Point and shoot
Focus RS — the Ford hot hatch you can take to the shops
TAKING the car for a spin gains a whole new meaning in Ford’s new Focus RS.
Select this powerful, fivedoor, all-wheel-drive hatch’s Drift Mode and it’s ready to whirl in sliding circles with smoke pouring from all four tyres — just like in the slick, seen-by-millions YouTube videos of Ken Block.
In fact, the 48-year-old American driver worked with Ford’s engineers on Drift Mode, testing it during the Focus RS’s three-year development program and advising on how to improve it.
In a spacious car park behind the pit area of the Circuit de Valencia in Spain, site of the Focus RS’s international introduction to the media, we’re about to find out if Drift Mode really works. Belted into the Ford’s snug-fit driver’s seat, we select first gear and enter the circle of cones.
It’s easy. The snarling turbo engine of the Focus RS is plenty powerful, and all it takes to get some Block-style action is flooring the throttle while turning at only 20 or 30km/h. The Ford snaps into a sideways slide and keeps slipping, circling and smoking as long as the driver stays on the accelerator.
Block must rely solely on his skill behind the wheel but the Focus RS driver has a safety net. The Ford might appear almost out of control yet Drift Mode also can sense when the driver is losing it and reduce power.
No other car maker has Drift Mode and Ford is proud of being first to do it. This technology, obviously, is for use only on a racetrack … or its empty car park. It’s spectacular but it’s the least useful of the Focus RS’s talents. You could even call it a gimmick.
Drift Mode may justly be seen by some as nothing more than a novelty but it won’t prevent anyone appreciating the all-round excellence of the new Focus RS.
The RS — for Rally Sport — badge has a history stretching back almost 50 years. Over the decades it has adorned a parade of European-made Fords, all of them fast and none of them built in large numbers. But the built-for-speed credo often meant they were noisy, roughriding and hard to live with.
The new one is different. Ford will sell this Focus RS all over the world — including, for the first time, the US. So a lot of effort has been put smoothing edges that might once have been left rough-finished.
Ford’s intense, three-year development program has created a car more polished and
civilised than any RS before, yet quick and fun to drive.
The beyond-merely-hot hyper-hatches from some of Germany’s most desirable brands, high-priced cars such as the Benz A45 AMG and Audi RS3, are under threat. The Focus RS has what it takes to challenge them for outright ability.
The Ford is made to a very similar recipe, as follows: take a mass-production hatch, install a big-power turbo engine, then add all-wheel-drive, large brakes, sticky tyres, stiffer suspension and body, swifter steering and an exterior aero kit to glue it to the road at speed.
Equipped with more direct steering than even the sporty Focus ST, the RS needs only two turns of the wheel to go from lock to lock. As with other bigwheel versions of the Focus, the turning circle of the RS is huge.
There are upgraded brakes inside the car’s 19-inch wheels and their grippy Michelin tyres. Hefty front discs are clamped by four-piston Brembo calipers.
Power comes from a hot version of Ford’s EcoBoost 2.3-litre turbo four, an engine used in the new Mustang. With a bigger turbo and other modifications, in the RS it punches out 257kW, or 24kW more than in the Mustang.
The engine also has been tuned for crackle and pop when a valve in its free-flowing muffler opens — as it does in the four driver-selectable modes (but not in the defaulton-start-up Normal mode. A six-speed manual is the sole transmission.
Ford Performance engineering manager Tyrone Johnson, who oversaw the car’s development, says it was chosen because it’s about 30kg lighter than any comparable double-clutch auto. This improves the car’s weight distribution and handling.
As its centrepiece, the RS’s all-wheel-drive has a very clever rear-drive setup between its rear wheels. Via a pair of electronically controlled clutches, this can channel power swiftly and precisely to each rear wheel.
Johnson claims this gives the Focus RS better traction and tidier handling than delivered by the quite different Haldextype all-wheel-drive tech favoured by other makers.
The hardware inventory reads well yet it is the concerted way everything works that makes the Focus RS an outstandingly entertaining drive.
Straight-line acceleration, especially from a standing start, is very good. Ford’s 4.7 second 0-100km/h claim feels easily achievable.
Even more impressive is the handling. The Ford Performance engineers who developed this car deserve praise for its brilliant balance and incredible cornering poise.
Steering, suspension and allwheel-drive work together to make it go exactly where it’s pointed, even when accelerating hard out of bends. It even rides decently on public roads, the sort of finesse lacking in other high-powered hatches.
It is excellent overall but not perfect. The interior, apart from the fine Recaro front sports seats and three extra dashtop gauges, is much like any other Focus but in contrast with the exterior there’s a lack of visual drama.
As well as the awful turning circle already mentioned, the Focus RS is sure to be a heavy drinker when driven hard. Covering just 150km or so of winding Spanish roads consumed about half of the 51L fuel tank.
The road component of the introductory drive was on mostly quite smooth surfaces and, not to prejudge, the RS could turn out to be a bit of a kidney pulveriser in Australia.
None of this will stop the Focus RS being snapped up by Australian buyers from the moment it begins to roll into Ford showrooms midyear.
The car’s already announced $51K price means it’s sure to become the high-performance bargain of 2016.