SOMETIMES A CAR COMPANY JUST GETS IT RIGHT. LIKE FORD'S NEW FOCUS RS.
If you’re looking for a parallel to this car, think of the first world-beating WRX or the ferocious Tommi Makinen EVO VI. That’s the kind of leap you’re looking at with the car in these pictures.
Ford has gotten so many things right with this rocket – its monster power, the tail-out rear-biased AWD grip and nailed-down front end, its launch control and four-mode ‘fun switches’ (it’s got a Drift mode for Pete’s sake – like full-on, power-on, sideways oversteer).
And, at $50,990, it is priced in that perfect spot where the two most important lines in any car purchase intersect, where an ascending line of ‘capability’ meets a descending line of ‘price’.
That bag-full of fireworks, AMG’s A45, has suddenly got an on-track competitor, but it’s little more than half the AMG’s price.
For keen drivers, this is the truly great car Ford needed in this country, at this time. It is such a beast, and it’s destined for cult status.
Vehicle style: Small Hot-Hatch
Price: $50,990 (plus on-road costs)
Engine/transmission: 257kW/440Nm (470Nm overbost) 2.3 4cyl | 6sp manual
Fuel Consumption Claimed: 7.7 l/100km | Tested: 11.8 l/100km
The new Ford Focus RS runs down the same production line as the ‘regular’ Focus, coming from Ford’s Saarlouis facility in Germany. But, a product of Ford Performance under engineering manager, Tyrone Johnson, the AWD RS is a vastly different animal.
It gets a whole lot of additional chassis bracing and a unique rear subframe including an additional crossmember (a lion’s foot brace) welded to the body floor.
Torsional stiffness is increased by 23 percent versus a standard Focus, springs are 33 percent firmer at the front, 38 percent firmer at the rear, and there are front and rear stabiliser bars as well as selectable damper settings, which can be changed independently of the drive mode selected.
The 2.3 litre EcoBoost twin-scroll turbo engine sitting under the bonnet comes from the Mustang, but is modified to suit and comes with a significant performance boost.
Like 257kW at 6000rpm, 440Nm (and up to 470Nm on transient overboost), producing a 4.7-second bolt to 100km/h and a top speed of 266km/h (as compared to the Mustang’s 233kW at 5700rpm and 432Nm). In the smaller, lighter Focus, it hammers those numbers to the tarmac.
And it offers, for the first time, four selectable drive modes, Normal (which is calibrated to be similar in feel to a Focus ST), Sport, Track and Drift modes. But for the first three modes, it also allows mix-‘n-match combinations, like suspension set to Track, steering Normal.
The only transmission on offer is a six-speed manual, a tight ‘gate’ and a clutch with an uncompromising heavy-duty feel.
But what really puts the Focus RS in a class of its own at the $50,990 asking, is the brilliant ‘Twinster AWD system’ with dynamic torque vectoring and rear-biased AWD traction. It allows the Focus RS to not only split its torque front-to-rear, but also side-to-side.
It is born of a redesigned Evoque system that transfers power to the rear (up to 70 percent of torque) and can shift up to 90 percent of that torque to the outer rear wheel.
At its simplest, it has the rear wheels spinning two percent faster than the front wheels (in other words, trying to overtake them). This is what gives it such an engrossing rear-drive feel, allows the tail to ‘hang out’ (in Sport and Track modes) like any rear driver and, in Drift mode, with full power-on oversteer.
And it eliminates – truly – the bane of AWD performance cars, that dreaded understeer. There is not a trace of it in the Focus RS, this thing tucks into a turn instantly, sits as flat as a pancake and points like an arrow out of it.
So, that’s what it is. What, then, is it like to live with?
- Standard features: Recaro sports buckets, partial leather with micro-fibre fabric panels, rearview camera, dual-zone climate control, push button start, cruise control with speed limiter, Thatcham alarm
- Infotainment: SYNC2 with emergency assistance, 8.0-inch high resolution colour touch screen, satellite navigation with ‘one shot’ destination entry via voice control, Bluetooth with audio streaming, voice control for phone, music, climate and navigation controls, 9-speaker audio, USB and RCA inputs
- Cargo capacity: 316 litres, expandable with split-fold rear seats
If you’ve been in the Focus ST, you’ve been in the Focus RS. The differences are so minor as to be indistinguishable.
