Rally Bred Everyday Drivers: Ford Focus TCDi vs. Subaru Impreza R Sport (2009(
Editor's Note: in all the photo gallery to the right part of the story, the Ford Focus TCDi is always on top of each two photo panel except when indicated. We also took the opportunity to "blank" out the Impreza's plate as that's part of motioncars.com's Long-Term Test Fleet.
The new Ford Focus has sparked some life back to the compact car class. It comes at a time when the entire segment is under threat from everything ranging from sub-compacts offering luxury trimmings to compact sport utility vehicles having more metal for the buck. Like the majority in its class, the Focus touts its spirited dynamics, practical creature features and life-saving safety equipment. However, there’s something uniquely attributable to the Focus: its world-rally heritage. Most of its rivals never ripped through the Scandinavian countryside or tackled Monte Carlo’s steep mountain roads. This rally pedigree has earned it respect and admiration, where time behind the Focus’s driver’s seat automatically connects you to those racing them.
This connection or ‘x-factor’, if you will, is equally strong in just one other compact car: the Subaru Impreza. The sheer imagery of a Sonic Blue Subaru caked in mud, power sliding into a tight 180-degree corner is enough to make even the most hardcore car enthusiast weep tears of joy. Before, owning the road-going version of the Impreza also meant an enthusiasm for hard labor: a close to two million peso price tag and you still had to do all the shifting yourself. But that’s not the case anymore. Subaru has finally entered the mainstream with the mildest Impreza there is: a normally-aspirated five-door hatchback with softy sprung suspension and an automatic gearbox! Despite the watered down kit, this Subaru still promises the same rally-bred heritage that’s still present in its turbocharged brethren.
It’s clear at this point that neither car truly offers a full-blown WRC experience. Both are simplified versions of their racing counterparts. And yet, both quote their rally racing experience as their inspiration on subjects ranging from design, engineering and even to marketing. On one side is the Focus TDCi which has a torquey turbo-diesel engine and a dual clutch gearbox. On the other, is the Impreza with its horizontally-opposed engine layout and symmetrical all-wheel drive. And get this, both of these cars are priced just P 10,000 apart. This fight has been brewing for some time now, and now, there will be blood.
With the exception of the sweeping roofline provided by its hatchback body, the Ford Focus isn’t really known for its cutting-edge design. In fact, the pre-facelift Focus is often criticized as something pretty much evolutionary of the first-generation model. And even when Ford grafted a new nose on, it still looks pedestrian next to the Impreza. Don’t let the ‘kinetic’ design lingo fool you: this isn’t the same Focus you see roaming European roads. While they are enjoying a Focus with almost all its exterior body panels changed, the one here simply has the new face grafted to the old body. This is noticeable if you look at them side-by-side: the European Focus has a hard crease running through the side of the body, the one here has a softer crease seen in the pre-facelift model. However, by being much more bland and ordinary, the Focus has a lesser tendency to draw design flack especially from the fairer sex who simply find the Impreza’s design just plain weird.
Weird as it maybe to some, people who do get the Subaru design language will actually like the Impreza’s lines. And even if didn’t like it the first time around, the looks grow on you. The nose looks as if it’s tampering inward creating a chiseled front end. The lines widen up from the wheel arches backward culminating in the rear section. This creates an illusion of width and a muscular appearance that’s missing in the Focus. The design works from most angles except from the front, where the Impreza resembles a pug. Subaru then goes a step further and kits the Impreza like a boy-racer’s dream; and ultimately, this is the turn-off for women (and maybe the 40-somethings). However, for the manly men out there, the wrap-around body kit and the 17-inch alloys are dead on and do justice in improving the car’s stance. However, like any car with a front airdam and side skirts, it’s important to be wary of steep driveways, which can scrape the Impreza’s kit.
With both of these cars having almost no discernable difference when it comes to exterior fit and finish (they both offer excellent paintwork and the panel gaps are equally consistent), the winner here is based solely on design execution. It’s not necessarily beautiful, but at least the Impreza fully embraces the sporty motif much better than the Focus. This gives the Subaru more character and actually makes it more expensive-looking.
