Don’t let the familiar name fool you—the new Ford Focus RS is no mere shopping hatchback. Behind that gaping front grill is a turbocharged 2.3L engine with 350hp (261kW) and 350lb-ft (475Nm) torque vectored to the road via all four wheels. The wheel arches are blistered. There’s a great big wing at the back; there’s a diffuser, too. And if that doesn’t already sound like a very special Focus, the new RS even has a “Drift” mode.
Despite all the fancy carbon fiber supercars Cars Technica spends time with, I’d been looking forward to getting behind the wheel of this vehicle more than just about any other. From auto shows to race weekends to other Ford track events, the car has taunted me, sitting static but resplendent in that eye-catching Nitrous Blue paint. Our first drive was originally slated for July, but scheduling conflicts at the Blue Oval saw that opportunity bumped into late August. That delay is now a minor blip; the RS was more than worth the wait.
Are there many more evocative letters one could stick on a car to let the cognoscenti know something special was going on? Spy “RS” on a Renault, Porsche, Audi, or Ford, and you know the vehicle you’re looking at has been breathed upon by that company’s raciest engineers. The fat will have been removed, the suspension made track-ready. Tires will be wider, stickier, and have more power to put down. (Only Chevrolet lets the side down by glueing those letters to a quite pedestrian Camaro.)
At Ford RS stands for Rallye Sport, and it’s a name that goes back a long way. Back in the day, one of the best ways for a car company to imbue an everyday shopping car with some pizzazz was to take it racing. But motorsports demands more than the school run; wider tires, aerodynamic appendages, altered suspension pickup points, and so on. This was permissible with the proviso that a certain number of road cars sold to the general public were so equipped, creating the homologation special. And Ford’s homologation cars were quite special.
Picking a favorite is probably a function of one’s age. And coming of age in the early 1990s, my choice would be the Escort RS Cosworth. (Those a few years older might get misty eyed at the mention of an RS500 or RS200.) While the Focus RS isn’t really a homologation special, it’s this lineage that the Focus RS hails from. There are so many legendary ancestors in the family tree that the expectations are sky-high before anyone gets as far as pushing the car’s starter button. At least, that’s the plan. For all of Ford’s RS hits, there have been misses. Take the Mk 4 Escort RS2000, which was barely worth the name. Or the first generation Focus RS, which promised so much and disappointed so many. But we gave the game away in that opening paragraph—the new Focus RS landed dead-center in a bright blue bullseye.
While it’s the third generation Focus to wear the RS badge, it’s the first to cross the Atlantic. That’s a testament to changes in the prevailing tastes of American car buyers. We can probably attribute that to video games like Gran Turismo, as well as the success of Subaru’s WRX and Mitsubishi’s Evo on these shores. But fans of traditional US muscle take note—if quarter miles and trap times are your thing, look elsewhere, for there are better vehicles to take to the drag strip. This car is instead about going around corners as rapidly as possible—often sideways—and putting a smile on your face while doing so.
Let’s talk tech
The 2.3L EcoBoost four-cylinder engine is closely related to the engine found in the current Mustang, but it adds a low-inertia twin-scroll turbocharger, bigger compressor, and less restrictive exhausts. There’s only one choice of gearbox, and that’s a six-speed manual—no flappy paddles or dual clutch boxes here despite the potential for faster lap times. As long as the front tires have sufficient grip, the Focus RS will send them all its torque, but up to 70 percent can be diverted to the rear wheels (and 100 percent of that to just one rear wheel should it deem that appropriate).
Unlike more conventional all-wheel drive setups, there’s no center differential; the three-piece propshaft that runs to the rear drive unit is always turning. Instead, each rear wheel is connected to this unit via an electronically controlled wet clutch. Every hundredth of a second the Focus RS’ electronic brain takes stock, judging how to best distribute the available torque back-to-front and side-to-side. That gives the system a particular advantage over a mechanical limited slip differential: torque vectoring.
In a corner, the car will bias the torque at the rear to the outside wheel in conjunction with braking the inside front wheel. This induces an extra yaw motion above and beyond what’s already determined by the suspension geometry, steering input, and slip angle. Understeer becomes a thing of the past, something I rapidly discovered on track at Monticello Motor Club. It’s particularly evident in tighter corners, where you can turn in and get on the power much sooner than seems natural.
Now, as you might expect for a car with electronics controlling the drivetrain, there are different modes to choose from. The throttle remaps, getting more linear as you progress from Normal through Sport to Track. The torque vectoring becomes more aggressive, traction and stability control becomes more permissive, and the (conventional, valved) dampers increase dampening rate (these also have a bumpy setting that can be toggled independently, a la Ferrari).
While we’re on the topic, body control is particularly good, as befits the reputation of Ford Europe (where most of the chassis tuning took place). In fact, the cars have been brought over to the US with no changes to suspension setup. The ride is not quite limo-smooth—you’ll feel expansion gaps and potholes—but it’s not back-breaking in Normal, and even on track (and in Track) you can ride the rumble strips without immediately making a detour to the local osteopath. Monticello’s track includes a rather interesting left-right combo over a crest, and the car never felt unsettled even when using more of the hefty curbs than otherwise necessary.
A byproduct of all that electronic tuning is the fourth drive mode, the one that anybody with a passing interest in this car probably already knows about. That’s right, drift mode. Conceptually, it’s quite easy to see how Ford arrived at the idea. After all, the car knows its slip angle, steering input, yaw rate, and so on, and it’s already programmed to combine that data to vector torque—why not go one step further and add a little electronic hooligan into the mix?
Listing image by Elle Cayabyab Gitlin