Ford's Focus RS offers a winning recipe of a great Focus chassis and some serious turbocharged grunt. Now there's a new twist, as Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
The Ford Focus RS comes out of the blue corner swinging some big haymakers. With a 350PS punch from its 2.3-litre Ecoboost engine going to all four wheels via a trick torque vectoring drivetrain, it's made of the right stuff.
Despite being one of the few hot hatches that could get away with an outrageous look, Ford's Focus RS is remarkably restrained. It's signally lacking the steroidal wheel arches and monster spoilers that we all expected. Look a bit closer and all of the cues are there though; the way the car clearly massages the air, the planted stance and the chunky rubber on the road.
This is the third Focus to wear the RS badge. The first was wild and rather wonderful and are rapidly becoming collector's items. The second generation car was altogether angrier and more purposeful and justly sold in big numbers. This third generation car moves the game on again. How? It's four-wheel drive.
As much as we loved the last generation Focus RS - and still do - it was clear that despite its clever RevoKnuckle front suspension, Ford was teasing a the limits of what could sensibly be put through the front wheels. Debate raged on internet forums as to whether this latest car would continue the front-wheel drive theme or go all-wheel drive and it was only when video leaked of a development car exiting a corner of the Nurburgring at flat chat with a few degrees of power oversteer that the cat was out of the bag.
The all-wheel-drive system in this third generation model is extremely clever, featuring a pair of electronically controlled clutch packs which act much like a limited slip differential by taking data from sensors 100 times a second to direct power to the front and rear axles and then to either side at the rear. Up to 70 per cent of torque can go to the rear end and of the figure, 100 per cent can go to either rear wheel, making this system hugely flexible, Ford reckoning that understeer can be virtually eliminated in this fashion. Power comes from a modified version of the 2.3-litre Ecoboost turbo four as seen in the latest Mustang, in this instance making in excess of 350PS driving through a short-shifting six-speed manual. So, yes, this is going to be one for the purists. Expect 62mph to come and go in the high fours.
Design and Build
There's only one five-door body style, but the RS definitely looks the part. The front end treatment is perhaps the most unusual aspect of this car, with a broad plastic bar splitting the upper and lower grille intakes. Still, it means there's somewhere to put a number plate, unlike some cars (ahem, Alfa) which seem to have been styled with no reasonable place for such an item. The bonnet features aggressive fluting and there are vertical strip running lights.
The wheel arches look muscular but they're more Jason Bourne than John Rambo this time round, and there's more flow to the styling. There's still a roof-mounted spoiler above the rear glass, and a bit of a diffuser effect down near the exhausts that looks more for show than go, but overall, the effect is just about right if Ford wants the RS to appeal to a broader audience than the last one.
Market and Model
Ford's RS models have always held great appeal for their performance and keen pricing. This third generation Focus RS is no exception, launched with a starting price of £31,000. It's worth pointing out that you won't be able to buy this car at every one of the Blue Oval maker's dealerships, RS models sold only in the showrooms of the company's premium 'Ford Store' locations. At this model's launch, there were 70 of these, enough, says the brand, to ensure that 90% of the population will be with an hour's drive of one.
While there are various options you can pick that'll increase the basic asking price of a Focus RS, you won't be spending a chunk more on the kind of dual-clutch automatic gearbox offered as an option by some rivals because Ford can't provide such a thing here. You don't get a bodystyle choice either: just this single five-door variant is all that's available. So, the package is what it is: one potently-styled five-door hot hatch bodyshell; and one fiery turbocharged 2.3-litre EcoBoost engine sending 350PS to all four wheels via six-speed manual transmission. That's it. Simplicity, you see, is part of this RS model's considerable appeal in the upper region of the hot hatch sector.
Cost of Ownership
The running cost figures for this third generation Focus RS are, of course, in a different league from those of its MK2 model predecessor, which could only manage 225g/km and a combined cycle return of 30.5mpg. But of course things have moved on quite a bit since 2009 - to the point where an even more powerful 381bhp hot hatch like the Mercedes-AMG A45 can deliver 40.9mpg on the combined cycle and just 162g/km of CO2.
This Focus can't quite match that, despite a 31bhp power deficit to the Merc. You're looking at 36.7mpg on the combined cycle and 175g/km of CO2, though bear in mind that the fuel figures will easily dip down into the low 20s if you use this car as intended. That emissions figure means that road tax will cost £205 a year, which is £25 a year more than you'll pay to tax a rival Volkswagen Golf R or Mercedes A45. Still, this Focus's official readings are at least better than you'd get from a comparable Audi RS3 and only around 10% worse than the readings that'd be returned by the next model down in the Focus sporting hierarchy, the 250PS ST variant.
Ford simply doesn't drop the ball when it comes to its fast hatches. Think about it. What was the last one that wasn't very good? You'd need to go a long way back to the Focus ST170 of 2002 to find one that was in any way underwhelming and even that has now wormed its way into our affections as one of the great used bargains. The Focus RS is altogether more serious stuff. With 350PS going to all four wheels, it's a genuine next generation product from Ford and will pave the way for a series of even more focused performance cars.
Of course, it's up against some hardcore contenders that have already proven their credentials. But Ford hasn't taken any short cuts here. This is going to be fun.