Ford is an American car company, right? Henry, Michigan, Rouge, Detroit, and all that?
I’ve long protested that Europe was Ford’s preferred automobile market given the many cool and highly competent cars they’ve had over there for decades. What cars? The Capri (the real one), the Escort (not our rust-bucket), Granada (not our sail barge), the Sierra (also the real one), and the first Fiesta ST and Focus ST and RS.
Sure, we had the short-lived Focus SVT, but it only served to whet our appetites for more. And yes, we did have the SHO, and the Mustang…
All is forgiven now, though, as Ford has unleashed what is without a doubt its best, most complete compact sporty car ever. I say this with the Escort Cosworth in mind, since the new 2016 Ford Focus RS is as much of a weapon as it is a daily driver. I did not think they would achieve such a feat especially after it was made public that Ken Block was somehow involved in the car’s development.
The bottom line is that the latest Focus RS is a sublime driver’s car with power, styling, and an aura that is usually limited to special and storied cars.
The RS was available in Europe during the previous Focus generations, and although it never made it to our shores, the model became something of a legendary unicorn. Such status could have been detrimental to a car like this, but I’m here to tell you that the 2016 Ford Focus RS is better than you imagine.
A hatchback, thank you very much
The hot compact hatchback is a format that began 40 years ago. Some “hot” sedans have seen the light of day, but few remain. The Subaru WRX and WRX STI are rare examples that survive, but they are very good. I predict a 5-door version of each by the time the next-generation Impreza officially hits the road.
Ford has done a flawless job of balancing the RS’ looks. The black 19” forged alloy wheels, the athletic stance, and the aero add-ons are perfectly matched. This approach is very German, and clean. Personally, I would have installed a larger rear spoiler, but then I’m not so reasonable. Nitrous Blue slightly offsets the subdued exterior modification and is a must. Black, white or grey simply will not do. When you spot a Stealth Grey Focus RS, you’ll understand.
Despite the mostly subtle appearance, the 2016 Ford Focus RS is unique in its front fascia and rear lower-half treatment. There is no mistaking the RS for a lowly ST when you’re an enthusiast.
Some interior disappointments
The interior continues the form-meets-function approach. The massive Recaro seats are, for the first time, not the greatest fit. They are positioned too high and their side bolstering is too aggressive. To be clear, they will hold occupants properly in place through a drift; however, on a daily basis, your average-sized reviewer found them borderline uncomfortable.
Pedal placement and the exaggeratingly protruding centre console did not help. Working in the heel and toe on a downshift is tricky because the go-pedal is utterly smooth and positioned farther back than the brake pedal. The HVAC controls are mere centimetres from the shifter, and quick, repeated shifting got my knuckles rapped against the console more than once (I don’t think I’m that ham-fisted).
The steering column in the RS equally juts into the driver’s knee room that is in part a product of the high seating position. On the positive, I’m happy to report that the steering wheel, unlike the one in the Mustang Shelby GT350 I recently evaluated, features normal-sized spokes for excellent grip.
The remainder of the cabin is standard Focus business. A 10-speaker Sony audio system, navigation, and SYNC 3 are all included.
Get on with it
The 2016 Ford Focus RS is EcoBoosted to the very limit. All of today’s hot compact hatches (and sedans) are powered by a turbocharged mill for a few reasons including savings in weight and space under the hood.
Ford went with the Mustang’s 2.3L turbo 4-cylinder in this application and further massaged it. The final tally is 350 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 350 lb-ft of torque at 3,200 rpm. All that delightful power is sent to the four wheels via a very sophisticated AWD system, but first it is channelled through a 6-speed manual gearbox.
The clutch pedal grabs on quickly, so it’s best to slowly release it the first few times out. Afterwards, it all becomes second nature, or nearly. Heel and toeing will come later. The shifter’s throws are short and heavy, albeit rubbery. By contrast, the Volkswagen Golf R’s are short, dry, and light.
Most impressive is the Focus RS’ ride and handling. If you’ve ever driven a Focus ST, you’re well aware that turn-in upon steering input is psychic to the point of being aggressive. The RS’ steering response is more progressive, but still immediate. Once headed to the apex, the suspension does a wonderful job of keeping the nose flat not without giving in a tad before settling. This is when the RS really comes into focus…
The trick AWD system features torque vectoring that keeps a watchful eye on where the power can do the most good 100 times per second. Its ability to send up to 70% of all the available torque to the rear, then up to 100% of that torque to either one of the rear wheels effectively pushes the car’s nose into the corner. Undertsteer is inexistent, thus serious momentum can be carried through and beyond the apex. The ballistic Michelin Pilot Super Sport Cup 2 tires also play a part.
The 2016 Ford Focus RS features five drive modes including “Drift” which is unique to this model. It enables a potentially ham-fisted individual like myself to slide his or her Focus quite like a pro. The AWD system sorts out steering angle and throttle, and sends you in the opposite direction you are steering in.
It’s not so much the fact that the RS handles; it’s how well it handles and how good and competent it makes the driver feel. Immense confidence in the car and the driver’s own skills comes from the first on-ramp or off-ramp taken. It’s quite an experience.
In daily driving conditions, the Focus RS proves far more civil than expected. The suspension’s top travel is just supple enough to filter out the harshest of amplitude changes, but don’t believe that this car is comfortable. In this respect, the Golf R remains the consummate gentleman.
The EcoBoost’s power is exceptional with nary a hint of turbo lag. For a quick launch, many revs are required, but once under way, the Focus RS gobbles up tarmac and pulls relentlessly. It sure is quick, but not much quicker, if at all, than the Golf R.
One, two or three letters?
This finally begs the question on everyone’s mind: R, RS or STI? The short answer is not the RS as many orders for the 2016 model year car have been pushed back to the 2017 MY.
Seriously, though, the game has changed so much in so little time that the STI is already more or less outdated, although it remains a fantastic automobile. For exclusivity and novelty reasons, the RS is the way to go. For every other reason, and to save about $10,000, the Golf R is still the car to beat.