Road Test: Ford Focus RS – a hot and peerless hatchback

On road or race track, this new RS has performance and handling to beat the best

Neil Briscoe channels his inner Top Gear presenter and takes the new Ford Focus RS around the Circuit de Valencia. Video: Neil Briscoe

Make: Ford

Model: Focus RS

Year: 2016

Fuel: Petrol

Date Reviewed: January 19, 2016

Wed, Jan 20, 2016, 11:35

   

At first, it lulls you into a false sense of security. Maybe it’s the bright blue (powder blue, really) paint job or the fact that the wheel arches don’t look half distended enough for a car of truly bonkers power and performance. Do not be deceived though. This may look like a relatively normal Ford Focus with a distinctive colour and a suspicious spoiler, but this truly is something else.

The problem is one of context really. You see, we’ve recently driven the Honda Civic Type-R, which looks every bit as insane as it is. We’ve also recently driven the updated Focus ST, which shares, obviously, much DNA with this new RS model and which is, frankly, a bit underwhelming. How Ford expects anyone to pay more for an ST (with its disappointing interior, in terms of both space and quality) when they could have a Golf GTI for the same money or a Skoda Octavia RS for less is beyond my ken.

The Focus RS is just a little bit different though.

It doesn’t look all that different, I’ll give you that. There are more muscular aerodynamic appendages fore and aft, but it’s basically the same width as the standard Focus (unlike its 2003 and 2009 predecessors) because it has to fit down the same production line in Saarlouis, Germany, as does a boggo 1.5 diesel Focus. Why? So that Ford can make money on it, that’s why – thanks to avoiding the expensive hand-building and off-site production of the previous two versions of the Focus RS. If the first generation (2003) was something of a 100th birthday present to itself for Ford, and the second proved that a family hatchback could outdrive a Porsche 911 on the right road, then this one has to be a profit centre, just as with any other Ford product.

Global

It’s a global car, and will be sold in every major market in which Ford competes, from Bangor, Co Down, to Bangor, Maine, from Harristown to Honolulu.

And it could have been so disappointing. After all, the ST, on whose bones the RS is built, is really quite a disappointing car, and it would have been so easy for this RS to be an ST Plus and nothing more.

It isn’t.

First off, it’s actually very different. We’ll gloss over the identical interior for the moment (functional but honestly nothing more, and a major letdown in a car costing this much) and instead concentrate on the mechanical package. The RS doesn’t use the 2.0-litre engine from the ST, but instead the 2.3-litre EcoBoost turbo shared with the Mustang coupé. The Mustang gets 313hp, but the Focus RS gets a whopping 350hp. That’s a figure which caused some consternation at Ford. It’s more than the benchmark Golf R (300hp) but less than Ford initially wanted, until a series of prototype engine failures forced it back to the drawing board. Still, it was enough to mean that the RS would need four-wheel drive for the first time since the demise in the mid-1990s of the wonderful old Escort RS Cosworth.

It is that four-wheel drive that defines the Focus RS really, and lifts it way above the level of the ST and, indeed, of most other hot hatches. On a technical level, it can divert up to 70 per cent of the engine’s torque (440Nm peak, with 470Nm available for short bursts) to the rear wheels, and 100 per cent of that parcel can be shunted, through active torque vectoring, not simply to whichever wheel can best cope with it, but to whichever wheel will actively use that grunt to balance the car in a corner.

Tight corner

So, pile into a tight corner and you expect understeer. It’s a predictable effect; a relatively tall, family-based car with front engine and four-wheel drive equals ploughing on in a corner. Not here. The Focus RS feels much more like a rear-wheel-drive car, albeit one with high limits of grip and traction. Any corner, at almost any speed you care to take it, is dealt with in the same way: the front end bites hard into the apex (its course guided by impressive steering, which is full of feel and feedback) before the power is fed rearwards, balancing the car and giving it an incredibly neutral steer, leaning towards very faint oversteer, as it exits.

On a dry road, you’ll struggle to make even this engine’s prodigious power overcome the traction of the four driven wheels. In the wet, I suspect it would be even more spectacular, and would give no quarter to many a much more expensive so-called supercar. It even rides with tolerable comfort, true in Sport mode as it is in Normal.

And then you get it to a track. Whereas on the road, the RS feels biddable, controllable and entirely supportive of all your inputs and decisions, on the track it is a very different beast, and one whose true charm is only a button-press away. This summons up not just Track mode (stiff everything, maximum attack on the throttle response and steering weights) but Drift mode, which is where the electronic Ken Block (aided and abetted by testing carried out by the real, corporeal Ken Block) steps in.

Race tracks can make fools of even the best-performance cars, their space and width making everything seem slower and tamer. Not so with the RS – it just becomes more fun at higher speeds, and when you activate Drift mode it becomes so easy and natural to slide that you wonder why we don’t just drive like this all the time, everywhere (for obvious reasons, clearly . . .).

For a car with such fearsome performance and technology, it’s still just a big, playful pussycat, even driven in maximum attack mode.

Impressive

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Focus RS is that it effectively sidesteps the criticisms aimed at the lesser ST. Yes, the cabin is a letdown, especially at this price level, but that honestly is the only brickbat which may be flung at the RS.

In every other respect, it is the apogee of the fast Ford lineage: practical and usable day to day (without excessive rattling of fillings or shaking of the spine), yet as fast as you could possibly or legally want across country. Its depth and breadth of abilities on a fast, twisting road are truly something to behold, even in an era when power is cheap and performance is accessible.

It may lack the lairy looks of its predecessors, but technically, dynamically and emotionally, it outpoints them, and most of the opposition, at every turn. The lowdown: Ford Focus RS Price: about €50,000- €55,000 as tested Power: 350hp

Torque: 440Nm (470Nm on overboost)

0-100kmh: 4.7seconds

Top speed: 266km/h

Claimed economy: 7.7l/100km (36.7mpg)

CO2 emissions: 175g/km

Motor tax: €750