The Recaro leather seats, monogrammed and with contrasting stitching, grip like a catcher’s mitt, and the sports wheel is (natch) reach and rake adjustable. My colleague in crime, being reasonably tall, complained of the seats being “typical Ford, too damned high”.
Me, jockey-sized, no problem; they are tremendously comfortable, bolstered just right for serious press-on driving, and no problems setting the wheel nice and low where I like it.
But, it has to be said, this is not the best interior in this class. There is something about the Focus interior styling that just doesn’t gel. Maybe it’s because the centre-stack dominates things and is overly-busy and oddly shaped.
It is also as black as a mortician’s eyebrow in here, too many joins, and a few too many dull surfaces.
But the touchscreen is big and clear, functions are easily negotiated, the sat-nav works a treat (you can ‘talk’ to it through the SYNC2, as you can for audio and phone functions) and the rear-view camera is a welcome feature.
There is a small digital display between the large, clear round gauges, that provides trip information and vehicle mode settings, as well as visual turn instructions from the sat nav.
The turbo boost, oil pressure and oil temperature gauges at the top of the dash have a bit of entertainment value, and are likely useful on the track, but become a bit invisible in everyday use.
There is an overwhelming and very appealing sense of ‘hewn from stone’ solidity at the wheel of the Focus RS, perhaps because the chassis is rigid and absolutely free of flex. And refinement is good, despite the big rubber hitting the road; only on very coarse bitumen did we notice the intrusion of the tyres.
Typical Focus, room in the rear is pretty good, although the larger Recaro seats impinge a little on kneeroom. Two adults, provided they’re not too long in the leg, will fit ok, and get a nicely sculptured seat base and back, but forget about a third passenger there.
The boot is a useful size at 316 litres, certainly ok for use as an everyday car or for a driving holiday, and the rear seats split-fold for additional cargo space.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 257kW/440NM (with 470Nm overboost) 2.3 litre Ecoboost four-cylinder with twin-scroll turbo
- Transmission: Six-speed manual, torque-vectoring all wheel drive
- Suspension: MacPherson-strut, semi-isolated subframe front, independent control blade rear
- Brakes: 350mm ventilated front discs with 4-piston Brembo calipers, 302mm solid rear discs
- Steering: Electrically assisted power steering
- Wheels/tyres: 8"x19" cast-alloy/Michelin Pilot Super Sport 235/35 R19 (upgradeable)
We were waiting at the lookout at the top of Mt Glorious, myself and co-driver. There was the barest whiff of brakes in the air – these are designed to withstand 13 consecutive hard stops from 214km/h without fading – and just the sounds of the bush and the ticking from a cooling component under the blue Ford rocket’s bonnet.
The run up had been all about finding the edge of the envelope, hard braking into tight turns, then sling-shotting from one short straight to the next (and with occasional full-on tail-out oversteer when ‘getting into it’ too hard, too quickly).
What a brilliant drive this car is; this great ability to slam those 257kW to the tarmac, and an even greater ability to tuck that gaping maw – flat, a jet-fighter aperture, “as large as we could make it”, according to Tyrone Johnson – tight into every apex.
Few cars turn-in with such authority and such needle precision.
Then, in the distance, coming and going as it echoed up the valleys, we could hear it. A chasing pack of two, another ‘Nitrous’ blue RS, and a dark grey ‘Magnetic’ with the Cup tyres and $2500 black wheels. They’d earlier missed the turn, we saw them (hapless fools), but each had a keen steerer at the wheel (and weren’t going to be behind for long).
And the sound, coming closer, an urgent distant bark followed by a rifled crackle, then another growling bark. Rising and falling, we could plot those two cars on every turn and every straight in that rush from the deep valley below.
The RS doesn’t have the Gattling-gun volley of the AMG A45, it’s a little more neighbour-friendly, but the sound from its big-bore twin exhaust is delicious nonetheless.
And, on any road, despite giving away 20 or more kilowatts, you’ll be crawling all over the back of the mad-ant 280kW AMG (and close enough to read the small print in its nearly $90k price tag).
The Focus RS's secret, beside the fee-spinning EcoBoost twin-scroll high-output turbo under the bonnet and the rapid-fire, short-throw six-speed manual, is that brilliant ‘Twinster’ AWD system.
