in 2002, the front wheels are still the only ones driven, though wheel (and tire) size has increased significantly. There's no more three-door option on the hot U.S. Focus, but that matters little to those who say this is the best Focus Ford has ever built -- myself included. The question: Is the Focus ST good enough to topple the new WRX?
In search of answers, we dragged both cars and pro racer Randy Pobst out to Streets of Willow racetrack at Willow Springs Raceway. We hoped the relatively tight, 1.55-mile course (with plenty of elevation change and cambered corners) would force our two subjects to squeal (in some cases, literally) about how they handle in an on-track situation. Our plan worked pretty well. Randy suited up and set out for hot laps in each, bringing back his impressions to your humble editor. The Focus ST was first up, since he'd driven a similar car several months ago at this very track.
"I really enjoy that light, quick feel," Randy gushed upon arriving back in the pits. "The Focus has quick, responsive steering, but it feels like the shocks can't quite keep up. It feels a little too soft and rolls a little too quickly. Total roll isn't bad for a street car, but it happens too fast.
"The balance is really good for a front-drive car, but I do get some wheelspin. It doesn't have a mechanical limited-slip -- it needs one because it has really good mid-range torque on the boost and not a lot of turbo lag." Randy also praised the Focus' high-speed stability and "guttural" engine note.
After giving the Focus a chance to cool down, I headed out for a few laps of my own. (Time to show this Randy guy a thing or two.) Turn-in is indeed quick, the front end pitching toward the apex with an eagerness few other front-drivers can match, with the possible exception of some Mini Coopers. The tricky part is getting power down and powering out without losing too much torque to wheelspin. That said, it's a challenge and a fun one, as is keeping the Focus' rear end tamed. Armed with torque-vectoring tech, the Focus ST uses its rear brakes to manipulate mid-corner behavior and mitigate understeer. While this system can provide some fun, tail-out moments, in this car, those moments aren't always the easiest to anticipate. To a non-pro driver such as myself, that adds a factor of uncertainty to the equation. Still, the ST is a blast to hustle around Streets, with good low-to-mid-range power and plenty of low-frequency induction noise piped into the cabin.
Next, it was Randy's turn in the new WRX. From the sidelines, the WRX appeared much more poised on-track than the ST was. Body roll seemed minimal, and in general, the car went where Randy was pointing it, with little trouble. It looked impressive, and it was. With Randy behind the wheel, the WRX had a best lap of 1:27.32 over the ST's best time of 1:29.68 by more than 2 full seconds on what is a relatively short, low-speed road course.
Randy's first words upon exiting the WRX: "Man, the Focus ST is way more fun!" Oh, boy.
"I was really disappointed by the amount of on-power understeer the WRX has," Randy griped. "It drives right off the road under power. Shock damping is much better than the Focus', and the engine is very smooth, very quiet…but it's almost too quiet. It felt too isolated for what is a sporty car.
"The shifter is more slick, more mechanical than the Focus', and there's good mid-range power from the engine, but it runs out of steam 500 rpm from redline. The Focus is just a much more enjoyable drive at the limit -- so much better balanced. Though this car does feel like it is better put together than the Focus -- better structural integrity."
My own laps in the WRX revealed a car that inspires tremendous confidence. Though my laps weren't timed, I have no doubt I was quicker in the Subaru than the Focus. No, the Subaru doesn't turn in as sharply as the Focus (and will indeed plow straight into the dirt with too much mid-corner throttle), but its tremendous stability and predictability didn't have me second-guessing actions or reactions as I did in the Focus. I drove the car and the car just told me to drive faster, lap after lap. I also greatly prefer the driving position in the WRX. The seats aren't as massively bolstered as the ST's optional Recaros, but they are more comfortable -- still plenty grippy -- and they sit lower in the car. The reach to the fully telescoped steering wheel is also shorter in the WRX, and the shifter, while notchy, is much more precise-feeling than in the ST.
A few days later, Motor Trend cohort Jonny Lieberman and I took both cars up into the canyon roads above Malibu, California, to see what's what on the actual roads enthusiasts (ourselves included) are likely to drive the cars on. After a couple hours on some of the best roads Southern California has to offer, the verdict was little changed from my opinion at the track a day before.
