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Ford Focus RS review - the best hot hatch ever?
The third-generation Ford Focus RS is probably the most hotly anticipated real-world performance car of 2016. With this latest version Ford has answered the cries of enthusiasts – which date back to the 2009 launch of the Mk2 model – by fitting a four-wheel drive system.
Developed by the newly founded Ford Performance division, predominantly in Europe, the Focus RS is a global car for the first time. It’ll only be available in five-door guise – another departure from the earlier generations – and it costs from £29,995.
With 345bhp and four-wheel drive the RS slots neatly into the emerging ‘super hatch’ category, so far populated by the Audi RS3, Mercedes A45 AMG and Volkswagen Golf R. The latter is the Ford’s closest rival – we rate the Golf R as a five-star car, but the RS looks well equipped to give the VW a tough time given that it costs almost £1000 less but puts out 50bhp more.
Engine, transmission and 0-60mph time
The engine is a 2.3-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged unit, developing 345bhp and 347lb ft of torque from 2000rpm. The only gearbox option is a six-speed manual. For the first time, the Focus RS drives all four wheels rather than the front axle alone.
With a launch control system, which holds the engine at the optimal rev point before the driver side steps the clutch pedal, the RS will sprint from 0-62mph in 4.7 seconds. Apparently the fastest way to launch the RS is to keep your right foot hard on the throttle during the shift from first to second gear. For reference, the Golf R registers a 5.1 second 0-62mph time.
At 1547kg the RS is no featherweight, but only the 1495kg Golf R really undercuts the Ford to any meaningful degree. The RS’s top speed is 165mph.
The headline technical news is the four-wheel drive system. Whereas the RS’s super hatch rivals use off-the-shelf Haldex hardware – which is fundamentally limited in how precisely it can share torque between the four wheels – the Ford uses a system that can divert as much as 70 per cent of the overall torque to just one of the rear wheels.
The RDU – or rear drive unit – in the rear axle uses a pair of clutch packs to distribute drive. It’s proper torque vectoring, which has enabled Ford’s engineers to programme the four-wheel drive system to behave exactly how they want it to. They can send torque to exactly which wheel they want to in order to achieve all sorts of dynamic behaviour.
Ford manages this via a series of drive modes. With Normal as the base setting, the RS also has Sport, Track and Drift options.
Sport sharpens throttle response, adds weight to the steering, teases pops and crackles from the exhaust and recalibrates the RDU slightly. Track mode – which Ford insists is just for circuit use – switches the electronic stability control into a middle setting to allow more slip and primes the RDU to give maximum traction under acceleration. The fastest laps are achieved in this mode.
Finally, Drift mode instructs the RDU to send as much torque as possible to the outside rear wheel to induce a yaw moment. With the car pitched into a powerslide it’ll then continuously vary the torque split depending on grip and speed to maintain that slide.
The driver can choose between three levels of ESC intervention – on, Sport and off – while a button on the left-hand stalk scrolls through two damper settings. Ford says that the stiffer damper mode is purely for circuit use.
There are two tyre options – Michelin Pilot Super Sports and the track-ready Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2. Ford’s engineers actually prefer the lower-specification Super Sport for road use.
What’s it like to drive?
The RS’s cabin lacks the premium feel of the more expensive German rivals, but it certainly isn’t under-equipped or poorly built. The standard sports seats offer plenty of support, but the optional shell-backed bucket seats are more supportive still and they look the part, too.
While the ride quality in Normal mode is a little bouncier than a Golf R’s it didn’t ever feel overly stiff on the smooth roads that made up the Spanish test route.
In Sport, the engine makes a series of contrived noises – a warbling induction note with pops and bangs from the exhaust on the overrun. The 2.3-litre engine isn’t exactly bursting with natural charisma, but no modern four-cylinder turbo is. Throttle response is sharp and the engine pulls hard throughout the rev range, picking up a little at 4000rpm and then again in the final dash to the 6700rpm rev limiter. The gearshift, meanwhile, is slick and direct.
Initially, the extra steering weight that comes in Sport mode seems unnecessary, muting the sense of connection between the steering wheel and the front axle around the straight ahead. When you dial in more than a few degrees of steering lock and get the chassis loaded up in a corner, though, it does become crisp and detailed. Significantly, it isn’t blighted by the springy, heavy self-centring effect that ruins many modern steering systems.
The Super Sport tyres find such resilient grip on the way into a corner, particularly if you trail brake, that the Cup 2s might well be overkill on the road. There is a degree of roll in cornering, but it’s not through a lack of control and it actually helps to paint a clear picture of how hard the chassis is working.
The stiffer damper mode takes the natural pliancy out of the suspension and jolts little vertical inputs into the body, even on the smoothest roads, so it’s best left for the circuit. Besides, the default damper mode offers such taut body control that you never feel the need to tie the car down any further.
Finding so much traction in the dry the RS simply fires itself away from corners without any sense of the rear axle breaking free (in the wet the RS can be made to slither around a little). The natural chassis balance is actually quite lively, though, so on the way into corners the rear axle will take on some attitude if you attack the apex hard. Set that way, if you then stand on the power very early the four-wheel drive system will convert that slight lift off oversteer into very gentle power oversteer – all within the constraints of the Sport ESC setting.
It’s compelling behaviour; exactly what we crave in those Haldex cars. It means the RS is more playful and exciting to drive than the other cars in this class, the only one that uses four-wheel drive to enliven the driving experience rather than merely add traction.
The Brembo brakes offer very strong stopping power with a pedal that’s easy to modulate. Even as the system temperatures soared on mountain roads braking performance was sustained.
In track mode, with the dampers in their stiffer setting, the RS feels agile and well controlled on circuit, too. Naturally it’s at its best on the Cup 2 tyres, which give the car enormous turn-in and mid-corner grip. The four-wheel drive system, combined with those sticky tyres, enables the driver to get on the power incredibly early to slingshot up the next straight.
The Drift mode may seem gimmicky, but if you can find a suitably understanding set of trackday marshals it is terrific fun. The key is to the car understeering slightly on entry before standing hard on the power. The car then breaks into a big, sweeping arc of a drift, front wheels pointed straight right up until the end of the slide, at which point you do need to dial in some corrective lock.
It’s completely different to a rear-wheel drive powerslide because there’s no need to modulate the throttle, steering inputs aren’t so critical and the pivot point seems to be 20 or 30 metres in front of the car rather than at the car’s centre point.
What the RS loses out to the Golf R, RS3 and A45 AMG in badge appeal it wins back in value for money and driver engagement. It’s at least £10,000 cheaper than the Audi and Mercedes and although it doesn’t trouble either of those for cabin quality it is more exciting to drive than both.
The Ford Focus RS starts at £29,995, which represents strong value for money compared to the £30,820 Golf R – which is 50bhp down on the RS.