|It is such a muscular car. If it had veins they would be swollen to popping point|
There’s a Rottweiler guarding the hotel gates tonight. Gus and I saw it as we drove back in from getting pizza. It’s a big ’un too, chunky chain for a collar and the sort of stance that intimates you could smash a medium-sized table over its back and it wouldn’t budge. But lurking in the concrete garage beneath the hotel is something that would make even Cerberus whimper. It’s waiting in its lair tonight, brooding on the fight to come, sleeping with its eyes open, tank full. Never have I seen a road car look more menacing than the new Focus RS.
I managed to sneak a quick look at it earlier this afternoon with the comfort blanket of daylight, and boy has it got visual impact. The engineers evidently didn’t spend long agonising over what size rear wing or diameter exhausts they should put on, they simply chose the biggest available. It is such a muscular car. If it had veins they would be swollen to popping point, visibly straining under the paintwork. In Ultimate Green even a Lamborghini LP640 would be struggling to hold the limelight next to it.
We’ll pick up the keys before first light tomorrow and then drive until after dark over the Col de Vence and beyond. I’m genuinely very, very excited, but apprehensive too. We know the RS has got power and torque in gigantic amounts (300bhp and 324lb ft), but when it’s all released onto the road tomorrow morning I don’t know what’s going to happen. Am I going to find myself sitting in a ball of barely contained fury that wants to snap at every camber as the last-generation RS did? Or will I find it miraculously taking huge, ruthlessly clean bites out of the col, showing two fingers to those who said it should have four-wheel drive? Either way, I just hope the Rottweiler doesn’t bark tonight, because I need all the sleep I can get…
Six hours later the horizon is starting to crystallise out over the Mediterranean as Gus and I meet in the hotel’s reception area. It’s cold outside, but without a cloud in the sky to obscure the last fading stars there is the promise of a day of dry roads. We are here before all the other magazines (they fly in this morning from Heathrow, but we flew straight here from another job yesterday) so we have the choice of colours. Classic blue looks understated, white looks brutally utilitarian, but green suits the new RS’s demeanour best.
You know the Recaros are going to hold you in place when you catch the side bolster as you get in. You’re still perched a little higher than you might expect, but it’s better than in the ST. Leave the ‘keyless’ key in your pocket and fire-up the RS by pressing the ‘Power’ button behind the gearlever. It’s quite a moment, though disappointingly it’s not heralded by the sort of orchestral fanfare suggested by the exhausts’ diameters. Short, chunky notch into first with the stubby gearlever. A quick rack but not a lot of steering lock, so getting out of the tight car park involves shunting back and forth a bit.
As we head up towards the town of Vence, a glance at the three dials on top of the dashboard shows that the oil is warming nicely. We’re only cruising, but the RS seems perfectly happy, relaxed even. As we approach the outskirts of the town, head through the little one-way system and look for the slightly awkward turning up the small street towards the col, the RS is very civilised pottering along below boost. This engine is based on the ST’s in-line five cylinder but it’s far from just a re-chip. Revisions include bespoke pistons, conrods and camshafts.
The main change, however, is the new, larger Borg Warner K16 turbo, which doubles the boost pressure over the ST from 0.7 to 1.4bar. As you would expect, Ford has added a specially developed intercooler, while the induction and exhaust systems have also been freed up. The end result is 300bhp at 6500rpm (the rev- limiter will allow a three-second burst up to 7050rpm) and, even more impressively, a torque plateau of 324lb ft from 2300 to 4500rpm.
The hills above Nice and Monaco are stuffed with fantastic roads, some of which are still used on the Monte Carlo rally, but the Col de Vence and the ensuing run out towards the Route Napoleon is a particular favourite of mine because it’s well sighted and longer and faster than a lot of the others. I remember driving it for the first time on an Impreza launch not long after I joined evo. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. The first section, the col itself, winds up out of the town before suddenly releasing you into the bottom of a valley. A fast first half-mile leads into three hairpins, then before you know it you’ve gained altitude and a view, though the graffiti-strewn shin-high walls no longer seem adequate for the big drops on the other side.
