It was figuring to be an interesting look at opposite ends of the Ford performance spectrum. In one corner, wearing the Magnetic Silver trunks, we had the hard-hitting, Baja-racing F-150 Raptor. In the opposite corner, sporting the Nitrous Blue trunks, stood the track-ready, rally-inspired Focus RS hatchback. The ring? The Mecaglisse racing facility north of Montreal, close to L'Esterel resort.
We’ve already talked about the Raptor (click on the link above for the full story), so after bashing through the snowbanks in the pickup, it was time to test our rally-racing mettle on the packed-snow surface on a portion of Mecaglisse’s road course.
We weren’t let loose on the full course, unfortunately; our cars had studded tires and low snow levels meant that the track’s concrete surface was showing through in certain areas, and we’d risk damaging that with our cars.
Not that you need the full course to appreciate the Focus RS, however. With 350 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque, the car’s performance prowess makes itself felt as soon as you depress the throttle. Meanwhile, with torque-vectoring AWD and “Drift” mode, you can feel its race-bred handling attributes as soon as you twist the steering wheel.
Letters of fame
Let’s step back for a minute, and have a look at what the Ford Focus RS has to thank for its existence today.
For those in the know, “RS” designates a very special breed when it comes to Ford models. It stands for “Rallye Sport,” and it has adorned the name of many famous rally cars through the years, from the Escort RS1600 to the manic RS200 Group B Rally car and the hugely successful Escort RS AWD model of the early ‘90s. Quite the DNA pool, then. Better still, the current Focus RS is a joint effort between Ford’s American and European branches, so you’ve got a great cross-section of engineering talent on display.
In Canada—the first time we’ve seen the model—what this means is plenty of power, standard Recaro racing buckets, all-wheel drive, and both summer performance and winter tires being included with the purchase price (U.S. cars get summer tires only). Ford has clearly billed the Focus RS as a hot hatch for all seasons.
And we were about to see just how close the Blue Oval has come to making that a reality.
Get your (snow)drift on
The track featured a mix of tests such as decreasing-radius hairpin turns, a slalom, as well as a pair of fast sweepers and a set of fast left-right-left chicanes over undulating terrain. We drove the Focus RS with instructors riding shotgun. Much to our delight, we soon found out that far from being a deterrent to brisk driving, these folks spent more time telling us to push even harder. These were not people that spent their time in the beige offices of Young Drivers of Canada; they were seasoned racers, much more familiar with the white-and-blue Armco barriers that surround tracks in North America and Europe, and the cozy confines of single-seat, open-wheel formula cars and bare-bones GT racers.
At first, we started off a little tentatively, unsure of just how much grip the studded Michelin Pilot Alpine tires were able to offer.
Well, they offer plenty. It wasn’t long before we were tipping in the throttle just that much more at the behest of our instructor, confident in the notion that even if we started to snow plow on understeer, a healthy dab of the go-pedal would get that tail out and us around the apex in no time. The slalom became more and more fun to tackle as we got into the groove, sawing the wheel left and right and listing as the studs grabbed a mouthful of snow and spat it rearward in great plumes of snow dust. Such a blast!
But that was nothing compared to those fast sweepers that also happened to carry us over berms. Of course, what happens there is the car tends to lose a little traction as physics pull it a little up and off of the ground below. It’s in these types of situation where you can really get the tail out, and as we progressed, we began to grab more and more opposite luck, even throwing in a Scandinavian flick or two to really get the chassis unsettled. We may not have looked like it from the outside, but we sure felt like World Rally Championship drivers in the Ford Focus RS, and much of that has to do with the fact that the car instills so much confidence. Eventually, we managed to drift around the entirety of that corner we’d been trying to nail the whole afternoon.
The RS features a front-biased AWD system that can send up to 70% of torque to the rear axle, and 100% of that available torque to either wheel to help the car swivel around corners. It can do this by reading the ground below the tires 100 times per second, and you can really feel the power being shuffled about from corner to corner. It’s how you can start sliding towards the snowbank, and then burying the throttle to send the power rearwards and the car swiveling about. It came to the point where we were actually trying to unsettle the chassis, adopting wilder and wilder drift angles, but the RS just kept pulling us out. Even in Drift mode, which relaxes electronic intervention, the machine proved wholly manageable in these situations.
The interior modifications also do their part to allow for some more aggressive driving. The deep Recaro buckets keep you firmly in place as you swing the Focus RS to and fro, and the more direct steering means you aren’t sawing the wheel quite so hard as you carry on. The one thing I would ask for, however, is that the wheel rim be shrunken a little and tilted more toward the driver; as a taller person, I had to push the seat further back and I couldn’t shake the feeling that while the wheel does tilt and telescope, it remained a bit out of a reach for me.
Remember, it’s a road car
Track play is all well and good, but we can’t imagine many owners actually taking their new Ford Focus RS to the track. This car has to work well on regular pavement, too. Do all the performance modifications affect its on-road manners in an overly negative way?
That depends, really. The clutch is a little heavier, sure, and the more direct steering can catch you (and your passengers) off guard if you aren’t ready for it. In the real world, this can translate into some slightly more tiring progress, especially when coupled with the firmer suspension. Needless to say we were happy that damper stiffness can easily be adjusted (to two levels) by pressing a button on the end of the left-hand stalk, no matter which drive mode is selected.
Get past all that, however, and you get what you pay for: a fantastically functional and furious Focus that can tackle pretty much any byroad with gumption, yet still be used to pack for the shopping or camping trip thanks to its hatchback body style (although there is slightly less cargo space in the RS due to the presence of a second differential).
It looks the business, too, what with its big roof spoiler and more aggressive front and rear fascias. The front grille, in particular, gets a nice honeycomb finish as opposed to the mesh design on the Focus ST. And how can you not like those blue brake calipers? They look especially sharp when peeking out from behind the smoked wheels that come as standard with the summer tires. Finally, there’s the sound, which can be enjoyed in almost any circumstance: fantastic pop-pop-popping on overrun, and a wonderful off-beat warble through the twin tailpipes no matter the revs. I used to think nothing could top the Fiat 500 Abarth when it came to outlandish exhaust notes, but Ford has managed to do so, sounding louder and more purposeful yet somehow less fabricated at the same time.
The real thing
Actually, I applaud the Focus RS for feeling less fabricated in many aspects. The steering, while electronically boosted, is true and feels right (better if you have longer arms), the shift action is spot on (a manual transmission is your only choice), and the way the AWD system is transparent in what it’s doing just adds to the car’s overall charm.
Sure, spending almost $50,000 for a Focus will be hard for some to take—the VW Golf R, for example, starts at less—but I have a feeling that “RS” moniker will do wonders for the car and people will be willing to shell out for a part, a taste, of motoring history. Especially if they get a lot of snow.