Exterior Winner: Subaru Impreza
Score: Ford Focus (0) / Subaru Impreza (1)
Stepping into their respective cabins, it’s immediately apparent which one you’d like to spend more time in: the Impreza. Both have a purely black cabin execution with just trimmings of silver to liven it up, but the sweeping dash design of the Subaru is much more modern than the Ford’s. It’s more driver-centric with all the buttons and controls canted to or located near the driver. The choice of materials is equally good and consistent throughout with the use of soft-touch buttons (audio and steering wheel controls) and tactile switchgear (stalks, ventilation controls and windows). Plus the dash is bettered screwed together with no visible panel inconsistencies and exposed screws. Despite the sporty design, the Impreza has the cubby hole advantage too. It’s capped off with a lit glove box—something that’s often times a victim in cost-cutting measures.
If there’s one thing that’s in dire need of improvement in the Focus, it’s the interior. Though on the whole, it’s solidly designed and executed, there are just too many quirks that deters from having a delightful experience. Apparently, Ford spent too much time window dressing the cabin rather than improving minute fit and finish. For one, there are too many silver-finished buttons on the center console. It’s alright if you find it in a Chinese branded stereo, but not in a ‘European inspired’ car. And then there’s the faux carbon fiber weave that surround these buttons: it looks too fake! More attention should have been focused to improve things like the center console lid, cup holders and coin/ashtray all of which are flimsy. And then there are small details like two interior clocks (on the stereo and the instrumentation) that don’t synchronize together. On a positive note, the stylized instrumentation does look better and is easier to read. The move from green to red lighting is good.
Interior Winner: Subaru Impreza
Score: Ford Focus (0) / Subaru Impreza (2)
If you aren’t deterred by the Focus’s questionable interior trimmings, the ergonomics are actually quite reasonable, but are still some flaws. From the driver’s seat, the impression you get is how small the interior feels. The squared-off dash and upright center console do make the controls easy to reach. But then, all the buttons have been crammed closely, and together with the small size, it makes operating them by tactile feel quite a challenge. Often times, you find yourself taking your eyes off the road just to change radio stations or lowering the cabin temperature. The front seats look flat, but they are supportive. However, the rock hard cushions and lack of lateral support do limit this car’s appeal as a long-distance tourer. The steering wheel does provide excellent adjustment but the pedals are offset too much to the right making you scrape the interior firewall regularly. The rear passengers don’t fair any better because of the lack of seat length and awkwardly angled headrests.
Meanwhile, the Impreza’s cabin is flawlessly executed with all the right ingredients in all the right areas. Because the seats are mounted lower, there’s a feeling of width. However, visibility is never an issue because of the dash’s shallow depth. This allows for a good view of the hood ahead. The button layout is much more logical because of its simpler arrangement. The large rotary knobs for the ventilation allow for easy operation while the audio system, though having small buttons, are grouped according to function allowing for faster mastery and ease of operation on the go. The leather-rimmed steering wheel is fatter and larger in diameter on the Impreza compared to the Focus and this makes it easier to hold and grip. The inclusion of satellite audio and cruise control buttons on the steering wheel itself, as opposed to the steering column as seen in the Focus, is more logical. The Impreza uses one-piece sport bucket seats for the front. Though this may not seem comfortable, they actually are with excellent support for all the areas.
Both cars are designed for drivers who have a sporty demeanor. But again, the Impreza is the class act here with concisely placed controls. Aside from the perfectly-sized steering wheel, the Impreza’s gated shifter goes through each slot precisely making it easier to use. The Focus’s inline shift pattern is vague enough, but slotting through it makes it even more so. It also doesn’t help that the manual override function is operated by sliding the shifter away from the driver. Those who love driving on the edge will appreciate that the Impreza’s stability control system can be turned off easily via a dash-mounted button while it takes scrolling through menus to turn off the Focus’s.
Ergonomics Winner: Subaru Impreza
Score: Ford Focus (0) / Subaru Impreza (3)
Space and Luggage
Despite being classified as compacts, neither of these cars actually offers class leading passenger and luggage space. Thus, the perceived strengths and weaknesses rest mainly on whether you’re carrying mostly people or luggage, and by how much. One thing that’s extremely likeable on these two cars is that the front seats can be slid all the way aft, creating king-sized foot well space for the front passengers. However, once you need to fit a third or a fourth person, the Focus immediately loses out because of the lack of rear knee room. The front seat backs could have been contoured or sculpted better to maximize space better. The presence of a relatively large tunnel (especially for a front-wheel drive car) also severely limits the comfort of anyone sitting in the middle of the rear bench. At least they will enjoy the rear air conditioning vents.
