Is there anything less appealing to the general motoring public, right now at least, than the compact estate car? While always afflicted by a slightly fuddy-duddy image, the traditional family wagon seems at an especially low ebb of desirability. And we all know why that is - the rise of the SUV. Why inflict a boxy, dowdy old load-lugger on your active lifestyle when there's a tough 'n' trendy alternative? The demand for crossovers, Sports Activity Coupes, Super Sports Utility Vehicles, the whole genre in fact, is insatiable.
We're 20 years into the phenomenon now, with the ML55 AMG claiming the dubious accolade of being the very first, and the genre now extends to all shapes, sizes and budgets. The new VW T-Roc R is toward one end; cars like the Lamborghini Urus are at the other.
At this point we know the R is good. We've driven it twice already, and it will almost certainly prove popular - no matter what is said or written about it. But does it have the talent to see off a proper family-sized C segment wagon, one based on a group test-winning hot hatch? The Focus ST is right out of the practical fast Ford playbook - a playbook which stretches back decades to when Shed was a boy. It is also cheaper, lighter and larger. And that's just for starters.
Of course we all know that car buying-decisions are not based on such trivialities. Or not the interesting ones at any rate. The T-Roc does a fine job of convincing you that its premium billing is well deserved. It looks very well proportioned and appropriately aggressive from the outside, and stylish yet intuitive on the inside. The Volkswagen honey trap, in other words. Middle class fly paper.
Of course it slogs unfussily down the M4; anything else would be a betrayal of the brand. But it is the B roads where the R works its magic. We've come to expect the effortless speed and drama-free ability that speaks to Volkwagen's chassis tuning, not to mention the go-faster efficiency of its 2.0-litre turbocharged four-pot and 4Motion all-wheel-drive system. The surprise is that there's additional strata of likability beneath its ground covering capabilities.
It helps that the T-Roc is compact and squat and therefore entirely right-sized for a British B-road. Moreover, those dimensions exert an influence on the handling - at 4,234mm it's shorter than a Golf - making for a wieldy, confidence-inspiring drive. Never less than chunky, sure, but in a way that suggests it's at ease with its kerbweight. It steers cleanly and consistently, handles the road's imperfections adroitly and shows a fair resistance to understeer - as well as a willingness to adjust cornering line if it does happen. It's hard to find genuine fault with.
There is so much polish to the T-Roc's way of doing things that the Ford wagon comes as a shock. Obviously there is a manual 'box to contend with and an innate front-drive disadvantage in traction terms - but there is also a boisterous, take-no-prisoners edge to the ST which stands it apart from the genteel Volkswagen.
The ST's nose darts at steering input thanks to that exaggerated, feel-the-difference rate of response that Ford favours. Sport and Track drive modes only exacerbate this, toppping it off with a hair-trigger throttle. The chassis feels more aggressive in every regard, despite being a considerably larger car. It rides with more edge, too, and gets especially pointy if you start experimenting with brake and throttle in a corner.
The long and short of it is that the Focus driver is going to have to put a lot more effort into going slower. The T-Roc may suffer from a weight disadvantage, but its seven dual-clutch ratios make it more accelerative than Ford's DIY six, and obviously it has that extra traction to lean on. It also requires less thought about inputs and outcomes, being more forgiving by nature.
The flip side, of course, is that the Focus is a proper giggle once you are accustomed to its quirks. It may only have a front axle to drive through, but it does an excellent job of putting its 280hp on the road. Ford's admirable commitment to direct and engaging handling is as clear to see here as it is in the Fiesta. Attune yourself to the flighty steering and you realise it is well matched to the chassis, which is also adaptively damped - and best left in its default setting. Elsewhere the manual is welcome in an auto-dominated world; there's ample torque to leave it in one ratio, or sufficient reward from changing gear to flick between them on a good road.
Learning a chassis is always more fun than having one dictated to you, but that hardly relegates the T-Roc to immediate second place. Because when it comes to trudging back along the M4, the VW is where you want to be. The infotainment doesn't induce even one bit of rage - unlike the Ford's - it's a tad quieter at a cruise and the seats are just as comfy, despite looking less inviting. If your lifestyle involves frequent trips to Bike Park Wales, then the T-Roc R is probably the one to take there.
That is, assuming there isn't much to transport. Without wishing to sound too practical on PH, there's no escaping the fact that this Volkswagen requires some considerable sacrifices for the sake of being trendy. It's just not that big. While it's easy to picture bikes Seasuckered to the roof and adult occupants crammed inside - because people will compromise for cool - the T Roc is a difficult car to make an objective case for if you're transporting an actual family: 1,237 litres of boot space with the seats down is only four more than you get from a Golf hatch.
The Focus, on the other hand, is vast. While being more than a foot longer can make it feel ponderous at slower speeds, it pays substantial dividends when it comes to actually lugging stuff around. Adults can sit behind adults, for one thing. Drop those seats and it becomes cavernous: 1,576 litres is a huge amount more space. Hatchback-based estates mnever will be - but there's little arguing with the benefits.
For those who require something ostensibly practical to actually be usable, then, the Focus ST is a mightily attractive package. It won't win any beauty pageants, but the downright good sense of outfitting a sorted hot hatch with an enormous boot is rock solid. There's so little trade-off that the wagon might be the pick of the range. In comparison, the T-Roc seems heavily compromised - and expensive.
Still, trends never did care much for the stale realities of everyday viability; the T-Roc R is exactly the kind of performance car the buying public wants right now, and expect it to be greedily lapped up. The Focus is our winner here - and if that feels like a vote for yourdad's trainers, then so be it. In an ideal world, you'd want the Focus's usability and fun factor merged with the T-Roc's feel-good charm. That would be the best compromise - something fanciful like a Golf R estate. But that would never catch on, right?
SPECIFICATION - VOLKSWAGEN T-ROC R
Engine: 1,984cc, four-cyl turbo
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@5,300rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,000-5,200rpm
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,575kg (DIN)
Price: £38,450 (as standard; price as tested £41,699.19, comprised of Flash Red paint for £360), rear view camera for £185, Dynamic Chassis Control for £695, Driver's Assistance Pack Plus (Emergency Assist, High Beam Assist, Side Scan, Trsoundpack (eight channel digital amp, subwoofer, 400w output and six speakers) for £425, pre-crash preventative occupant protection for £150, winter pack (heated front seats and heated washer jets) for £300 and Vodaphone S5-VTS tracker with one year subscription for £534.19 including fitting.)
SPECIFICATION - FORD FOCUS ST
Engine: 2,261cc, four-cyl turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 280@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 310@3,000-4,000rpm
0-62mph: 5.8 secs
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,543kg (lightest kerbweight with 75kg driver, full fluids and 90 per cent fuel)
Price: £33,695 (as standard; price as tested £37,090, comprised of Performance Blue paint for £800, Panoramic roof for £995, Blind Spot Information System for £400, Ford Performance Pack (Track drive mode, shift light, launch control, rev matching, multi colour ambient light) for £250, Head-up display for £400, Wireless charging pad for £100 and Hands-free tailgate for £450.)
Photos | Dafydd Wood