There aren't that many cars that you can buy brand new that feel fun. There are even fewer that feel fun for every single second that you're driving them. Even fewer again aren't purpose-built sports cars and can be bought by normal people with normal car-buying budgets. The Ford Focus RS, based on that humble Focus hatch, is the hottest hot hatch that you can spend your money on, and it's a masterpiece.
What Is It?
- Engine: 2.3L turbocharged petrol 4-cylinder
- Gearbox: 6sp manual
- Entertainment System: 8-inch SYNC2, touchscreen
- Bluetooth: Yes (phone and media streaming)
- Fuel consumption: 7.7L/100km
The 2017 Ford Focus RS is what happens if you give Ford engineers the chassis of a Focus ST, the 2.3-litre turbocharged EcoBoost engine from a Mustang -- oh, with a bigger turbocharger -- and a trick all-wheel drive system that has a bias towards the rear wheels rather than the front. It's a normal car gone bonkers, but bonkers in a good way. Bonkers with more power and more grip and a six-speed manual shifter that makes the whole enterprise feel oh, so, worth it. The Focus RS will set you back a price starting around $55,000 -- but there's a long waiting list. And I can understand exactly why that is.
So will you, too, if you just look at the Focus RS. It looks mean -- like someone took a pair of defibrillator paddles and shocked a Focus ST that was already perfectly healthy and happy. In four different colours in Australia -- Frozen White, Magnetic Grey, Shadow Black, and the hero Nitrous Blue -- the Focus RS wears 19-inch alloys with forged 19-inch wheels as an option wrapped in Michelin's incredible Pilot Sport 2 rubber. Most RS in Australia will look identical, too -- those forged rims and the paint variants are the only option that we get, with everything from daytime running lamps and self-aiming HID headlights standard alongside a dual-split sports exhaust all coming included in the price.
The Focus RS is a hot hatch, both outside and inside. Both the driver and front passenger will have to pour themselves into some seriously bolstered Recaro bucket seats upholstered in soft alcantara-esque fabric with leather inserts, and the rear seats are finished in much the same design. The interior of the Focus RS is dark, because racecar, and just about the only thing that is missing is the centre stripe in the RS' steering wheel. If you've been in a Ford before, though, you'll recognise plenty of the same parts bin bits, from the same centre console and Sync touchscreen display to the twin-dial driver's display.
The Focus RS's 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder EcoBoost develops a phenomenal 257kW of power and 470Nm of torque, although those figures come from the car's temporary overboost mode which pumps up power output for a 15-second period -- y'know, for those spirited overtakes. Official torque is 440Nm, for what it's worth. The Focus RS will sprint from 0-100km/h in just 4.7 seconds if you have sticky tyres and a competent manual shifter in the driver's seat, which feels quick. But this isn't a car for the traffic light Grand Prix -- it's a car for the twisty roads late at night and the track days on the weekends.
What's It Good At?
Any criticisms of the Focus RS that I had -- and there are a few small ones, which I'll hit later on -- disappeared the second that I hit that start/stop engine ignition. Nothing about this car is bad when you're driving it on a good bit of road; it's a monster hot hatch, in every sense of the word. That re-boosted 2.3-litre EcoBoost four-cylinder, transplanted from the 2016 Mustang and given a larger turbocharger, is a revelation. It feels amazing, revs so cleanly and aggressively and with such ferocity, that any complaints you might have about the Focus RS's styling or looks or price tag or lack of availability just melt away. The six-speed manual shifter is a perfect match; I'm sure a dual-clutch semi-automatic would have been faster for the 0-100km/h sprint, but the RS is a car built around the fun of driving, and this engine and gearbox combo is genuinely one of the best that I've driven in years.
It looks amazing, too. Hot hatches are meant to offer that compromise of being amazing to drive and amazing to look at when you're not driving them and they're sitting in the parking garage on your commute, and especially in Nitrous Blue the Focus RS fulfils that criteria perfectly. The styling cues over and on top of the Focus ST are obvious; everything about the Focus RS is just twenty per cent more bonkers. You get a bigger rear spoiler and front diffuser, pumped wheel arches and a more aggressive front grille, and the overall package just looks mean. It's a big medium-sized hatch, too, and that gives it even more road presence. This is a car that, when I was driving, I'd get thumbs up in -- not from people that thought it might be expensive (it wears a Ford badge at the end of the day), but from people that knew exactly what it was and what it could do.
My experience in most all-wheel drive cars in the past has been of cars that are more than happy to understeer close to the limit of their traction, because understeer is inherently safer than oversteer. But the AWD bias of the Focus RS is an almost-constant 70 per cent split to the rear wheels, and when you're flinging it around a set of twisties while applying a bit of power, it feels different to other AWDs -- more fun, more eager, more enjoyable, but without ever verging into the realm of unsafe, despite tending towards slight oversteer. You can force understeer, but it's only when something has gone seriously wrong and you've overwhelmed the front tyres. Everything about the Focus RS lends itself to ridiculously enjoyable driving, as soon as you engage Sports mode and find yourself an appropriate bit of road or track to push the car beyond one tenth of its performance potential.
