If you think the world of Formula 1 racing is tumultuous, it ain't got nothing on the gritty realm of World Rally Championship competition.
Defined by eras and bound by changing regulations WRC came alive in the 1980s with Group B regulations that allowed all wheel drive and created super-car like competitors from Europe to race in the mud (or snow, or gravel).
By the 1990s Japan had thrown its hat into the ring with Group A regulations that required a production car basis allowing icons like the Subaru Impreza WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution to rise to prominence, spurring an entirely new league of fans.
Then there was Ford. The American company might not be the first name you associate with rallying, but fans with long memories will remember the formidable mid-engined all wheel drive RS200 from Group B, or the later Escort Cosworth RS that took part in Group A rallying through the 1990s.
Those very cars are the inspiration for the latest Focus RS and in the recently completed 2017 WRC season Ford sits atop the manufacturer’s ladder - albeit with a Fiesta rather than a car based on the Focus - providing the Focus RS with a still-clear rally lineage.
Vehicle Style: Performance small hatch
Price: $56,990 plus on-road costs
Engine/trans: 257kW/440Nm (470Nm overboost) 2.3-litre 4cyl turbo petrol
Fuel Economy Claimed: 7.7 l/100km
For the 2017 Ford Focus RS Limited Edition the changes are incremental. The kinds of upgrades enthusiasts love to see have been included like lightweight forged wheels with track-ready tyres, a mechanical limited-slip differential for the front axle, plus reworked Recaro sports seats, and detail changes like Nitrous Blue paint offset by a black finish for the roof and rear wing.
Priced from $56,990 plus on-road costs, the Limited Edition asks customers to fork out a further $6000 over the regular car, a sum that seems fair when you factor in the $3500 Ford normally charges for its wheel and tyre combo, the $500 it asks for premium paint, and the $1270 (plus shipping and fitment) UK-based Ford specialists Mountune charge for the same Quaife differential fitted as standard in the LE.
- Standard Equipment: Recaro sports seats with blue leather highlights, sports pedals, dual-zone climate control, proximity key with push button start, auto headlights and wipers, cruise control with speed limiter, bi-Xenon headlights, 19-inch forged alloy wheels
- Infotainment: 8.0-inch touchscreen, satellite navigation, voice control, Bluetooth connectivity, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring, dual USB inputs, AM/FM/DAB radio, CD player, 9-speaker audio
- Cargo Volume: 316 litres to rear seats
Headlining the changes inside the Focus RS Limited Edition are a pair of Recaro ‘comfort’ seats up front.
The obvious change is the blue leather highlighting applied to the edges to go with the part leather, part microfibre trim. Importantly there’s also reprofiled padding to position you slightly lower in the car, with more room to move thanks to lower thigh bolsters that also make it easier to enter and exit the car.
The changes address some of the criticism of the lofty Focus RS driving position, though compared to the more race-oriented position cars like the Honda Civic Type R and the more humble Toyota 86 offer the Focus still has room for improvement.
The new model’s interior is still a plain but functional place to be. This is standard Focus fare save for key touch points. The steering wheel, gear shifter and front seats set it apart from vanilla models.
Carry-over items also include Ford’s Sync 3 generation of 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay connectivity - a system that puts it at the head of user-friendly infotainment amongst the hot-hatch fraternity.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol, 257kW @6000rpm, 440Nm @1600-5000rpm with 470Nm overboost function
- Transmission: Six-speed manual, all wheel drive
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front, Multi-link independent rear, adjustable dampers
- Brakes: 350mm ventilated front discs with 4-piston Brembo calipers, 302mm solid rear discs
- Steering: Electric power steering
Power comes from a turbocharged 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine that channels drive to all four wheels through a six-speed manual transmission - those specifications stay the same as the ‘regular’ Focus RS.
Based on the four-cylinder unit offered in the entry-level Mustang EcoBoost, the Focus’ more powerful motor produces a sturdy 257kW of power and 440Nm of torque that swells to 470Nm for brief periods of “transient overboost” – the sort of feature you can enjoy when making a quick getaway or overtaking, but perhaps not for lap-after-lap of racetrack action.
Our test drive took place entirely within the confines of Sydney Motorsport Park, on its 2.8 kilometre-long North Circuit as well as a motorkhana laid out on a self-flooding skidpan.
The important mechanical difference is the addition of a Quaife limited slip differential to the front axle, augmented by softer compound Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres to enhance front end traction.
Wet conditions on the skidpan served to magnify the machine’s power output, feeling mighty on slippery tarmac.
The Focus RS is a riot on greasy surfaces that allow you to bring the rear into play. Wet tarmac makes it easy to deploy the car’s Drift Mode, shunting up to 70 per cent of power to the rear axle as the car performs lurid yet easily controllable slides.
Grab a low gear, commit to the throttle and the RS will hurl itself broadside in a manner that makes you feel like a rally star.
We tested the regular model back-to-back with the LE and found that the latter’s limited slip diff and tyres helped find purchase in the wet, making you work harder to get it out of shape.
The results are intoxicating when you get it right, flattering average drivers with a display of driving heroics that just aren’t possible in most of the RS’ rivals.
Track time at the Sydney Motorsport Park circuit revealed that the updated model finds more purchase under power, giving drivers a chance to get on the throttle earlier than before. It feels more stable, too, with stability control less likely to intervene as you go about your business.
The special-edition RS offered outstanding balance through the track’s demanding first corner when approached at speeds well in excess of 200km/h. You can lean on the car with confidence, enjoying a neutral chassis that heroically resists pushy understeer or twitchy oversteer at speed, preferring to lock onto its line with immense roadholding in the dry.
Track time requires a little more respect in the wet, as the Ford’s rear-biased drivetrain can send its tail arcing wide at interesting moments – on camber changes and over blind crests – ensuring drivers stay on their toes.
A pyrotechnic exhaust punctuates each gearshift with a rifle crack from twin tailpipes.
Resisting the trend to add auto-blipping software for its manual-only transmission, Ford leaves the job of rev-matching to drivers who no doubt enjoy taking on such duties, even if this isn’t the sweetest gearshift in the game.
Ford’s Focus RS remains magnificent on track, standing tall as one of the fastest and most engaging cars you can buy for this kind of money. The Limited Edition version is even better, taking the blue oval’s sharpest track tool to another level.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
As an officially-sanctioned and factory built special model, the Focus RS Limited edition is sure to catch the attention of enthusiasts meaning the 500 cars allocated to Australia are bound to sell quickly.
The RS Limited Edition arrives as a farewell package for the current generation LZ Focus, with Ford unwilling to say how far into the next generation’s life-cycle before a new RS appears.
That’s okay though, because anyone who secures one of these small-batch rally-bred units is sure to want for little more from a hatchback with enough space for the family and enough fun for weekend track jaunts.