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2018 Ford Focus vs. 2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI: Which Is Better?

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author photo by Eric Brandt August 2018
  • The 2018 Ford Focus ST and 2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI are hot hatchbacks that combine real-world practicality with sports car performance.

  • The Focus ST is only available with a manual transmission while the GTI is offered with a manual or dual-clutch automatic transmission.

  • The Ford beats the VW in performance numbers, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a better car.

For the driving enthusiast who wants it all in one car, a hot hatchback is an attractive option. Drivers love hot hatches for their everyday practicality combined with a thrilling driving experience, making for a performance car that you can use every day with little compromise.

Two of the strongest players in this segment are the Volkswagen Golf GTI, which was one of the original hot hatches when it was introduced in the 1970s, and the Ford Focus ST, which is relatively new to the U.S. after being introduced here in 2013. There's a lot these cars have in common, but there's also a lot that's different. Let's take a look at which hot hatch is right for you.

Exterior

Despite both being compact hatchbacks, the Volkswagen Golf GTI and the Ford Focus ST have very different styling. Both of them stand out as noticeably sporty variants of the compacts they're based on. The Volkswagen has a bit more of a conservative, grown-up aesthetic while the Focus ST stands out as having more of a "racer" look.

Aesthetic differences between the regular Focus and the Focus ST are more noticeable than between the regular Golf and the GTI. Both cars get revised front and rear fascias, but the big, black grille of the Focus ST makes it easy to identify it as an ST. It also has special wheels and a large rear wing that looks sporty without overdoing it. If you're trying to keep a low profile while having fun behind the wheel, you might prefer the styling of the GTI. But if you want to really stand out from the regular Focus hatchbacks, then the Focus ST might be for you.

Interior

The styling ethos of the exteriors of both cars continues on the inside. The Focus ST has a sporty interior that doesn't let you forget that you're in a performance car. The GTI's interior is sporty in its own way, but also a little more refined.

One thing that really sets the GTI apart is its availability of plaid-trimmed seats. This is a feature that dates back to the original GTI and it's a nice touch of Volkswagen's heritage that still looks cool today. The rest of the interior design is clean and premium-looking.

The Focus ST is still a Focus on the inside, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but its interior isn't quite as refined as the one in the GTI. It's available with Recaro partial-leather or full-leather seats that are generously bolstered for good support in spirited driving, but still comfortable enough for everyday driving.

Like the exterior, one interior isn't better than the other. They're both decidedly sporty, and it really comes down to personal preference.

Mechanicals and Performance

If you're in the market for a hot hatch, chances are performance is a priority for you. Both the Volkswagen Golf GTI and the Ford Focus ST are powered by turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four engines. For transmissions, the Focus ST is only available with a 6-speed manual while the Golf GTI can come with either a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic.

The EcoBoost engine in the Focus ST makes 252 horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque in all variants. That beats the numbers of the GTI's TSI engine, which makes 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque in its base trim. Both cars require premium fuel to achieve those numbers.

But performance is about more than just power and torque ratings. The VW has a clever XDS+ Cross Differential System. XDS+ uses the brakes to improve cornering by maintaining power to the outside wheel in a turn. Similarly, the Focus ST has what Ford calls Torque Vectoring Control, which adjusts the speed between the two front wheels in order to optimize cornering performance. Both cars also get performance upgrades in the suspension and brakes over their more pedestrian counterparts.

The extra performance from Ford's EcoBoost engine gives it a disadvantage at the fuel pump. The Focus ST returns 22 miles per gallon in the city and 30 mpg on the highway, while the GTI gets 25 mpg city/33 mpg hwy.

So the EcoBoost engine in the ST is better for performance, but the TSI engine in the GTI is better on gas. Which is more important to you?

Features and Technology

In terms of luxury features, the Golf GTI and the Focus ST are pretty similar. They both have cloth seats at the entry level and get sporty leather seats on the higher end, but only the Focus is available with Recaro seats. Both are available with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, premium audio, heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, a power moonroof and satellite navigation.

The Volkswagen does have some technology that you can't get in the Ford. Specifically, safety tech. You can get the GTI with adaptive cruise control, lane assist, blind spot monitoring, forward-collision warning and more. You could argue that these are driver's cars and don't really require these assistance features, but they're still nice to have no matter how skilled of a driver you are.

Pricing

The Focus ST has a lower starting price than the Golf GTI by a margin of more than $1,000. The Volkswagen Golf GTI starts at $26,415 and the Ford Focus ST starts at $25,170. However, the price difference makes sense when you consider the available technology in the GTI that you can't get in the ST.

The price ceiling for the GTI is higher than the ST's as well. You can get a very well-appointed Focus ST with the ST3 package with full-leather Recaro seats, Sony premium audio, a moonroof, the carbon fiber interior accent package, SYNC 3 with navigation and much more for less than $30,000, while the range-topping Golf GTI Autobahn with aforementioned safety tech, Fender premium audio, navigation and more will set you back more than $35,000.

If safety tech like adaptive cruise control and lane assist are important to you, then you might find the GTI more appealing. If you're all about the drive and don't want intrusive alerts going off, then the more affordable Focus ST might suit you a little better.

Conclusion

Despite these two cars being so similar at their core and competing in the same category, there's a lot that sets them apart. They're both hot hatches, but they take different approaches to combining practicality with performance.

If performance numbers like power and torque ratings are your top priority and you want to keep it affordable, then the 2018 Ford Focus ST is probably the sport compact for you. If you're looking for something with a more refined interior, better fuel economy and more advanced technology, and you're willing to sacrifice some performance, then you'll probably like the Golf GTI more than the Ford.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2018 Ford Focus vs. 2018 Volkswagen Golf GTI: Which Is Better? - Autotrader