And the Focus RS sounds exactly like you'd expect it to. The timbre of the exhaust note is low and sporty even when you're in Normal mode, and in this setting the Focus RS sounds like it's hiding something -- because it is. Flick that switch to Sport, and tap the throttle, and the RS comes alive, with World Rally-grade pops and crackles when you jump off the throttle mid-acceleration, or when you're shifting with a little bit of anger. It's that kind of lairy noise that you'd expect from an RS, and you get exactly what you want. The suspension setup, too, tends towards stiff, although in Sport mode -- which gives you those oh-so-lovely unburnt fuel pops from the exhaust -- you do make the trade-off of 40 per cent stiffer dampers, which can be a bit crashy for daily driving. But more on that later, because the trade off is just worth it.
What's It Not Good At?
The interior of the Ford Focus RS -- everything forward of the front seats, that is -- doesn't quite gel with the rest of the car. And that's because the rest of the car is an absolute phenomenon, so there's an unusually and unreasonably high standard for the Focus RS's interior to live up to. Those seats, by the way, are by Recaro and feel absolutely excellent, as long as you're not especially tall or short (there's no height adjustment). No, the dashboard is certainly functional, but it just doesn't ooze the same cool as the rest of the RS does. Instead, you get what is effectively the same dash as the Focus ST, which is effectively the same dash as the base Focus. Hard plastics and a lot of dark colours combine to make the RS' driver's view look a little bit cheap, although it's redeemed by Ford's Sync (2, not 3, not yet) touchscreen in-car interface and big, bright dials and dedicated gauges for boost and oil pressure.
Worth mentioning, too, is the fact that the Focus RS only has four airbags -- curtains for the front and rear, and front airbags for both the driver and the front passenger. This ticks the criteria for protecting occupants in an accident adequately, but competitors have more, and have more safety features besides. This is a driver's car, but despite that doesn't have driver's aids like early crash detection or automatic emergency braking. In that way, the Focus RS is a lot more old-school than it seems -- which may be a feature that appeals more to its potential purchasers than the inclusion of a bunch of cameras and radars and gizmos does.
And also, being a hot hatch in the truest sense of the word, this is not a car that you'll enjoy a comfortable, relaxed commute in. You can certainly do it if you're keen enough, and I'm sure plenty of Focus RS owners will, but in my time with the car I saw fuel economy figure quite a bit in excess of Ford's urban estimates during city driving, despite the inclusion of automatic stop/start for the engine which engages whenever you let the clutch out at a standstill. It's more the stiffness of the suspension and the lack of compliance in the seat foam that might make the RS a little tiresome to drive between home and office, unless your office is at the other end of Galston Gorge. It's a car made more for the weekend than it is for the weekday. If you buy one, do yourself a favour and make sure you make the time to enjoy it.
Should You Buy It?
A slightly downscale interior shouldn't turn you off the 2016 (or 2017, once you actually get it) Ford Focus RS. That interior is heavily inspired by the Focus ST, but then again so is the RS itself -- but it's just that the exterior and drivetrain has evolved much, much faster than the car's interior. The Recaro seats, both front and back, are absolutely excellent and the materials used are top-notch, but as with so many different Fords the dashboard plastics are just a little bit pedestrian and detract (only a tiny bit) from what is an otherwise excellent package. And yes, the car I drove used Ford's good -- but now slightly over-ripe -- Sync2 entertainment system. Some early cars delivered into Australia were delivered with Sync2, but from October the Focus RS gets Sync3. That'll be a big upgrade.
Price: from $50,990
- Amazing engine and gearbox combo.
- Beautiful balance, AWD torque split.
- Aggressive styling.
- Mediocre dashboard materials.
- Not exactly made for commuting.
- Only four airbags.
Another thing worth thinking about is that the RS only has four airbags, although we've seen them in action -- search YouTube for a particular RS in Drift mode overcooking it a bit -- and they do a pretty damn good job. Safety is an important feature for any car, but especially one that's going to be driven in a spirited fashion regularly, and we'd like to see Ford bump up the occupant safety in future iterations of the RS however possible. And there's one small quirk with the otherwise brilliant six-speed manual that I couldn't learn to love -- the uneven weighting of the clutch means that it requires a fair amount of effort to depress, but springs back up very quickly if you're not careful and if you don't have a Herculean left leg. It feels a bit strange, especially for only a week of driving.
But none of that takes away from the perfection that is driving the Ford Focus RS on a good bit of road. This isn't a car for traffic, although you can daily-drive it to work if you don't mind the hard suspension. No, this is a car that begs to be taken out on the weekend for a run up the Pacific Highway and back -- keeping within the road rules and the double white lines all the time, of course. Everything is just balanced so well -- everything from the throw of the shifter to the weight of the steering to the stiffness of the suspension setup just comes together in a car that makes you want to drive, and drive, and drive some more. The 2017 Ford Focus RS is addictive.
Everything about the Focus RS is encapsulated in the way that it sounds. You can drive it gently, off-throttle, with a sympathetic right foot, and it won't annoy your neighbours too much when you start it up of a morning. But there's no fun in that. What you want to do, and what the RS tells you to do, is to leave it in Sport mode, with all the pops and crackles and rally-car exhaust note that that entails, and to drive it like that all the time. This is what the Focus RS is all about -- it's the hottest of hot hatches; it's made to go fast and to look good doing it. And it does that very, very well.