Meanwhile, the lower seat mounts and the dashboard design is advantageous to the Impreza when it comes to increasing front seat space. Whatever the seating preference, there will be no complaints when it comes to banging knees on the dash or glove box. The standard sport bucket seats does have trade-offs in the Impreza. On one hand, it does taper inward creating better knee room here compared to the one in the Focus. However, the non-adjustable, single-piece headrests may not be to the liking of rear passengers who would want an unobstructed view of the road ahead. Still, the rear occupants will enjoy the bucket-like bench, lending a more supportive and comfortable experience. Again, there’s a trade-off: if you need to fit a third rear passenger, the one sitting in the middle will find himself sitting on a bump; not exactly the best of experiences. That said, it’s surprising how Subaru has kept the center tunnel much more compact in the Impreza despite having a driveshaft running through the length of the cabin.
Though both of these cars offer a 60/40 split-fold rear seat to maximize cargo loading, neither aren’t well designed nor well through out. With the rear seats up, the Focus does have a deeper compartment allowing it to fit more stuff without obstructing the rear view. Despite its wider compartment, you will almost immediately find yourself removing the retractable cover at the sight of medium-sized luggage in the Impreza because of the shallow loading area. With the rear seats down, things take a dramatic turn. Oddly, though the Focus does have the aforementioned split-fold seating, it requires you to flip up the rear seat cushion too, and this folds in one piece! So you still have to decide whether you’ll fit three people or more luggages. On the Impreza, you only need to flip the seat backs, so you can fit two balik-bayan boxes along with one rear occupant; though the loading bay isn’t exactly flat.
Space and Luggage Winner: TIE
Score: Ford Focus (1) / Subaru Impreza (4)
Performance and Fuel Economy
This comparison test pits the top-of-the-line Focus with the bottom-rung Impreza, so you’d almost immediately expect the Focus to be the runaway victor. Well, that depends on what you consider to be ‘performance’. It takes guts for Ford to have a turbo-diesel engine as its range-topping engine, but there’s some logic here: with 136 horsepower and 320 Nm of torque, it certainly isn’t a slouch. In almost any driving situation, the Focus does perform remarkably well. As expected, there’s some audible diesel clatter at idle, but it’s never obtrusive. On higher speeds, the engine smoothens out, but it will never generate a note that can be described as ‘sporty’. Thankfully, the tricky-to-master six-speed manual has been given the boot and has been replaced with a six-speed dual clutch sequential gearbox. Though the Focus’s gear selector looks like a conventional automatic, the system underneath actually incorporates what essentially is two gearboxes working in parallel. This should translate to quicker and smoother shifts, and most of the time it does. It’s simply addicting on open roads. However, the PowerShift transmission, as Ford calls the system, feels jerky during stop-and-go traffic. The transmission often gets confused, oftentimes selecting the wrong gear.
Though the Impreza is powered by the conventional choice of enthusiasts which is a gasoline engine, the design of the powerplant itself is by no means ordinary. Using a horizontally-opposed engine (a Subaru trademark), the Impreza feels creamy smooth at just about any speed. There’s absolutely no vibration and thanks to generous amounts of sound insulation, the cabin is serene. At higher revs, the engine also has a unique note. The 150-horsepower output is available at 6,400 rpm so the Impreza does need to spool up a bit to get some decent acceleration. This shouldn’t prove to be a problem unless you plan to do a lot of stoplight duels. The four-speed automatic that mates with the engine is geared more towards cruising rather than downright straight line speed so it doesn’t like to be rushed. However, if you need more power fast, the SportShift system does have two other shift modes: Sport and Manual. In Sport, the Impreza will allow the engine to keep more revs before shifting, while in Manual, you do all the shifting yourself via the +/- gate. The Manual mode is actually smart, indicating which gears are available through the use of arrows. And yes, the Impreza allows itself to be redlined in this mode.