The first chance to stretch the legs of the RS leaves no doubt that it is seriously fast. When the wave of forced-induction torque ramps up, it reminds you of everything that is great about turbocharged engines – that wonderful feeling that your right foot has unleashed a slightly uncontrollable storm and suddenly the car is running away from you a little. The claims are 0-62mph in 5.9sec and a faintly incredible top speed of 163mph. There is no reason to doubt these and I’d venture that the acceleration time could turn out to be even quicker when we get timing gear on the RS. Goodbye Boxster…
It only takes a couple of corners for the RS’s chassis to distance itself from that of the ST. Where the ST always felt like it had quite a high centre of gravity, with a bit of roll and a slight excess of weight over the nose, the RS corners flatter, grips harder and changes direction much more incisively. If you want the analogy used by Jost Capito (the man behind the E30 M3, Porsche 964 RS and now the 2009 Focus RS), the ST is a dolphin and the RS is a shark…
Gus and I press on with the photography until the sun is fully warming the rocks and bare trees that form the landscape. The morning rush hour is beginning and a 3-series estate and a Saxo are obvious regulars on the road. My pace in the Focus is picking up too, and with it the soundtrack. The offbeat five-cylinder note has often been compared to an Audi Quattro’s, and now with the addition of a vocal dump-valve the evocation of a Group B car is complete.
The suspension, however, has more to do with a modern WRC car. With my best investigative beard on, I’ve been trying to seek out cambers and bumps to unsettle the Focus’s front end and get it torque-steering wildly, but it just doesn’t seem to want to. Ford’s explanation for this is the patented front suspension design. It features something called RevoKnuckle technology, the major effect of which, for the benefit of those who know their suspension better than I do, is to reduce the king-pin offset. The other weapon in the war against torque-steer (Capito resolutely didn’t want to use electronics, so torque is only limited in first gear) is a new version of the helical Quaife limited-slip diff that took a lot of the blame for the old RS’s ability to change lane with use of the throttle alone. The diff now has a sixth planet gear and has been retuned for a more subtle intervention when it starts locking. And the result of all this is nothing less than astonishing. The Vence may be a little way off the appalling state of many of our A- and B-roads in the UK, but there is nothing more than the occasional momentary tug of the well-weighted steering wheel all day.
Just as Gus and I are finishing on the first part of our route we look back down the valley and see a flash of decals and red wheels charging up to meet us. Roger Green is arriving with the RS’s arch rival – a Renaultsport Mégane R26.R. It doesn’t really need any introduction, suffice to say it is evo’s current ‘real world’ Car of the Year and nothing less than a thorn in the side of many supercars. Roger parks up, grinning.
With the titanium exhaust pinging as it cools, it’s interesting to see the two cars side by side. The Focus grabs your attention, screams in your face, brings out the inner schoolboy and makes you go, ‘Wow’. But get closer and the Mégane’s functionally cool weight-saving details, like the plastic rear windows and carbonfibre bonnet, make the RS look slightly cheap with its ‘carbon look’ interior and fake intakes under the headlights and behind the front wheelarches.
I slot myself into the Mégane, which instantly feels less useable than the Focus as I click the multiple points of the harness into place. We descend the far side of the col and begin chasing through a more flowing, wooded section. The Mégane is quick all right, but initially not as exciting as the RS, lacking the drama of that big, broad torque surge. When it gets into some tighter corners, however, it shines. Inertia-free and with a precision that the 247kg heavier Focus can’t match, the R26.R holds you tighter, darts, slides and lets you work right at the phenomenal limits of its grip all the time. Interestingly, the Mégane also has its own patented solution to reducing the king-pin offset, which it has been using since 2004.
You tend to get on the throttle early in a corner in both cars. In the Focus, because there is some lag, you need to pre-empt where in the radius you will want the power to hit and get on the throttle in advance. In the Renault you simply push the pedal all the way to the non-existent floor-mat as soon as you’ve turned in, because its diff will tug you round with traction so tenacious and mind-blowing that sometimes you can actually start to trace too tight a line. It feels like you’ve hooked your arm around a lamp-post on the apex.
