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From the archives: Alfa 147 GTA vs Ford Focus RS vs VW Golf R32

A throwback to January 2003, when Alfa, Ford and Volkswagen were all building hot hatch heroes

Published: 08 Mar 2023

Standing at the far end of the race circuit we can hear the cars coming, but we can’t see them yet. It sounds like there are three; two engines fighting for dominance, the third more muted. Of the two loudest engines, one has an angrier, harsher note while the second is more warbling, more haunting – probably a V6 and possibly a five-cylinder.

It sounds like they could be old too, products of a bygone era from an automotive world not obsessed by drive-by noise tests and NVH reduction. If I had to guess, I’d say some sort of old race car and maybe, just maybe, a rally Audi quattro.

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Ford Focus RS vs 147 GTA vs Golf R32

This feature was first published in Issue 112 of Top Gear magazine (2003)

Words: Angus Frazer

Images: Nathan Morgan

They’re closer now and as they downchange for the first corner, it’s possible to hear a little more of the third engine. Whatever it is, it is not as sophisticated as the first two – it’s definitely a cylinder or two short of full exotica. But it sounds pretty hardcore for all its lack of charm; it burbles nicely on the downchange with a resonating rumble that just might well spell hubble, bubble, toil and trouble for the competition.

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Now they’re through the corner, back on the straight and back on the attack. Again the noise of the third engine dies away, is drowned out as the revs of the two lead cars rise and rise. Another gear change and we can see them for the first time, three boxy silhouettes, half hidden behind burning blurry yellow headlamps. On they come through the fog and the rain, noisier than ever, closing the distance fast and throwing up great plumes of spray in their wake.

One last blast of acceleration and they’re easing off, gliding slowly to a halt, revs falling, rooster tails of spray diminishing to tiny sprinkles of rain drops. The swish of rubber on sopping wet tarmac and then nothing, as they stop dead, engines killed.

But this can’t be them. Yet a confused glance back out to the track confirms that it must be. There are no other cars out there, no ghostly pre-war monopostos or long-outlawed rally machinery pounding through the mist. It seems hard to believe, but that full metal racket was made by contemporary three-door hatchbacks. But don’t confuse modern for mundane. What we have here, at this Italian test track, are the three hottest, performance hatchbacks of 2002 gathered together to do battle from the far corners of Europe.

The Ford Focus RS from the UK, you already know. A £19,995 price tag, a turbocharged 2.0-litre 212bhp engine and rally-bred handling, that’s the basic spec and it works. Back in Issue 110, the Focus faced up to five rivals, including the Subaru WRX, and when the tyre smoke cleared, only the Ford was left standing.

The outcome of that clash might well have been different had our efforts to secure a sixth rival met with success. We tried hard to get Volkswagen’s ultimate hot Golf, the £22,340, 237bhp, 3.2-litre 4WD R32. But, what the hell, we’ve got one now, even if it has taken an 800-mile trek to get it here.

So, we’ve got a 212bhp Ford Focus which is not bad, but better still, a 237bhp VW Golf. Yet our third car raises the hot-hatch power stakes even higher. Alfa Romeo has crammed a 3.2-litre V6 under the bonnet of the 147 and it pumps 250bhp through the front wheels. While right-hand-drive Golf R32’s will reach the UK late this year, we won’t get the 147 GTA until spring, so this time the Alfa gets to fight on home ground.

Styling

Now quite clearly this has not turned out to be the sun-kissed confrontation we had hoped for, yet even so, the water dripping from the Alfa Romeo 147 GTA’s muddied metal does not diminish its styling. In fact, if one of those trendy tractors we saw earlier (in Italy even the farm machinery looks sexy) rocked up with a big slurry tanker and sprayed the 147 GTA, it would still look fantastic.

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I just love that grille. It puts me in mind of a David Brown Cropmaster, circa 1950. Ex farm-boy Sandy (now TG driver No1) understands and, while the others don’t get it, we all agree the 147 is absolutely bellissimo. From the overall shape – fantastically wedgey on the move and squat and purposeful at a standstill – to all the neat detailing, the Alfa scores top marks. Though, Owen (TG driver No2) points out, that the 17-inch wheels don’t quite fill the rear wheelarches enough. Also, we prefer the classic five-hole Alfa wheels, but these are likely to be standard issue, as opposed to the spoked affairs on today’s car.

The Focus is a good-looking car too. When you consider more recent offerings like the bland Fiesta and Fusion, it’s clear that Ford has lost something of late – be it bottle or ability. Sure it can’t draw on decades of heritage like the Alfa can, but the RS takes its pedigree from more modern motorsport battles and there’s an obvious link to the WRC car. Compared with the standard Focus only the bonnet, tailgate, doors and roof panel remain unchanged. It’s not swathed with big spoilers and go-faster bits, but the Focus RS, with those wide wheelarches stuffed full with 18-inch OZ alloy wheels, is not short of attitude.