It feels, and acts, like a RWD chassis but with nailed-down front-end grip. With torque vectoring front to rear, and side-to-side, it operates differently to the more commonly-found Haldex systems.
While drive is biased to the rear, and biased then to the outer rear wheel, the rear drive can transfer from side-to-side, depending upon what’s happening at the wheels, in 0.06 seconds.
The intent, according to Ford Performance chief engineer Tyrone Johnson, is to enable the RS to carry more speed into a corner, free of understeer, so that you can carry more speed on exit.
And if you want to hang the tail out, it will happily oblige in Sport, and even more happily oblige in Track.
Unlike some systems, there is no question of “not being able to feel” the changes happening below and at the wheel in the different modes. In ‘Track’, the dampers are 40 percent firmer, and on rippled on-road tarmac (rather than a table-top smooth racetrack), it can have your teeth rattling around in your skull.
But, really, in whichever mode you choose, the Focus RS is an electrifying drive.
Normal is fast and flat, Sport is faster, tighter and flatter, Track is very fast and very tight, and, as for Drift, all we can say is “good on you Ford”.
Then there’s the launch control, selectable in any mode (except Drift, natch). Scroll through the settings, ‘LC’ lights on the dash, clutch in, foot flat to the floor, drop the clutch and ‘you’re outa there’. (Your teeth arrive first… face catches up a moment later.)
If you make a dick of yourself – doing anything – and happen to stall it, get the clutch in within two seconds, and it will automatically restart… and you can pretend it was all part of the show.
The brakes, 350mm front ventilated discs with monoblock 4-piston Brembo calipers, and rear, 302mm solid discs with single-piston floating caliper, are up to any task. With brake-cooling ducts set each side of the gaping nose, and tunnelled with a venturi effect to speed up air passing through the disc and caliper, they’re designed to withstand 30 minutes on any track with zero degradation.
And the pedal feel is just right for press-on driving.
So too is the steering feel. Linear, with just two turns lock-to-lock, and with selectable ‘weighting’ via the various mode settings, it completes the package of this hottest of Ford hatches. But the inconvenient 11.8 metre turning circle, compromised by the RS’s big wheels and more than a Commodore needs, is simply too big.
Turning circle aside, driver’s cars, at this price, just don’t come better.
ANCAP Rating: 5-Stars - the Ford Focus scored 34.17 out of 37 possible points.
Safety features: Six airbags: front, front side and full-length curtain; stability control (switchable), traction control (switchable), ABS, EBD, brake assist, hill start assist and a reversing camera are standard on the Focus ST.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
There are really only three AWD hot-hatch rivals with this kind of performance, and each is quite a bit more expensive, and only two nudge its capability. The AMG A45 is closest for outright performance, and is, and feels, even faster – 4.2 seconds to 100km/h. But its near $90k list price puts it out of this equation.
The Audi RS3 Sportback quattro is close to the AMG in performance, speed and capability, and also slightly quicker than the RS – claiming 4.3 seconds to 100km/h. But it too retails for nearly $90k, and is thus barely a rival.
The true rival is the Volkswagen Golf R. With AWD grip, a really smart interior, and a similar blistering turn of speed, it gives the RS a run for its money. Except it’s dearer (at $52,740 plus on-roads), a little slower and quite a bit less powerful (with 206kW and 380Nm).
VERDICT | OVERALL
So that’s the Focus RS. It is all we thought it might be, and more - that price is a real surprise. As a hot, hot hatch, it’s brilliant in every way that matters. Ditto as a performance ride.
This is the car of the moment for Ford Australia, and the car it needs to stir an underperforming Focus range into life.
But could you live with it? Is it too much the track weapon, too hard, too uncompromising?
No, in Normal mode it’s as comfortable and docile as you need it to be. One of the mantras Ford Performance built it to was “everyday useability, exceptional value”. As much as it succeeds as a balls-out AWD high-performance hatch, it also succeeds for its liveable character.
To get the kind of performance hardware the Ford Focus RS offers for just over $50k is magic enough, but then when you drive it, well… that’s when the magic really happens.
The order book is filling up, but Ford Australia will continue to get supply for the local market. And, yes, it is a truly great car, and truly great buying.