Ford would never admit it, of course, but the original Focus RS’s place in history was rewritten by a Renault Mégane. You see, the RS could quite easily be enjoying retirement with its reputation as the pitch-perfect hardcore hot hatch intact. Over time, what some of us saw as its only ‘flaw’ – let’s call it the idiosyncratic behaviour of its sometimes effective, sometimes wayward Quaife differential – would have softened to the point where it could be dismissed as media paranoia or, indeed, flipped to its advantage as a trait that required ‘understanding’ to fully exploit.
But when Renaultsport launched the Mégane 230 F1 Team R26 in the autumn of 2006, that particular conceit imploded. The 227bhp R26 had 15bhp more than the Focus and, at 229lb ft, the same amount of torque. It also had a trick LSD not dissimilar, in principle, to the Ford’s. The difference was it didn’t require any understanding, merely a temporary suspension of disbelief while the application of steering lock and throttle conspired to deliver one outcome: awesome traction and drive, zero deviation and drama.
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So, although the two cars were never contemporaries, the iconic RS name was left looking a little tarnished and the Focus to which it was attached collected a Post-it note revising its contribution to posterity. The fastest version of the next-generation Focus, the ST, didn’t do it any favours either, managing to route 222bhp to even the most ravaged tarmac via the front wheels without embarking on an occasional detour to the wrong side of the road, even if it couldn’t find as much outright grip as the RS.
Not that it could do much about the R26, and it wasn’t alone. The most extreme Mégane had completely reversed the mundanity of its mainstream family-car origins to become something of a phenomenon, punching so far above its weight that not even stock Imprezas and Evos could feel secure.
Ford had been right all along. It wasn’t necessary to have four-wheel drive to build a high-performance hatch with crushing, easy-to-access cross-country pace. The only glitch was that it was the Mégane R26 and not the Focus RS that proved it.
Interestingly, during my discussion with Ford RS boss Jost Capito about the new RS, the Renault doesn’t even get a mention. The benchmark cars used in the Ford’s development were, apparently, the Focus ST it’s based on, the old Focus RS, the VW Golf R32, the Mitsubishi Evo X and the Subaru Impreza STI. If an R26 wasn’t in the programme at some stage, I’d be staggered. And if it wasn’t, and I were Capito, I’d want to know why not.
Especially in the light of what he says next. When resurrecting the RS was first mooted, it was widely thought that it would have four-wheel drive and probably in excess of 300bhp, thus laying to rest the bumpy-road indeterminism and hardly overwhelming heft of the original, while slapping down a seriously heavy-duty gauntlet to the opposition.
‘Sure, we investigated four-wheel drive,’ comments Jost, ‘but with the technology we can now apply to a front-wheel-drive car – especially the new front suspension of the Focus RS – the cost and weight benefits stack up heavily in favour of front-wheel drive.
‘The only advantage with four-wheel drive is in very wet or slippery conditions when you can have slightly higher cornering speeds and better acceleration,’ he continues. ‘In 90 per cent of conditions, front-wheel drive is better. Four-wheel drive adds weight and reduces performance in acceleration and braking. You have higher fuel consumption and drivetrain power losses, and added to all of that is the higher purchase price of the car.’
It’s too early for Ford to say what the new Focus RS will cost when it goes on sale early next year, although we’re anticipating circa £26K, which would tip it into a head-on fight with the Impreza and Golf R32. Capito is also slightly cagey about how much power the RS will have, but the target is 300PS (296bhp) and around 300lb ft of torque. Those sort of figures shouldn’t be a problem for the chassis (we’ve driven tuned STs with as much and they were fine), but Capito is quick to stress that while much of the final development work at the Nürburgring has been concerned with power and torque versus the chassis, they’re not chasing the highest possible outputs.
‘Like the Focus ST, the RS will be a very balanced car,’ he says. ‘We aren’t looking at a peak power figure, we’re looking at performance over the whole rev-range. And where we are right now is just about perfect. Higher power doesn’t help you get a better car.’ Someone should tell Audi and Mercedes.
Certainly the potential for an eye-grabbing headline figure is there should Jost and his team feel they need it. The 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder engine is barely trying in its 222bhp ST form, and has already been tuned to just shy of 300bhp for the Volvo S60R/V70R. Volvo’s six-speed, dual-clutch transmission has been mooted as a possibility too, though it would add weight to the car. For the Focus RS, the engine will get a larger turbo and intercooler and related modifications to the pistons, cams and valve springs, the cooling system and the induction and exhaust.
A more burning issue is how the power will get to the road. The thought of the best part of 300bhp in the old Focus RS is the stuff of nightmares. Capito: ‘The diff itself is essentially the same, but Quaife has developed it further. It’s now five years after the RS and that’s five years’ more development. The quality is better, the tolerances are better. Combined with the new front suspension technology [dubbed RevoKnuckle in Ford marketing-speak] – essentially a MacPherson strut that behaves more like a double wishbone – we’re very happy with the way it performs.’