To my mind, at least, the Golf R32 looks the most mundane, the least likely to attract attention, yet Sandy insists that every time he stopped for fuel on the long haul from Hanover, small appreciative crowds formed. And, sure enough, later when we are parked up in the centre of town, three blokes start poring over the VW. For those that know, there are lots of differences to spot between this and a standard Golf: 18-inch alloys, two chrome exhausts, new bumpers and sills, blue brake calipers, a honeycomb grille, chrome R32 badges and a rear spoiler. But, while the R32 does sit lower than the RS and the GTA, somehow it just doesn’t look so exciting. Maybe it’s the silver colour – the high performance GTI Anniversary model has a similar ride height and that looked a great when we tested a black one in TG 106. But, this Golf, like all others, still looks solid and expensive.

Interiors

This is not a day for standing around and kicking tyres and discussing ride height, better by far to be cozy in a warm dry cabin. And what do we find once we are installed behind the wheel? Usual old story? A top quality VW, with the Alfa Romeo trailing a long way behind? No, not this time.

Certainly the R32’s interior is very difficult to fault, whether you’re analysing the quality of the plastics, the fit of the dash or the feel of the switchgear. But this time, this Alfa feels right up there. OK, so maybe the VW is still a smidgen ahead – if you hunt around the Alfa’s cabin you can still find a few minor bits and pieces that look like they are left over from the bad old days. The plastic gaiters around the GTA’s gearlever and handbrake are nothing special, but everything else is spot-on and the dashboard feels rock steady.

Overall, life in Alfa Land is not at all bad; the GTA’s interior has the same classy, retro feel as the exterior. You sit nice and low, in this instance on optional leather seats with slightly old-fashioned-looking horizontal stripes. The driving position is excellent and the leather steering wheel beautiful. It’s just the right size and, though it has stereo controls mounted on it, they’re small and discreet. There’s some nice detailing throughout the cabin, like the shape of the door trim panels and the round, circular-bezel air vents; although disappointingly these don’t make a clicking noise when you turn them. Three deep-sunk instrument dials combine well with the steering wheel, seats and driving position to give the GTA a lithe and sporting feel.

There’s little lean-feeling about the Golf’s interior. In fact the R32 would make a tremendous top prize in the National German pie-eating championships, so overstuffed are the sports seats and so suited to chubby mitts is the exceptionally thick steering wheel. Yet it’s all extremely comfortable and definitely the cabin of choice for long-haul work, as our 1,600-mile correspondent can testify. Volkswagen hasn’t skimped on the interior, as the liberal use of expensive aluminium pedals, panels and trim proves.

Ford has also spent money inside on its RS. Real carbon fibre isn’t cheap, yet somehow it manages to look cheap here, as does the blue plastic trim throughout the Focus’s cabin on the steering wheel, door-trims and dash. Happily comfort and support is found in the excellent Sparco seats which are the best here, although you don’t sit as low as you do in the Alfa. Overall, the Focus RS interior feels a bit of a last-minute, rush job, but hopefully we’ll find out that Ford’s priorities lay elsewhere once we push the green starter button.

Performance

Hit that button and the Ford’s two-litre turbocharged Duratec burbles into life. The humble four-pot may lack the romance of what lies beneath the Alfa and VW bonnets, but it still sounds a bit special, a bit meaty. Normally 212bhp sounds impressive, especially when we’re talking hot hatches, but today it doesn’t quite cut the mustard, not with the R32 knocking out 237bhp and the GTA going the whole hog with an amazing 250bhp. That makes the Alfa 100bhp more powerful than the average common-or-garden contemporary Volkswagen Golf GTi.

It’s not all bad news for the Ford, sheer pulling power is just as important here as outright bhp and the Focus has 229lb ft, which is slightly more than the Alfa with 221lb ft, but not quite as much as the VW’s 236lb ft. While the Ford, at 1,278kg, isn’t exactly a lightweight special, the 1,360kg Alfa carries the weight of an extra passenger, while the lardy 1,512kg Golf carries the equivalent extra weight of the world supreme pie-eating champion. And a large box of pies.

There’s not a great deal in it where the manufacturer’s claimed performance figures are concerned – sorry but copious amounts of continuous rain meant no performance figures from us this time. For the record, Alfa claims 0-62mph in 6.3secs, compared with 6.6 for the Golf, while Ford states 0-60mph in 6.4secs. What is for certain is that all three are eager to go from very low revs and the RS’s turbocharged engine is no worse off here in terms of response. But what the Ford simply doesn’t have, is the sheer depth of character and outright refinement of the other two.

Initially one might be lulled into thinking that there is a bit of a lazy feel to the R32’s 24-valve V6 and there’s certainly a bit of an annoying boom at low revs in sixth gear. But knock the Golf back down two, maybe three gears, floor it, and out of the three it is the one which impresses the most with its sheer instant velocity. Flat out on a section of uphill autostrada, the Focus was struggling to keep the Golf in touch, even though the VW was carrying an extra person and more gear in the boot. And the noise the R32 makes really is fantastic, it truly does sound like an Audi quattro, yet when you want it to be whisper quiet at speed, it is fully complicit. For sheer passion, the Alfa’s V6 is a definite match for the German engine and is the quickest revving of the group, but on the road it doesn’t feel quite as fast as the Golf.

