Ford keeps hot hatch crown with Focus RS
Outstanding chassis allows most to be made of twin-turbo 2.3-litre engine
Model: Focus RS
Date Reviewed: June 9, 2016
A few years ago the idea of spending €50,000 on a Ford would have caused your bank manager sleepless nights. These days, for this sort of cash, it is pitching up a car park of Mustangs, SUVs or dressed-up Mondeos, under the Vignale sub-brand.
I’m in the placebo group when it comes to Ford’s Vignale strategy: comfy leather seats and a fancy new grille doesn’t turn a mainstream Mondeo into a viable rival for either an Audi A4 or a BMW 3- Series. And the promise of better customer service for Vignale owners only serves up the bitter pill that regular Ford owners have been getting sub-par service to date.
As for the new Edge crossover/SUV, for all its admirable looks and ability, starting at €55,700 it’s in danger of pricing itself out of the market.
Where a €50,000 price tag on a Ford will probably work is with two relatively iconic models: the recently launched right-hand drive Mustang and the latest Focus RS.
Ford is now offering you a clear choice: iconic film star looks and Americana or rally car menace and a great drive. Without leaving a Ford forecourt you can summarise the difference between US and European tastes based on these models. One is all about image and looks, with a little muscle up front, the other is a piece of engineering excellence, a racing car cloaked in a road-car guise. Mustang does straight- line grunt. The RS does that as well, but is happiest flat out through a string of corners and bends.
We’ve had great fun in the Mustang, but now it’s time to snuggle up in the sports seats of the new RS.
Straight-line speed is as impressive as you might expect from the 340bhp 2.3-litre twin turbo, pushing you back into the seat, the deep-throated engine roar resonating across a 1km radius.
Four drive modes
There are four pre-set drive modes to choose from: normal, sport, track or drift. The suspension is very different depending on the setting you choose. In normal the ride is firm, but sophisticated enough to be able to cope with a daily commute. Sport really stiffens things up and you feel every bump; and track means you feel every stone chip on the road.
The 2.3-litre with six-speed manual transmission is a tour de force, but while it seems to steal all the initial limelight, after a few days with the RS you start to realise it is but a stellar supporting role. The Oscar truly belongs to the chassis.
Think of it this way: you can fit a rocket to a shopping trolley and it will outrun anything else on four wheels. Try and get the shopping trolley to go round a bend at speed and things get a lot trickier.
Ford may have a reputation as a blue-collar brand but it’s also a benchmark when it comes to creating cars with remarkable handling ability. For several generations its Focus models have coped with corners, bends and bumpy roads in ways others couldn’t manage.
That really came to the fore on the country roads, where RS variants of old were podium finishers on the rallying circuits for years.
The latest version features a form of Ford’s torque vectoring system, which is present in its regular family car range. Torque vectoring is a tongue twister but basically it is an advanced version of traction control that allows the car to maintain power through the bends, pushing more torque to the outer drive wheels in a bend to improve agility, stability and avoid understeer.
The RS also boasts launch control, which lifts the torque limit in first gear and hurls you at the horizon more efficiently than even your most fancy footwork could muster.
The RS also offers a little guidance to get the most out of its potential. A little flashing RS symbol on the dash indicated the optimal time to shift up a gear to get the greatest punch out of the revs.
Ultimately the RS sets a new benchmark in terms of driving dynamics. The more you drive it the more you sense how capable it is in delivering vast power smoothly and swiftly on to the tarmac while holding its line at incredible speeds through the bends.
There are a few additional costs we would have expected to be standard features in a €
50,000 car. For example, painted brake callipers for €150, heated folding mirrors for €100, never mind the full- leather shell seats for €2,000.
So time to play that favourite game of let’s pretend we had cash in the bank or there existed such a thing as a friendly bank manager.
The choice between RS and Mustang is straightforward and for the money I’d opt for RS. The choice between RS and Honda Civic Type R or VW Golf R is less clear cut.
First up, the Honda. Prices for the Civic Type R start at €48,750 and though it’s a full second slower to 100km/h and packs 40bhp less under the bonnet, behind the wheel it can feel a lot more lairy. With front-wheel drive it suffers from torque steer when pushed, particularly on badly surfaced back roads. For performance, refinement and overall engineering, our vote goes to the RS.
Next up, a serious rival to the RS, the Golf R. Volkswagen made its intentions clear in 2002 when it shoved a 3.2- litre V6 into the engine bay of the mark four Golf. For all its ability it managed a 100km/h time of only 6.4 seconds with the revolutionary dual-clutch auto transmission.
By the next generation it had watered the R version down to sit just above the GTi. The current iteration is an impressive mix of power with the Golf’s quasi-premium fit and finish. You could argue its real rivals are among the ranks of Audi, BMW or Mercedes. It’s four- wheel-drive and while still officially a little slower than the RS you’d need to be quick with the stopwatch to capture the difference.
However, for all-out seat-of- the-pants fun the 300bhp Golf simply doesn’t match the RS. It’s significantly less expensive, starting at €43,285, and arguably will hold its value better, but it’s simply less fun to drive.
So it’s the RS for me, though not in “nitrous blue”. There’s a shadow black and a stealth grey that fits the bill, however. Perhaps this is the Ford worthy to wear a €50,000 price tag.
The lowdown: Ford Focus RS
Engine: 2.3-litre 350bhp and 440Nm or torque with all- wheel drive and torque vectoring; six-speed manual transmission with four pre-set drive modes: normal, sport, track or drift
Fuel consumption in L/100km (combined) = 7.7
Max. speed: 266 km/h
0-100 km/h: 4.7 secs
Emissions (motor tax): 175g/km (€750)
Price: starts at €52,600 (€56,890 as tested)