Can Ford Tear Up Volkswagen’s Hot Hatch Empire?

If you were looking for a quick run-about with a low weight and proportionally high horsepower, the answer since the mid-1970′s (or early 80′s for the U.S. market) has been the Volkwagen (VLKAY) Golf GTI. While American companies were churning out powerhouse muscle cars that were brilliant in a straight line but lacking in the corners, the Germans were building a lightweight pocket rocket that emphasized handling and was low displacement, but also low weight.

To this day, the VW Golf GTI remains an exceptionally popular car in the U.S. and abroad. Coupled with the more potent Golf R, Volkswagen has defined the hot-hatch genre and sparked a culture of lightweight cars with high proportional horsepower. However, it seems that VW is being beaten at its own game. More surprisingly, it’s being done by an American company.

With the Focus ST, Ford (NYSE:F) has been luring in younger buyers who were naturally gravitating toward the VW. A quick look at the numbers shows that the Focus does have more to offer than the fan-favorite GTI. Although both cars sport turbocharged inline-fours, the Focus produces over 50 horsepower more than the GTI — Ford’s 252 to VW’s 200. Additionally, the Ford will also get marginally better mileage, but judging by the way these cars are meant to be driven, that figure probably doesn’t matter as much.

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Ford Focus

Perhaps more important, Ford’s hot hatch is cheaper than the VW. This is by no means surprising, as European cars have always held a premium over their American counterparts. But when marketing such vehicles to a younger set, a difference of $1,000 (like the one between the $23,700 Focus and the $24,795 VW)  can make or break the sale.

“Allow us to dab a tear as our trusty friend suffers this defeat,” were the words from Car & Driver‘s November 12 issue, over the loss that the GTI experienced at the hands of the Focus ST. Ford has proven to many, including european media outlets, that it too can build a potent hot hatch, offering a spot of diversity to the GTI-dominated market.

“The GTI’s a great product, but we’re winning most of the comparisons, and we have more power,” Amy Marentic, the global marketing manager for Ford cars, told Bloomberg.

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Volkswagen GTI

However, power was never the key for a hot hatch. Power was for the muscle cars, for shredding their tires on straights. For the hot hatch market, it’s all about handling, weight distribution, and gear ratios that help get the most out of the pint-sized autos. However, the Ford is no slouch there either.

“Even though the ST is the slightly larger and heavier hatch, it thumps the GTI’s agility with quicker, tighter steering,” the same Car & Driver issue said. “Considering how long and how well VW has raced slot cars, that’s a colossal achievement.”

It’s no wonder then, that the Focus ST was developed in the European market to compete on the GTI’s home turf. Demand from enthusiasts and a growing small car market in the U.S. convinced the company to bring the uncensored version stateside.

Though it has the upper hand now, Ford must continue to make progress with its new toy. Whispers are circulating that the next Golf R will pack 286 horsepower, and in the small package that is the hatchback, that figure may just be too tempting for young drivers to pass up.

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