We reach the roundabout that signals the junction with the D3 but continue on up the D2 through the spectacular rock arches, stopping only briefly to get some ‘pain and fromage avec an Orangina’ for lunch. The scenery then changes again, moving dramatically from sandy-coloured rock faces to snow-covered fields and hills. If this road was a film you’d fire the continuity editor. We turn off onto the D802, which hairpins its way through the snow up to the ski station of Gréolières-les-Neiges. Like the Renault, the Ford has a perfectly judged ESP system. I only really feel the need to turn it off to see how much the electronics are quelling wheelspin. The answer is hardly at all. The nanny will give you plenty of time to get the front wheels wriggling before stepping in smoothly, and the same applies to lift-off oversteer, with decent angles being allowed. Given this enlightened attitude with ESP on, it’s surprising that you can’t actually turn ESP all the way off. Mind you, I don’t think you’ll ever notice and it still lets you do handbrake turns…
The skiers and boarders start to leave and the air begins to get too cold to have hands out of pockets for very long. Standing on the iced car park at the top, Roger and I agree that the most obvious difference getting back in the RS after the R26.R is the extra weight (thank goodness Ford didn’t go for four-wheel drive and another 200kg). It’s particularly noticeable under braking, yet the brakes – 336mm vented discs front, 302mm solid ones rear – haven’t wilted, however much we’ve punished them. And the undeniable benefit of the extra weight is two extra seats and day-to-day practicality.
The sun has gone and light is seeping through the celestial plughole as the Focus and Mégane descend through the snow-lined hairpins back towards Vence. Gradually at first, but with increasing intent, the pace rises and soon the two hatchbacks are going harder and harder down the road. The next hour turns into one of those drives that can’t be planned but which leaves you tingling and slightly light-headed at the end. Fast doesn’t quite cover it.
Through the darkness, brake lights glow as front ends are buried hard into tight turns around rock faces, the two cars seemingly joined nose to tail by an invisible bungee. I’m leading in the RS and the considerable distance you can see ahead by the light of the xenons is still only just enough for the rate at which the car is hurling itself down the road when it’s on boost. The gearshift is close across the gate but tight and weighty so that you can rush each change through quickly and forcefully. Every straight now sees flat-out charges up through the ’boxes, the Mégane making its harsh, rushing, sucking SSSCCCCHHHHHHHKKKKK sound, like a contained hurricane, while the Focus warbles and dump-valves its way into the night, WAAARGH-tisch-WAAAAAARRRGH-tisch.
Out to the left-hand side of road, across the centre-line, down to third, turn in hard using the full width of the road, pushing the nose of the RS, feeling the Contis bite the tarmac with aggression. Front wheels either side of a stray rock that appears in the headlights, lift slightly to get the back sliding, then back on the throttle. A slight pause, then the hint of scrabble as the turbo ramps up and the green nose thumps you out using all the road’s width again on the exit. Change up, fourth, fifth. The Mégane’s headlights are still behind.
It’s relentless, and concentration has to be unwavering. Back through the snow, beneath the rock arches and up again through the oppressive darkness of the trees. Afterwards, Roger will say that he saw the RS pick up an inside rear wheel through the tighter turns, something I hadn’t expected from such a big car. By return I was equally struck that the R26.R in my mirrors was losing no ground down the straights, where I’d thought its 73bhp and 95lb ft disadvantage would drop it back. The only time the gap lengthened was under the trees where the road was damp and the Mégane’s (optional) near-slick Toyos gave Roger a couple of heart-stopping moments.
I had worried about bringing an R26.R out to meet the RS. The Mégane goes right to the heart of everything we at evo want, not just in a hot hatch, but in cars, period. There was a good chance that the Ford would simply wilt in the presence of the Renault’s lightweight single-mindedness, but the Focus has more than held its own, even exploiting some of the Mégane’s few weaknesses, namely its soundtrack and the punch provided by its engine. The R26.R is still the king, the better driving tool, so sharp, so precise that you become part of it, yet the harder I went in the RS the bigger my grin grew and the more deeply impressed I became. Not once in the hour-long drive back did I think ‘I wish I was in the Mégane’. Nor did I wish that I had four-wheel drive.
The final strop back down the Col de Vence itself cements the road as one of my all-time favourites and also leaves me longing for the next time I can get into an RS. There probably haven’t been that many quicker descents into Vence. And if you think that’s fanciful hyperbole then consider this: the Focus RS is the fastest ever car around the handling circuit at Ford’s Lommel Proving Ground in Belgium – Ford GT included.
It may have been a long time coming, but Rallye Sport is back, and it was worth the wait.