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2016 Ford Focus RS First Drive

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Valencia, Spain -- I’m looking out the driver’s side window of the 2016 Ford Focus RS, four wheels spinning in a sideways skid, holding a steady drift. It’s my first time drifting on dry pavement; it’s noisy, it’s smoky, and it’s a lot of fun! 

Although I’d like to take all of the credit for my seemingly spectacular sideways skills, I’m not entirely responsible. You see, the 2016 Focus RS has a Drift mode. But that’s not the only way this hot hatch will get your heart pumping…

This is not a Focus ST
The Focus RS is not a dressed-up ST, but rather a new car boasting all-wheel drive and much higher performance. Its styling is understated and mostly discreet, and changes to the body are designed more for go than for show. There are no pseudo-racer trim pieces, aero flicks or turbulence-reducing airfoils. The extra-wide grille opening allows air to flow through the largest intercooler engineers could fit into the car, and the air intakes in the front spoiler feed ducts that cool the brakes. The rear spoiler helps achieve zero lift at speed, and the rear diffuser reduces drag. 

The interior is functional and relatively low on frills; front seats and the tilt and telescoping steering wheel are manually adjustable. You can’t get massaging seats or an Alcantara roof lining or mood lighting. The dashboard is neatly laid out, with old-school round analogue gauges in the forward display, and a row of small gauges atop the dash that read coolant temperature, turbo boost pressure, and oil pressure.
Squeezing into the front Recaros reminds you that this is a serious track car, because their fit is snug. The side bolsters hug you tightly, gripping your torso like Velcro when cornering at racetrack speeds.

Racetrack ready out of the showroom
And the racetrack is where the 2016 Focus RS feels most at home. Ford extended an invitation to drive the all-wheel-drive hatchback at Valencia’s Circuit Ricardo Tormo racetrack, where I got a chance to experience its 2.3L EcoBoost 4-cylinder’s 345 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of peak torque, as well as its nimble handling. 

The RS’s only available gearbox, a 6-speed manual, is not supplemented by driver aids like an auto-blip function to assist downshifting, so you’ll have to be well versed in the heel-toe technique to cut fast laps. 

Engineers strengthened the chassis -- which has a stiffer rear subframe than the Focus ST -- with added bracing and an improved anti-roll bar, and there’s an additional crossmember welded to the floor pan that increases torsional stiffness by 23%. The steering ratio is quicker at two turns lock to lock, and the spring rates are 33% stiffer at the front and 38% stiffer in the rear. Suspension damping is adjustable to two levels via the drive modes. It is the same as the ST in Normal mode, and 40% firmer in Sport mode. Suspension damping and traction control can also be adjusted independently of the drive modes; the shocks, for instance, can be set to firm or soft at any time via a button on the end of the turn-signal stalk.

Track mode in the 2016 Ford Focus RS, which was selected for my track sessions, reduces traction control intervention (it can also be turned off completely), sharpens throttle response, makes steering more responsive, firms up suspension damping, livens up the exhaust note (and introduces burbling and popping on throttle lift), and adjusts the AWD system for optimal front to rear torque delivery (up to a maximum of 70% to the rear). To assist cornering, the RS is equipped with torque vectoring, which uses the brakes at the front axle and two clutch packs in the rear axle to transfer torque to the outside wheels. 

The system proves seamless at the track, and nearly eliminates understeer. About the only way to get the RS to push is to induce it by trail-braking exceptionally deep into a corner. Otherwise, the car steers exactly where you point it, with a quick turn-in and a faultless adherence to a chosen line. To correct for any understeer the trick is to counter-intuitively apply the throttle, thus allowing the torque vectoring to do its job.

The engine pulls hard enough in second and third gears to sink me deep into the leather Recaros until it redlines, and the gearbox has short, precise throws. And I tip my hat to Ford for equipping the RS with proper racetrack brakes; its big Brembos maintain brake feel and power throughout lapping sessions. Ford rates the brakes for “30 minutes,” which means they can handle 30 fade-free minutes of lapping.  

High Thrills Drifter
It’s after the lapping sessions that I’m directed to a skidpad to hone my drifting skills. Drift mode backs the traction control way down and adjusts the AWD to allow steady, controlled slides. It takes about one lap to get into a steady drift, though it is an AWD drift, in which the front wheels are mostly centred as the car skids sideways. I circled the skidpad several times in a tire-smoking slide, which caused me to ponder if tire manufacturers everywhere have Focus RS posters hanging on their boardroom walls… 

Affordable hooning partner
A later -- and more civilised -- drive on public roads reveals that for all of its hooning potential, the 2016 Focus RS is a remarkably composed street car. In Normal mode the engine purrs along quietly, and the suspension (although still quite firm) is compliant enough to handle the daily commute without shattering your teeth. 

At $46,969 the Focus RS costs $16,000 more than the Focus ST. However, aside from the added performance and all-wheel drive, in Canada the RS comes with heated leather Recaro seats, an 8” touchscreen with navigation and SYNC3, dual-zone climate control, as well as a number of other features for which our American neighbours must pay extra. Also standard are the lightweight, 19” forged aluminum wheels and track-ready Michelin Pilot Sport Cup2 tires, which cost RS buyers south of the border an additional $1,990 USD.

Ford Canada even includes a set of winter tires at no extra cost. 

After spending a day in the hooligan’s seat of the 2016 Focus RS, I can confidently say that this is the hottest hatch money can buy today.