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Ford Focus RS Vs. Subaru WRX STI: A (Slightly Biased) One-Man Comparison Test

The Drive logoThe Drive 8/22/2017 Aaron Brown
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These days, the new car market is saturated with affordable sports cars that double as almost-uncompromised daily drivers. For the most part, these are compact vehicles like the Subaru WRX/WRX STI, Volkswagen GTI/Golf R, Ford Focus ST/Focus RS, and the Honda Civic Si/Civic Type R. Unless you suffer fromserious brand loyalty, you're probably going to have trouble picking between this tight pack of cars.

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Trust me: I recently found himself in this predicament. I cross-shopped the Focus RS, the WRX STI, and the Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE while trying to settle on my new daily, and wound up leasing the Subaru. Though my decision was primarily based on pricing and affordability, [And the fact that Aaron is an unabashed Subaru fanboy. —Ed.] after spending some time with a Focus RS lent to The Drive by Ford, I learned that the Subaru makes for a better everyday car.

The WRX STI, which starts at $36,095, is a 305-horsepower four-door sedan that's been on the market in its current generation since 2014. Though its looks have changed, its performance and feel remain similar to when Subaru first brought the model to America in 2004—for better or for worse.

The Focus RS, on the other hand, is much fresher; Ford began selling the car, which carries a starting MSRP of $36,120, in America just last year. For that price, you get a 350-hp five-door hatchback with a fancy rear differential, and, well, a hatch—something you can't currently get with the STI. 

To test the Focus RS, I put around 700 miles on it by daily driving it on the streets of New York City and on the backroads of New York's Catskills region. Dirt roads, pothole-packed city streets, and curvy back roads helped me figure out what it's actually like to live with the RS. As for the STI, it's my personal car—which means I've put nearly 2,000 miles on it so far on those very same roads.

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Both cars are aggressive, but the Focus RS is a hair over the top.

As someone who's been known to put up with back-cracking suspensions and aggressive clutches, I didn't think the RS would have anything on me. "It's just another factory hot hatch," I thought going into my time with the car.

I was wrong.

With their suspensions left in their respective non-sport mode, the RS and the STI feel about equal when it comes to ride stiffness. Neither are totally city-friendly or overly pleasant, but when you get the cars on back roads, they both corner flat and are able to roll over road imperfections without rearranging spines.

But it's not the suspension that gets me on the RS—it's the clutch. For traffic-free trips, the third pedal on the RS is fine. It's not much heavier than the clutch pedal on my STI, so if you're shifting quickly, it's not a big deal. But when navigating traffic with the RS, I found myself wishing I had some sort of powered robotic extension for my knee and leg. About halfway through the clutch pedal's travel, it seems as though there's a return spring that makes it want to shoot up through the bottom of your foot. Maybe this was something that was even more noticeable or worse on our test car that already had more than 10,500 hard, journalist-driven miles clocked in...but in traffic, it was terrible. Just thinking about it makes my left knee hurt.

The RS also seemed to have some sort of auto-rev feature to prevent stalls when rolling off the clutch. It's not abnormal for a manual car to bounce the revs up a bit when releasing the clutch, but it almost seemed like the RS had some sort of electronic anti-stall function. Without touching the gas pedal, I saw the car's revs repeatedly jump to around 1500 rpm while rolling off the clutch without applying gas. While this could be helpful for novice manual drivers, I found it to be incredibly annoying while parallel parking. Granted, the WRX STI's clutch isn't the easiest to familiarize yourself with, but you won't find the car shooting up revs to prevent stalls at traffic lights. 

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The Focus RS doesn't feel as roomy as I'd hope a hatchback would.

This generation of STI might not be available as a hatchback, but that doesn't mean it's lacking in interior comfort and space. In fact, the STI has the RS beat when it comes to front legroom and headroom—and from my real-world passenger tests, it has the preferred backseat of the two.

Though nothing beats not having a rear shelf in the way when attempting to carry massive pieces of luggage or assorted furniture, the STI has more than enough room to transport groceries or even a full set of track wheels and tires and other goodies whenever necessary. (But it's still nicer to have a hatch.)

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Both cars are back-road friendly, but the Focus RS is easier to drive fast.

According to Zero to 60 Times, the STI is capable of going from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4.6 seconds, and the RS will match that with its rev-holding launch control system.

But just because both cars can launch from standstill at an equally quick pace does not mean their performance is matched everywhere. On the roads I tested the cars on, the Focus RS felt far more predictable and dialed-in than the STI. The car's all-wheel-drive system put the power where it needed to go, to help pitch the car around corners without us having to be worried about compensating for understeer or not having enough grip. Though the STI would likely be able to match the RS in the same conditions, the Subie requires a bit more built-up confidence in the car than the RS.

TL;DR—the RS feels like a car that any competent driver could get in and drive fast, while the STI requires a bit more familiarity and a more adaptable driver.

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The Ford has the upper hand in terms of quality—barely.

Both cars have rather cheap interiors. The Focus RS feels plasticky, and the STI feels low-rent—though it's far better than the previous-gen car. But beyond the interior, the RS feels more solid all around.

In terms of long-term use—around 2,000 miles into the STI's life, the car has already developed some drivetrain lurch and a slightly-audible whine when off-throttle in gear. The RS, on the other hand, feels far more sturdy, even after more than 10,000 (presumably hard) miles.

Though I didn't experience it firsthand, the RS does have a known overheating issue with its rear differential. Though the STI's EJ25 engine has a reputation for blowing itself up if not maintained properly, the rest of the car doesn't have any issues like the RS does that would prevent someone from going hot for extended periods of time on track.

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Both cars are alarmingly capable, but I'd rather go home in the Subaru.

Though the RS was easy to get to know, had a decent interior, and was fun to race between stop lights in...I'd rather take my chances with the Subaru. Even setting aside the painfully-annoying clutch in the RS, I find the Subaru more work, and thus more fun; I've become addicted to getting to know the STI's handling quirks and powertrain intricacies.

And then there's the price. Though the cars—both the Focus RS and the STI—can be found as low as roughly $35,000 online, there are still dealers who are attempting to sell the Focus RS for far more than anything close to its factory MSRP. For a consumer like myself—someone who needed to lease a car instead of finance—the car was almost totally out of the question. Ford dealers told me that If I wanted a Focus RS, I'd have to lease one through an outside bank and it would've run me around $700 per month with something like $3,500 down. In comparison, I pay about $450 per month on my STI (with 15,000 miles per year) and handed over just under $2,000 at signing—which also covered fees from switching out of my previous lease early.

The Focus RS is a punchy hot hatch, and I'm happy that with this generation, it has finally made its way to America. I wouldn't shoot anyone down who was set on buying one, but it just doesn't speak to me the way the STI does. Even if the Subaru lacks an adjustable suspension, a high-tech rear differential...and a hatch.

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