The ST’s ESP stability system has been revised to give keen drivers a freer rein, with the option to deactivate it completely on track. Naturally, the basic ST chassis has been treated to a host of other changes, including a 40mm wider track, thoroughly reworked springs and dampers, 19in rather than 18in alloys wrapped in 235/30 Continental tyres and larger, ventilated disc brakes front and rear, 336mm and 300mm respectively. Undoubted eye-candy potential there. Likewise the lower stance, wider arches and chiseled muscularity of the bodywork, but, as Capito explains, there’s method to the badness: ‘If you look at the front of the car, it has quite a significant splitter. We tried to get as much downforce as we could at the front, so we had to develop the rear wing to balance the aerodynamics at the front. It has a real wing profile because we had to generate a lot of downforce.’
All this extra kit comes with a catch, though. When I ask Capito what the RS will tip the scales at, he doesn’t have an exact figure, but there is a modest bombshell waiting to explode in his next sentence. ‘All I can tell you is that it will weigh more than the ST…’ Pardon, Jost? The ST weighs a porksome 1392kg; shouldn’t the scales be heading in the other direction?
Not easy, claims Capito: ‘There are a lot of things that introduce more weight: the bigger brakes, 19in wheels, larger cooling system, LSD and so on. We took weight out where we could take weight out, but there are not many opportunities. The car will be heavier than the ST, but not that much heavier considering all the special technology we put in.’
No wonder the Focus RS isn’t four-wheel drive. There’s clearly a fine balancing act being played out during the car’s final days at the Ring, but one thing’s for sure: the results will need to be spectacular if the new RS is to usurp the Mégane R26 as the ultimate hot hatch.
With consummate, some might say cruel timing, Renault has elected to raise the stakes. Making its debut with the Focus at the London motor show, but hitting the showrooms about four months earlier, in October, is the Renaultsport Mégane R26.R (note the full stop), which, according to Renault, is to the R26 what the Porsche 911 GT3 RS is to the GT3: the lightweight, stripped-out, two-seater version with a leaner, harder dynamic demeanour optimised for the track rather than compromised for the road.
Like the Focus RS, the R26.R has done big chunks of its development at the Ring (indeed Renault reports a remarkable lap time of 8m 17sec, which has to make it the fastest front-drive production car round the Nordschleife). So how has it done it? Tempting as it must have been to tickle up the boost and engine outputs (and that might yet happen with a final, swansong R26 for the current-generation Mégane), its 2-litre turbocharged four delivers the same 227bhp and 229lb ft of torque to the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox and that sensationally effective torque-sensing limited-slip differential. The gearchange has a shorter throw action, though, and spring and damper settings have been revised in line with the significantly svelter kerb weight, the new, lighter 18in wheel design and the greater gripping potential of the optional track-orientated Toyo 888 tyres (Michelin Pilot Sports are standard, as on the regular R26). And the brakes are grooved instead of drilled.
The act of lopping a remarkable 125kg from the R26 – already some 47kg lighter than the Focus ST – identifies precisely the places Capito didn’t want to go with the RS. All right, the carbonfibre bonnet is a no-brainer, but the polycarbonate rear windows, thinner exhaust system and one-piece carbon-shelled bucket seats could all be filed under ‘extreme’. As could removing the rear seats, but if it’s all about biting the bullet, that alone put another 32kg in the minus column. The ruthless approach kicks the R26’s power-to-weight ratio up from 171bhp/ton to 189, an impressive hike, but perhaps still a little muscle-lite. Assuming the Focus RS weighs in at 1400kg, it would need just 260bhp to match Mégane, and it’s going to have rather more than that. Renault is claiming a 0-62mph time of 6.0sec dead for the R26.R. Ford talks of 0-62 in ‘under 6sec’.
There’s also the question of which car will look the harder. Never mind the curious girlie-to-macho gender transformation the Mégane undergoes when Renaultsport gets its wicked way, this one does racer nitty gritty too, with Sabelt carbon-backed race seats and six-point harnesses (there are no lap-and-diagonal belts), a polycarbonate tailgate window and the deletion of ‘unnecessary’ items such as the front foglights and curtain and passenger airbags (though, thankfully, the driver’s airbag remains). Options include a roll cage and a still lighter titanium exhaust system. That said, the Focus RS will probably be the scarier sight in your rear-view mirror, with its gaping Evo X-style ‘mouth’, deep front splitter and bonnet vents. Few manufacturers do subtly intimidating better than Ford.
Both the R26.R and Focus RS will have limited production runs. Ford hasn’t decided how many RSs it will make but Renault has settled on around 450 R26.Rs, with 230 coming to the UK at a price ‘between £23,000 and £24,000’. They’re likely to be cars with starkly contrasting personalities; the Ford’s extra seats, if nothing else, making it the more useable everyday proposition. But that doesn’t matter. These are cars with a mission. The Ford's is to be the best hot hatch on the planet. The Renault’s is to stop it. Place your bets.
|Focus RS||Mégane R26-R|
|Engine||In-line 5-cyl, turbo||In-line 4-cyl, turbo|
|Location||Front, transverse||Front, transverse|
|Max power||300bhp (est)||227bhp @ 5500rpm|
|Max torque||3000lb ft (est)||229bhp @ 3000rpm|
|Transmission||Six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive, Quaife limited-slip differential||Six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive, GKN limited-slip differential|
|Wheels||19in front and rear, aluminium alloy||18in front and rear, aluminium alloy|
|Weight (kerb)||1400kg (est)||1220kg|
|0-62mph||sub-6.0sec (est)||6.0sec (claimed)|
|Top speed||150mph-plus (est)||147mph (est)|
|On sale||Early 2009||Oct-08|