Sheer speed was rarely a problem for Alfa’s of the past. Coming to a halt, however, sometimes was. Well, not this time. The GTA’s ABS and EBD-equipped brakes are a match for the R32’s similarly specced set-up, even though the R32 gets vented discs at the front as well as at the rear. Best brakes belong to the Focus. Even though it doesn’t get EBD, the RS stops superbly and the excellent pedal feel still stays fresh after a day’s hard driving.

While it’s close, best gearbox also goes to the RS, at least in terms of solidity of feel and sheer precision of shift. It’s only a five-speeder, though, and really needs an extra ratio for motorway work. There’s little wrong with the Alfa’s six-speed unit and the change feels more precise than the Golf’s, which can occasionally feel a little vague.

Ford Focus RS vs 147 GTA vs Golf R32

Ride & Handling

This minor quibble with the Golf’s transmission is soon forgotten once it comes to the issue of putting all that power down on streaming wet roads. The R32’s electronically variable 4Motion four-wheel-drive system does the job perfectly. No fuss. No bother.

Despite the World Rally car links, there’s no four-wheel-drive system for this Focus; in fact there isn’t even any traction control. The Focus relies on a mechanical torque-biasing Quaife differential to get its power down. It does a good job, but it is not foolproof in the wet – too much power too early out of a tight hairpin and the front end runs wide. It’s easier to feed the power in earlier in the Alfa with its traction control. It’s a good system that doesn’t over interfere when left on, yet with it off, the GTA still keeps torque steer to a minimum.

With its softer suspension, the GTA is arguably more effective in the wet than the harder-riding Focus, proving less prone to understeer. There’s fantastic feel from the 147’s steering. Driving it in a straight line down the test track, flicking the steering rapidly from left to right, the response is about as good as it gets. In drier weather, though, the balance swings back in favour of the Ford. There’s a tightness to the RS’s body control and a tautness to its turn-in that neither the Alfa nor the Golf can match. Also, for outright grip, nothing does as well as the RS’s specially developed Michelin Sport tyres, wet or dry.

Of all the cars, the Focus is the most demanding to drive – you have to stay on top of the front end’s tendency to move around under hard acceleration. By contrast, the Golf requires least effort, but also provides the least rewards. While the ride is firm, body control is far from tight. Not only will the R32’s body roll in corners, it will also pitch under braking and acceleration. Despite the largely foolproof four-wheel-drive handling, the weight of the V6 engine up front is felt much more than in the Alfa. The Golf’s steering, too, lacks the sharpness and response of the others. Make no mistake the R32 can be hussled hard and fast, but it is by no means nimble.

Costs

As the 147 does not go on sale until spring 2003, Alfa has yet to set a price or indeed confirm a final specification. But, we believe that it won’t be too far off the price of the £22,340 Golf. However it turns out, both cars are likely to be equipped to a similarly high level. The RS is by no means spartan, but it definitely lags behind on safety. Only two airbags are available for the Ford, while you get six with the VW and the Alfa. You won’t find a trip computer in the Focus or EBD, but you do get part leather seats and with a price tag of just £19,995, you’ll pay over two grand less than for both its rivals.

Verdict

To be honest, when it’s this close, it would be possible to present a plausible argument for any of these three. If we wanted to make the Alfa win, it would be easy. Just look at the thing. It deserves to win on styling alone. And that’s before you take a peek inside. Arguably it has the best interior of the three, or at least it’s the one which feels most like a performance hatchback should. And there’s no doubting its credentials as a performance hatchback when you drive it; engine, gears and brakes are all first rate. As for the handling, it cuts a neat line between the Golf and the Focus; more fun and involving than the R32, yet not as manic or as demanding as the RS.

So there you are then, a bulletproof case for the Alfa Romeo 147 GTA. Or it might have been had the car itself proved just as bulletproof. Alas it broke a tooth in the differential and had to be trailered home. Hopefully, this was due to it being an early post-launch press car, which judging from the stone chips and mileage, had quite clearly already had a hard life. But as it stands at the moment, we can only state as we find.

Even if the Alfa had not suffered mechanical failure, it wouldn’t take top slot as best driver’s car because that title still belongs to the Focus RS. But ask yourself a long hard question, is that what you are really looking for? It is not the easiest of cars to get along with. The Golf, on the other hand, is, and that refinement comes with bucketloads of performance.

What is obvious is that the VW Golf R32 and Ford Focus RS, despite their similarities are essentially different in overall character. If you want a fast, refined and civilised high performance cruiser then the Focus is going to be a disappointment. If you want an ultra-sharp, ultra-involving driver’s car, then the R32 is not for you. You pays your money, you takes your choice.

Yet no matter how the blobs add up, out of the five of us who drove the cars, the Focus beats the Golf by four votes to one. Yes, it’s flawed in areas, its interior is poor and there is a lot of kickback from the steering, but even so, none of its rivals can entertain quite like it and it remains our choice out of the new hot hatch elite.

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