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You don’t need to look for than 5 year back when wanting a hot hatch meant walking down to the Volkswagen showroom to book your DSG Golf GTi. Saying that choices were limited was an understatement. Aside from the guest appearance of the Honda Civic Type R, the local availability in this segment lay bare.
However, manufacturers are slowly bringing in their soldiers to take part in the battle of this fast growing battle. And so we got our hands on two of the latest entrants to our market – the Opel Astra OPC and the Ford Focus ST. Without giving the game away, one is a powerhouse, the other a bargain that’ll have you checking your bank balance. Which takes the championship cup for this round? Lets find out….
In almost any combat sport, it is said that the first blow you land counts the most. It shows your opponent what you’re made of and most of the time dictates how the rest of the bout will go. And boy has Opel come close to knocking the Ford out cold. Maybe it’s the coupe-esque body style. Maybe it’s the appeal of it being a left field option. Argue any way you want, the Opel is a gorgeous looking car. Its shape is beautifully swoopy rounded off perfectly with handsome looking alloys and a nifty rear spoiler. With integrated exhausts in the rear bumper, that rump is perfectly rounded off with the perfect ratio of feminine lines to butch looks.
The Focus ST appears to appeal to the old school of hot hatch practicality marrying a 5 door body style to a punchy engine. While this allows for ease of entry to the rear seats and a smidgen more boot space, it also doesn’t help the Ford’s case in visual appeal. Bright colours do suit it better, showing off the handsome Y spoke alloys, but it still not enough to show up the Astra, especially with the gaping mouth.
Winner: Opel Astra OPC.
Both these cars have pretty average interiors. They feature excellent thrones from which to operate them, but the rest feels a bit bare. Both cars have Bluetooth, decent sound systems and reverse cameras. And that’s about it. The Ford has some terribly tacky boost and pressure gauges atop the centre console and both have a myriad of buttons strewn across the cabin. Materials are average and neither car is going to fool you into thinking its from a higher pedigree than it is, a trick the Golf GTi carries off with panache.
Despite the extra doors, the Ford does not seem to offer any real world extra space. Its just the ease of entry that those apertures allow. Once inside, the Opel actually feels roomier and more comfortable for driver and passengers.
The Ford also misses some basic elements such as xenon lights, a must-have in today’s day and age. Its also particularly irksome that this is available in other versions of the Focus, along with a self parking system. Their absence in what should be a top-of-the-line model is quite a shocker.
However, the main reason the Opel pips it in the end is the ambient lighting. It’s a small touch, nothing that any true petrolhead is going to think twice about but when living with the cars over the span of a few days each, the red glow throughout the Opel’s cabin leaves you feeling better. And while your passengers will initially complain as they contort their way into the rear seats, they’ll actually be thankful for the added width of the car and the extra shoulder room.
Winner: Opel Astra OPC
This is the hard one. This is the longest bout and it’s actually very difficult to decide who got in that extra shot.
The Opel Astra has the better seating position – you sit low down, the steering comes right out to you and you get the perfect driving stance. The Ford seats hold you better but theyre always too high and hence leave you feeling like you’re pedalling and SUV.
But it’s the Ford that has the better gearbox. Both run 6 speed manuals, but the Opel’s shift action is long and imprecise whereas the Fords is nicely judged with a natural amount of weighting to it.
The Ford feels light and nimble – the 252bhp served up from its 2 litre turbo engine causing an uncomfortable level of torque-steer when you put your foot down. The heavier Opel Astra does not feel as quick off the line but its 280bhp and 400Nm of torque from the same displacement comfortably out-powers the Ford and can steamroll most performance cars in a straight line. Also, some clever suspension trickery means you barely notice any torque steer despite the mammoth power.
The Ford can still do tight technical sections a lot better, predominantly due to the Astra feeling significantly heavier, but the Opel fights back with a standard limited-slip-differential (not even an option on the Ford) which allows for immense stability and unrealistic speeds through corners.
So who got in that extra punch? To be honest, both of these cars and fantastic performance hatchbacks and the winner is decided by a technicality.
A hot-hatch is meant to be nippy, to have precise controls, should goad you on and should give much more expensive cars a scare on a tight technical twisting road. And that’s the Ford. The Opel is fast, and its power is addictive, but it has too much turbo-lag and feels too heavy for what it should be. The Ford pivots around the centre and has its tail wagging every time you lift off the throttle. It’s a bit childish and bit silly and all the better for it. This round goes to the Blue Oval.
Winner: Ford Focus ST
This really is the deciding factor isn’t it. Its why we all don’t have garages filled with Italian exotics and British luxo-barges. The hot-hatch segment is all about value for money. A car that can do it all – lug a family and its luggage around and leave a smile on your face, all without breaking the bank.
The Focus ST gets this part right. AED 95,000 buys you the Ford while you would need more than AED 20,000 on top of that to place your derriere into the Opel Astra OPC. And while I did have quite an affinity towards the Opel, there is no way the Opel can justify being that much more expensive.
Winner: Ford Focus ST
And the winner is……well to be honest, if it were me and I needed a hot hatch, I’d still pick the German that started this segment – the Golf GTi. It maybe horrendously expensive – the MK7 goes upto AED 135,000 – but it is also the best car in this segment.
But this isn’t about the Volkswagen and this isn’t about spending a pot load of money. I wont deny that my heart was stolen by the Opel. It was the better car for me – stable at obscene speeds, the diff pulling you into corners at speeds where you felt the tyres would be ripped off the rims and all in a gorgeous looking package. However, at the end of the day, it isn’t the winner.
As much as it pains me to say this, this fight goes to the Ford Focus ST. Being the lighter car, it always feels eager and alert and that tail that is constantly moving about may not instil confidence at high speeds but this car isn’t about that – its not what the segment is about. A hot-hatch is meant to be playful, meant to have its tail hanging out, meant to nip into corners and meant to put a smile on your face at real world speeds. And the Ford is the car that achieves this at a price that cannot be beaten.