"Ford doesn't want to hear it, but these two on a good canyon road are not really comparable," Jonny summed up. "The Focus ST is a fun car, but the WRX just runs away from it. The WRX is faster nearly everywhere and much more confidence-inspiring. Going slower in the Focus was much sketchier."
We also agreed that the WRX was the more comfortable driver on the road, not least because of the superior seating and driving position, but also because of the Subie's more relaxing freeway ride to the Focus' somewhat bouncy, choppy nature. For what it's worth, rear seat legroom is also slightly better in the WRX, though the Ford Sync infotainment system is vastly superior to the poor excuse found in the Subie.
At the end of the day, the WRX comes across as not only an easier car to drive quickly and a quicker car in general, but also a more superior all-around car. It's more comfortable to drive and feels like the more substantial, mature, serious sports car. Subaru has yet to release pricing on the 2015 WRX, but our educated estimate reveals not much more than $1000 extra over the Focus ST, equipped as tested. Money well spent, if you ask us.
Runaway Winner: To the nimble don’t go the spoils
The Subaru leads the Focus throughout their individual best laps, but the WRX builds its lead via a relentless series of small (and large) advantages. Although it’s a pretty close drag race into Turn 1, as they near Turn 2’s braking point, Randy really feathers the Focus’ speed while the Subaru barrels right up to the brink, suggesting a lot more confidence. Approaching Turn 3, the WRX accelerates harder, although it loses some of that edge with a gearshift between the corners. It scoots through Turns 3 and 4 faster, too. Where the men are really separated from the boys at Streets of Willow is through Turns 9 and 10, a destabilizing wiggle that’s tackled at well above 100 mph. Here, the Subaru is in another league as grip and boring confidence overwhelm the feisty little Focus’ fun and nimbleness. However, the Ford does enjoy small victories such as higher lateral grip in Turn 5 and a tad more braking grip into Turn 8. But the trophy indisputably goes to the WRX.
|2014 Ford Focus ST||2015 Subaru WRX|
|POWERTRAIN AND CHASSIS|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD||Front-engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbocharged I-4, aluminum block/head||Turbocharged flat-4, aluminum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||122.0 cu in/1999 cc||121.9 cu in/1998 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||252 hp @ 5500 rpm||268 hp @ 5600 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||270 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm||258 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm|
|REDLINE||6500 rpm||6700 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||12.7 lb/hp||12.4 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed manual||6-speed manual|
|AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO||4.06:1 (1-4), 2.95:1 (5-6,R)/2.77:1||4.11:1/2.74:1|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F;R||12.6-in vented disc; 10.6-in disc, ABS||12.4-in vented, disc; 11.3-in vented, disc, ABS|
|WHEELS, F;R||8.5 x 18-in, cast aluminum||8.0 x 17-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES, F;R|| 235/40R18 95Y |
Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 2
| 235/45R17 94W |
Dunlop Sport Maxx RT
|WHEELBASE||104.3 in||104.3 in|
|TRACK, F/R||61.2/60.4 in||60.2/60.6 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||171.7 x 71.8 x 58.4 in||180.9 x 70.7 x 58.1 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||39.4 ft||35.4 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3193 lb||3330 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||60/40%||59/41%|
|HEADROOM||39.1/37.9 in||39.8/37.1 in|
|LEGROOM||43.1/33.4 in||43.3/35.4 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM||55.6/52.6 in||55.6/54.2 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||23.8 cu ft||12.0 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.5 sec||1.4 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.0||3.1|
|QUARTER MILE||14.7 sec @ 96.5 mph||14.0 sec @ 98.1 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||112 ft||106 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.95 g (avg)||0.96 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||25.8 sec @ 0.74 g (avg)||25.3 sec @ 0.76 g (avg)|
|1.55-MI ROAD COURSE LAP||1:29.68 sec||1:27.32 sec|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||2500 rpm||2300 rpm|
|BASE PRICE||$24,450||$27,000 (est)|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$30,125||$31,555|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee||Dual front, front side,f/r curtain, driver knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 mi||3 yrs/36,000 mi|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 mi||5 yrs/60,000 mi|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/60,000 mi||3 yrs/36,000 mi|
|FUEL CAPACITY||12.4 gal||15.9 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY ECON||23/32/26 mpg||21/28/24 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||147/105 kW-hrs/100 mi||160/120 kW-hrs/100 mi|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.74 lb/mi||0.82 lb/mi|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|