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Car reviews - Ford - Focus - RS

Launch Story

Ford logo24 Sep 2010

By RON HAMMERTON

FORD’S new Focus RS flagship is one of those ‘light the blue touch-paper and stand back’ sort of cars.

Instead of keyless entry, it should have a pin, like a hand grenade.

Don’t be fooled by the boy-racer look – this is a serious performance car and deserves to be treated as such.

And while you are at it, forget all your prejudices against high-performance front-drive cars. Old torque-steering pigs such as Saab’s Viggen and Mazda’s ill-considered 323 and 626 turbo front drivers can be consigned to the trash can of history.

At least on dry bitumen roads, which is where we sampled the Focus RS through the hills north of Melbourne ahead of the Johnny-come-lately German-built model’s local customer delivery in late September.

Most car-makers considering a small car with anywhere near 224kW of power and 440Nm of torque – which is the performance roll call of this version of the Volvo-developed 2.5-litre five-cylinder gem of an engine – immediately dig deep into their all-wheel drive expertise. Just ask Subaru and Mitsubishi.

But Ford swallowed hard and went with front-wheel drive in the interests of weight conservation and attendant benefits such as reduced inertia and improved fuel economy. And it is cheaper, too.

Without a doubt, it was a risk, but, as some sweaty dude once said, no pain no gain, and Ford’s engineers set about the task to address this torque-steer issue once and for all.

For the uninitiated, torque steer happens when the front driving wheels scrabble to get their energy to the road, twisting the suspension and pulling the car off the driving line.

This problem was partly addressed by the advent of equal-length drive shafts, but even those systems are overwhelmed by serious engine torque, to the extent that common wisdom says all real performance cars should be either rear- or all-wheel drive. And they have been, until now.

Ford engineers, in league with their colleagues at the Blue Oval’s World Rally Championship team, spent several years working on this problem, coming up with a new two-piece front suspension knuckle – dubbed RevoKnuckle – that helps to tame the beast by altering the king-pin angle and other geometry of the front end while generally bracing the lot.

Once developed, they slapped a patent on it and then slapped it on the Focus RS, which was launched in Europe 18 months ago.

And, working in partnership with an automatic torque-splitting differential, it all works to a commendable extent.

On just a couple of occasions, we could feel the breath of the dragon as it tried to revert to bad habits, but in the main, this front driver remains remarkably neutral, allowing the driver to enjoy another motoring paradigm – one that would require Albert Einstein to fully explain, but we will give it a try.

Under just mere rocket-like acceleration of half throttle, the Focus RS zooms forward like a great hot hatch.

Thump the accelerator all the way to the floor, and the supercar beneath awakens, instantly exploding forward while sandwiching the driver between the rich roar of induction noise and chattering pop-off valve from the front and mad guttural exhaust note from the big-bore twin exhausts sticking out either side of the rear diffuser.

We could almost imagine the trees at the side of the road bowing inwards as the monster turbo sucked in air to ram it down the gullet of this delicious donk until it damn well choked on the rev limiter at the something north of 7000rpm (we were too busy trying to focus on the road to check the actual revs on the tacho).

Turbo lag? This car hasn’t got time for turbo lag.

Aside from the fact that the RS has torque steer all but licked – although we reserve judgement until we can sample it on less ideal road surfaces, like wet roads or dirt – the RS manages to also get off the mark with minimum fuss.

To assume that the Focus RS is all about power is to undersell this remarkable little three-door wild child. Even on bouncy bitumen, racked with bumps and pot holes, this European go-kart maintains poise and even comfort – something that many cars of this ilk cannot boast.

Grip levels are up there with the best, with the RS sitting wide and low on its extended track and fat rubber, pared lean and light by the absence of a heavy all-wheel-drive system.

The sight-warping G-forces achievable by this car in the bends make the driver grateful for the helpful assistance of the deep, high-sided Recaro race-style seats – the type that raise a sneer in a motoring cynic in anything less than a Porsche GT2.

The icing on the cake is that the Ford engineers who wore out several prototypes at the famous Nurburgring have tuned all the nanny electronic safety systems such as ESC and traction control to hold themselves in check unless really needed, naking the RS feel like a real, snarling, on-the-edge performance car. Bravo.

The six-speed manual gearbox – sorry, no auto – has been boosted to cope with all this mayhem, and we could feel it. The weighty gearshift is, however, expected, and we would have been worried about durability without it.

The heavy-duty clutch, however, is light and easy to use, while the suitably meaty brakes never say die.

Inside, everything is suitably dark and evil, with a bad-boy black headlining in place of the limp-wristed beige of other Focuses (Foci?), as well as the ubiquitous faux carbon-fibre found in any car with high-performance pretensions, and two-tone charcoal-grey plastic surfaces.

It is all mostly neat and chic in the European style, although the harder lower plastic surfaces betray the car’s prosaic origins.

The three gauges sitting in a dash-top binnacle – hello HSV – must have protruded a little too much for someone’s liking in the design phase, as they have ended up being been half-buried in a recess.

Those Recaro seats are faced with leather, as is the chunky three-spoke steering wheel, all of which are stitched with an appropriate blue thread for a bit of light relief.

The driver ergonomics are fundamentally faultless, although the high-side seat bolsters test your agility when entering the vehicle.

The rear seats – just two because of their deep sporty design – require even more agility to access, in this three-door car. Those passengers sufficiently brave to sit in this claustrophobic space while entrusting the controls of this 224kW weapon to someone else (rally navigators?) will find accommodation tight, even inadequate in the 2+2 tradition.

While the Focus RS is loaded with most modern creature comforts, including all the essential ways to connect your electronic gizmos, you better organise sat-nav on your iPhone, as this car does not have a modern-day LCD screen.

Anyway, the destination is not important in a car like this. Get in, shut up and feel the urge of a real-world, $59,990 supercar – if you are lucky enough to have already slammed down your deposit for the mere 311 that will end up in customer hands.

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