TG Speed Week 2016: Focus RS vs Alfa Giulia vs Abarth 124 Spider
Chris Harris takes on Red Bull Ring duties in some 'sensible' options
Welcome to the Red Bull Ring
Right, enough road stuff*. This is the simple part: 2.7 miles of tarmac, 18 cars divided between five groups, some driving and, at the end, a final five, which we'll shepherd off for a final round. Actually, 19, because we have a NASCAR. Things are better at the Red Bull Ring.
And what a line up. I walk out into the pit lane and don't know where to begin, but a Golf GTI seems a sensible place to start, even one with a rear brace and no back seats. I'll work my way up to the Vulcan. Yep, it's the diversity that sets this event apart. This is going to be epic.
*I'm peeved - 911 R on the Grossglockner? Where was my invite?
See how we got to the Red Bull Ring via the links below:Advertisement - Page continues below
Test 1: the 'sensibles'
The inevitable march of progress leaves two of the cars in this so-called sensible, lower-performance section of this magnificent collection with enough speed to embarrass the last decade’s supercars. One of them, however, is a little less bombastic.
The cyclical irony of Fiat courting Mazda to share the undergarments of its legendary MX-5 will not be lost on those who know just how much the little Japanese roadster has done to kill Italian participation in a marketplace that was historically an Italian heartland. But teaming up with the best is a pretty good way to become the best again.
It isn’t for me to tell you what is or isn’t good-looking, but I don’t much care for the 124’s styling. Its coachwork rather sags in a series of undignified overhangs, swamping a wheelbase that somehow seems longer and more athletic underneath the Mazda’s body panels. Even though this new car appears to have been styled to mimic the 1998 MX-5 facelift (not its finest hour), this is a dynamic test, so looks don’t count.
No surprise then that the 124 handles just like an MX-5. And by that, I mean that it’s safe enough, but unless some kind soul has doused the track in diesel or it happens to be lashing it down with rain, there’s far too little fun to be enjoyed given that it’s rear-driven.Advertisement - Page continues below
In some ways it’s plain unfair exposing a car like this to a circuit like this – and a group of cars like this. It’s a budget roadster for the passing enthusiast, but it treads a dangerous path by shouting its Abarthness with a series of oversized logos and an exhaust note that straddles the line between naughty and “That’s a blown set of baffles, mate.”
The gearshift is good, the 180bhp pack adds a little more spice, but whichever way I spin the conundrum, I don’t really get this car. It hasn’t the charm or delicacy to offset its lack of pace, nor the badge to play the showroom tart. Anyone who loves driving should head to a Lotus showroom, all others would be better off in a GT86.
Whatever you say about the 124, it was unburdened by hype. The Focus RS has been dragging a sack of the stuff behind it for what feels like years – an unenviable combination of Kenny B, Drift buttons and people in my profession saying it rewrote the laws of physics. Make no mistake, the RS is a stunning machine – a 350bhp, 347lb ft missile designed to bring further piquancy to internet discussions pertaining to real-world pace and point-to-point ability (whatever they may be). But, for me, it’s a surprisingly long way from perfection.
The depth of dynamic development lavished on this hatchback is unprecedented – the gear linkage is a rod, not a cable to give that extra feeling of precision. That costs a small fortune and is unheard of at this price point. In fact, everywhere you look, the full toy cupboard has been thrown at it. So why during this development process didn’t someone say “Yes, the Drift mode is great fun, but the seating position is terrible, to the point that a normal human being struggles to get into a position where he or she can control the vehicle.” It’s a baffling oversight.
You work around it – of course you do. Not wringing an RS to the limiter because the H-point is 23mm too high is sillier than declining free beer because you don’t like the glass it’s served in. This is a very fast car. Like all of these modern turbo installations, boost builds from nowhere and initial surge is so strong you wonder if it can maintain the push above 3,000rpm – which of course it can.
The noise is good too – I’d worried that losing a cylinder would make it all tuneless and harsh, but these newfangled intake resonators are making four-cylinder in-line motors quite musical. Throttle response is excellent and all that work massaging the gearshift to a more direct and robust place has resulted in a lever you can yank around as if you’re a baddy in Dempsey and Makepeace.
So I think the RS’s powertrain can support the hype in all but one respect – outright speed. It’s a fast car, but I’d expected it to be faster. It’s supposed to be quicker than its great on-paper rival the Golf R, but I’m not sure it’s quicker at all and, jumping straight in the Golf Clubsport afterwards, it felt no less accelerative than the Ford.
Issues lurk within the 4WD chassis too. Fundamentally, the RS is a safe-handling, grippy machine that in normal driving will only allow you close to its limits if you drive it like a prat. But the same can be said of any new car on sale, and that’s why we’re at the Red Bull Ring – to see what happens when you approach and then exceed those limits.Advertisement - Page continues below
This is a special Ford, and it does support much of the hype surrounding it by being more than another 4WD hatchback. But, and this is a BIG but, in trying to be more adjustable and bring the rear axle into play more often than its rivals can boast, the car has become confused.
I’ll explain how. It’s possible to oversteer this car under power alone. That is something quite special and clever, but it does feel very artificial – the differentials throw just enough torque at the rear tyres to make them break traction. It can be quite snappy and it doesn’t last long. For me, it’s more marketing than actual talent. All those big smokey sliding photos you’ve seen on the web? Yep, they’re done using a less subtle method. The age old “bung” where you enter with too much speed, back off the throttle and allow the sudden weight transfer to unstick the rear.
This is where the RS becomes problematic, its inherent schizophrenia confuses the driver and, at times, the car itself because the car can’t decide if it’s four-wheel-drive or rear-drive, or indeed a part front-wheel-drive. So at first it slews sideways, then the front axle decides that’s all a bit childish and neutralises the slide, and then you pin the throttle – at which point, the drifty part of its chassis brain shouts YEEEEEHAAAA and it pitches itself into one of those electronically managed power slides that arrive bloody quickly, require prompt steering correction and then disappear as smartly as they arrived.
Yes, it can be fun. And it’s undeniably clever in the way it makes the car, at times, feel like something more than another mis-sold 4WD hatch that behaves like a front-driver. The brakes are good, the Michelins are excellent, I don’t especially like the way it looks and, in summary, I think it’s a very good car, but it’s over-hyped.Advertisement - Page continues below
Which is the opposite of how I feel about the Giulia. We filmed this car a few months ago and despite it being the best Alfa I’ve driven in years (© every motoring writer since the Alfasud died), I felt it lacked that last sparkle of excellence that makes the M3 and C63 stand out. But it lit up the RB Ring in ways I hadn’t expected.
Maybe the radii suited the chassis, perhaps the asphalt was just perfect for the Pirellis – but the Alfa was massively fast and grippy. But best of all it offered a variety of good stuff to different driver skill levels. Leave all the systems on and it will carve neat lines, resisting understeer in a way something weighing 1,580kg has no right to. The gearshift is snip-crack instant and the engine is so damn potent. There’s some lag low down, but I’ll happily deal with that to experience the crazy levels of thrust above 3,500rpm. This thing munched the M4 GTS in a straight line.
And when you wanted to behave like a moron, it was entirely complicit and felt brilliant. It’s no great surprise that 443lb ft and rear-wheel drive equals a bonfire whenever you require it, and, yes, the locking differential can be a little slow on the uptake, but I just loved driving this car on this circuit. The optional carbon-ceramic brakes didn’t fade, the motor kept pulling and I was left wondering if I really would have an M3 over a Giulia.
Check back on TopGear.com tomorrow for test 2: the supercars...