At lower speeds, the Focus is more fun to drive because of its quicker steering and sharp reflexes. The unique Control Blade rear suspension actually enables this car to cut through a corner with confidence and ease. As the weather runs foul or as the speeds go up, the tides turn to the Impreza’s favor. Though sharp enough at slow speeds, the Subaru’s weighty steering feels as if it’s designed for high speed confidence where it’s less prone to twitching. The MacPherson Strut/Double Wishbone set-up creates an interesting quirk on the Impreza where it exhibits understeer going to a corner that turns into oversteer as you exit through it. The symmetrical all-wheel drive allows this car to have copious amounts of grip as well. Even when taking a tight corner at high speeds, the vehicle stability assist will still not light up. Though both cars have four-wheel disc brakes, the Impreza’s bite and pedal feel is much better than the Ford’s.
Even when being relegated to doing daily driver duties, the Impreza still gets the vote thanks to its surprisingly plush ride and impressive NVH insulation. The Subaru’s spring and shock settings are nicely tuned allowing it to soak up even the worst of surfaces without feeling too wobbly or floaty. In addition, generous amounts of sound deadening material (you can actually see the entire engine floor pan lined with the stuff) make it the quietest compact car you can buy. On the other hand, the Focus tends to jar through slightly uneven surfaces (such as car park bump strips) and its NVH insulation is lacking especially next to the Impreza. Though initial tests pointed to impressive mileage figures from the Focus’s TDCi engine, in an everyday setting, it returned a relatively ordinary 10.22 km/L. Meanwhile, the Impreza returns 7.75 km/L.
Performance and Fuel Economy Winner: TIE
Score: Ford Focus (2) / Subaru Impreza (5)
Value for Money
Priced just P 10,000 apart, you can quickly judge which car provides more ‘bang for the buck’. At P 1,140,000, the Subaru Impreza is the more affordable one and it already comes fully loaded with everything that you need and then some. Aside from the aforementioned sports body kit and 17-inch alloys, the Impreza is made even more of a looker thanks to standard HID headlamps with headlamp washers, both front and rear fog lamps, LED tail lamps and a rear spoiler. The Impreza also provides better foul weather safety not just because of its symmetrical all-wheel drive and vehicle stability control but because it has a heated windshield and power-folding heated side view mirrors. Inside, it has standard sport bucket seats, a full-featured 10-speaker audio system, a retractable rear cargo cover and cruise control.
After all that pampering, it comes as a major shock that the P 1,159,000 Ford Focus is dismally kitted. With the exception of leather seating and rear parking sensors, the Focus feels shortchanged next to the Impreza. The exterior does without any sort of body kit and the alloys are stuck to a less than extraordinary size of 16-inches. You won’t find HID headlamps or cruise control on the features list and neither will you get a cover for the luggage compartment. This makes the rear air conditioning vents as your only consolation. Ford will surely point out that features such as its turbo-diesel engine and the dual clutch sequential gearbox cost a bundle, but surely a little window dressing won’t help. After all, how much will 17-inch alloys and HID headlamps cost at bulk prices? Not much for sure.
Value for Money Winner: Subaru Impreza
Score: Ford Focus (2) / Subaru Impreza (6)
It still brings a smile to any enthusiast’s face to see the Ford Focus competing in local touring car and rally cross races in no less than its turbo-diesel guise. This makes for excellent marketing showing that the Focus doesn’t’ just talk the talk, but walks the sporty walk quite well. However, plowing through unpaved roads and race tracks is one thing, but tackling Ayala Avenue and EDSA is a different matter altogether. The introduction of the dual clutch gearbox should have finally lifted the only barrier people had with the previous turbo-diesel Focus and it has. That is until Ford made the pcie jump considerably without improving its features. If it were priced at just a sliver above a million pesos, the Focus TDCi could have been the compact car of choice.
However, at its current price, the Focus just pales in comparison next to the Subaru Impreza. The Impreza feels much more special and it talks a very concise and consistent message throughout and that’s being a driver-centric car. It certainly looks the part and the flawless execution cannot be matched by the Ford. It does lack the straight-line pace and fuel economy of the Focus TDCi, but the Impreza makes up for it with its buttery-smooth engine, impressive sound insulation and plush ride. And when the going gets tough, the Impreza has unmatched levels of grip provided by its all-wheel drive system. It may not have rear air conditioning vents, but the Impreza is more thoroughly thought of. The Subaru Impreza does everything you expect in a compact car in an exemplary manner and then some.
Winner: Subaru Impreza
By Ulysses Ang | Photos by Ulysses Ang