Car reviews - Ford - Focus - RS
Unmatched bang for buck value, exceptional chassis, impressive grunt, no frills
Room for improvement
Pogo stick ride, limited seat adjustment
14 Jul 2016
THE last time Ford combined the coveted RS badge with the relatively humble Focus platform it caused quite a stir. With 2.5 litres of turbo five-cylinder power driving the front wheels through a clever differential, the Blue Oval had created a savage rally car for the road with the looks and soundtrack to match.
But the fizzy Focus RS is back in its third generation and it has brought some significant changes to virtually all areas of design.
Instead of five cylinders, the new version has dropped one pot and downsized capacity to 2.3 litres, but – despite the smaller displacement – manages to better the previous power figure with a fizzy 257kW and torque that can overboost from 440Nm to 470Nm for 15 seconds.
Engineers initially considered sticking with front drive for the new version but the bigger dollop of power proved too much for just two wheels, and the rear pair have been recruited with a variable four-wheel-drive system.
What is the result? Quite possibly the fastest way to cover ground for $50,990 before on-road costs.
Before you even get to twisty bits, the Focus is fast off the mark thanks to launch a control function which, unlike some manufacturers who would rather steer clear of the massive stress launching puts on the drivetrain, Ford was happy for us to repeatedly test its function.
With the function switched on and first gear selected, it is a simple process of pressing the throttle into the carpet and side-stepping the clutch. The engine management holds the revs at peak torque, while the tiny people in the transmission manage traction for maximum acceleration.
The Focus burst from the starting blocks so eagerly that we had snatched third gear before we really understood what was going on. With each nudge of the limiter and upshift, the RS produces delightful exhaust pops to accompany the authentic rally soundtrack.
Listening to the Focus echo through forest sections of the Mt Cotton Training Centre was glorious and deeply reminiscent of a staged rally event.
Out on the road we had chance to experience what owning an RS day-to-day would be like.
From a practicality perspective, nothing has changed over the RS’ sub-sonic siblings, with five doors and a decent boot to perform more orthodox daily duties.
Nestling in the deeply bucketed and firm Recaro seats reminded us of all the great hot hatches of the 1980s and 1990s, with a heavy spiritual connection to the legendary Escort Cosworth, while the three boost, oil temp and pressure gauges a constant reminder that you are in something special.
Unfortunately, the excellent seats do not adjust for either height or tilt, which left us feeling positioned a little high in the cabin, but general support and comfort was good.
For pottering about town the feisty RS is surprisingly competent with the clutch bite of a white pointer but progressive pedal feel that is delightfully devoid of anti-stall sponginess. If you do get it wrong though, the RS has a restart function to limit your embarrassment at the lights.
Want an auto? Read another review. The RS is not for lazy left-footers and all about getting involved.
On Queensland’s frequently concreted roads, the Focus had a tendency to bounce along on its very stiffly-sprung suspension even when in the softest setting.
Ford says the firmer mode is strictly for perfect track surfaces, but the standard setting would probably suit a majority of circuits.
But leaving the bustling metropolis behind and finding the RS’ natural habitat made us quickly forget the fussy ride when cruising.
From the first corner it is clear that Ford’s engineers went a different path with the development of the RS’ transmission and the bountiful traction and confidence inspiring grip is only the start of fun behind the wheel.
Unlike Haldex-based four-wheel drive systems that can air on the side of understeer, the Focus has a notable feel of rear-drive to its character. Chuck the hatch into a corner with a heavy hand and foot and the weight transfer is predictable and huge fun.
The beautifully weighted steering and communicative chassis sends messages from the tail as it gets light, but a long way before it threatens to break loose.
On the contrary, pushing harder forces the front end to turn in harder and make use of the bias of power to the back axle.
Even when slogging on through tight bends, we only managed to force the electronic stability to intervene once, such is the grip and poise of the chassis.
More lovely rifle-cracks were produced from the exhaust when in the Sport setting, but not as most manufacturers choose on overrun, but on upshifts – another distinctly rally trait.
Much has been said about the RS’ Drift mode which is intended for track driving only and sends a majority of torque to the rear wheels for some frivolous sideways action, but while the feature has been described by some as allowing anyone to perform a flawless powerslide, we found that wasn’t quite the case.
At the risk of emasculating ourselves and saying we didn’t spend all day locked over into a balletic display of perpetual automotive equilibrium, it is quite possible to hold a decent slide on a wet skid pan, but there are other vehicles out there that lend themselves better to oversteer fun.
That said, we are very pleased Ford included the function and named it something as potentially controversial as Drift, in an age where everything automotive seems to be governed by one man who spends his whole day watching car advertising and complaining about it.
Like the Mustang, which is also a bit of a bargain, the Focus RS is an excellent exercise in everything you need and nothing you don’t. There is no lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, electric seats, sun roof or Danish stereo system. The Ford is completely bent on going fast for a bargain.
If you want some of the features listed above then don’t expect to pay 50 grand for a car with that equipment and the pace to match the RS.
In fact, the only thing we can compare the RS to in price and performance is the excellent Subaru WRX STI, which also has a utilitarian approach to performance with a forced-fed four-cylinder and four-wheel drive, but the Rex is a sedan and can’t match the power of the Ford.
So that leaves us in the realm of the Audi RS3 and Mercedes-AMG A45. Both have a little more power than the Ford, more luxurious cabins and the Merc is the most vicious around a circuit, but Ford’s remarkable all-paw engineering gives both a run for their money.
But the key factor here is not whether the Focus RS does something better or worse than the Audi or Mercedes, it’s the fact that a $51,000 Ford is even mentioned with reference to a near $100,000 German luxury hyper hatchback.
All three have both party pieces and shortcomings, but being able to compare the Euro fighters to a Focus is a testament to just how much above its weight the new RS is punching.
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