Ford Focus RS review – is Ford's hyperactive hatchback a cut price Audi RS3?
8 JAN 2019
The Focus RS impresses with strong performance and great handling
+ Incredible pace while being fun and adjustable
- Interior lacks sophistication and quality of German rivals
Evo’s most loved hot hatches tend to major on engineering simplicity and the purity of the driving experience. Our favourites are usually lightweight and agile machines with seemingly unburstable engines and a no-frills attitude — the sort of approach typified by Renaultsport, which almost always delivers uncompromising but thoroughly engaging sporting hatchbacks.
Ford has taken an entirely different approach with the Focus RS spec, employing seriously high-tech systems to manage a vast power output, and to create a four-wheel drive chassis that responds to the demands of its driver with all the agility of a lighter, smaller and simpler machine. In other words, more is more, with the Focus RS Drift Mode just one of a raft of features that have cemented the model into fast Ford folklore.
But while the Focus RS might not quite fit the standard evo mould for a pure unadulterated hot hatch, there’s absolutely no doubt that it’s vastly effective and thoroughly engaging in its own special way. The high-tech, all the bells and whistles approach is arguably closer to the concept of the Nissan GT-R, but we can’t deny the Focus RS philosophy is immensely impressive and a whole lot of fun.
Ford Focus RS: in detail Performance and 0-60 time
With a 0-62mph time of 4.7sec and a 165mph top speed, the RS delivers performance worthy of the badge. Despite all-wheel drive, the RS is remarkably easy to launch thanks to its launch control system. Read about the Focus RS's performance here.
Engine and gearbox
The Focus RS has a 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine also shared with the EcoBoost Mustang. Thanks to extensive changes though, the RS eclipses the Mustangs power and torque figures with 345bhp and 325lb ft of torque. Read about the Focus RS's engine and transmission here
Ride and handling
The Focus RS is pretty stiff for UK roads, with the harsh figety ride not settling until you reach higher speeds. Once there, small bumps as well as larger compressions, which catch out some rivals, are dealt with in supreme confidence never leaving you in doubt of the RS's ability to maintain total composure. Read about the Focus RS's ride and handling here.
MPG and running costs
Thanks to engine's high state of tune and enormous turbo, the running costs are not really the RS's forte. Ford quote an official figure of 36.7mpg, but if you drive it as Ford intended you won't be likely to see over 30mpg. Read about the Focus RS's mpg and running costs.
Interior and tech
The Focus RS may be a backroad superstar, but the RS is unfortunately saddled with the same dated and slightly awkward interior as the standard car. The biggest problem are the annoyingly high front seats. Read about the Focus RS's interior and tech here
Due to this generation of Focus being a five door only, the RS lacks the bespoke wide body and more extreme styling of its forebearers. That said the wild front apron and rear wing could ensure the RS is obvious over the more subtle ST sibling. Read about the Focus RS's design here.
Prices, specs and rivals
Considering the power and playful handling on offer, we think the Focus RS is a rather good deal. A less costly but more engaging alternative to its rivals, it offered just about as much performance as you could get for your money in the hot hatch sector.
Unlike rivals such as the Audi RS3, it had a somewhat limited options list with just a few paint options to choose from. Stealth' grey was the only standard finish, with the rest coming at extra cost. You could choose from ‘Frozen white’, 'Magnetic' or 'Shadow Black' or the colour you’ll know best, 'Nitrous Blue'. The most appropriate colour for this rowdy hot hatch, we feel.
A pair of impressive looking and hugely supportive Recaro front seats come as standard, but the rest of the interior is arguably a little bland. It may have been one of the cheapest hot hatches on the market, but a little spark of colour, perhaps carbon fibre and/or Alcantara wouldn’t go amiss. Optional extras to look out for are Ford’s forged black alloy wheels and the 'Luxury Pack', which came at quite a price but added power folding mirrors, rear parking sensors, keyless go, cruise control and privacy glass in the rear. And while they’re not the coolest of accessories the nifty door protectors might prove useful if you use the car daily too.
The Volkswagen Golf R is marginally cheaper, but on paper is completely outgunned by the Focus; it's down 48bhp and 67lb ft of torque. Yet on the road it feels just as quick, its performance delivered in a deep-chested, smooth-spinning linear surge. It’s impressively composed and engaging too, yet it feels like a more grown-up and subtle proposition to the popping, banging and drift mode equipped Ford.
Audi’s RS3 is more in line with the Focus in terms of performance. The RS3’s 362bhp means it has a better power-to-weight ratio than the Focus’s 230bhp/ton with 242bhp/ton. But, it’s a much more expensive machine and still isn’t as fun as the Focus, hobbled as it is by that glorious but weighty five-cylinder engine hanging out over the nose.
Despite being just front wheel drive, VW’s Golf GTI Clubsport S and Honda’s Civic Type R are more than capable of keeping the Focus RS honest. Both produce 306bhp and hit 62mph from a standstill in less than 6sec. With even the ‘Performance’ model costing a very reasonable £28,760, the Hyundai i30 N could also prove to be an interesting front wheel drive alternative. It may have less power than the Focus RS, but it proved to be rather playful in comparison to the Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance we put it up against.
The Honda is incredibly agile, has sharp steering and a wonderful balance, while its ability t generate traction and grip in all conditions borders on witchcraft. Look past the bonkers looks and it’s a doddle to live with too, thanks to a roomy cabin, supple ride and tractable engine.
The Clubsport S, however, exudes a quality from the steering and damping that simply isn’t matched by any car that was less than twice the cost of the Golf’s original asking price of £33,995. Both the Focus RS and the Golf GTI Clubsport S made it into our 2016 Car of the Year test, the VW finished second overall beating the Ford by eight places.
Sadly though, production of the Clubsport S has been limited and each and everyone of them has already been sold. If you aren’t one of the lucky buyers, and you’re desperate for a 300bhp+ hot hatch, the Focus RS is a remarkably good alternative. But not as complete as Honda Civic Type-R, which you can still buy.
Performance and 0-60 time
As all fast Fords have done, the third generation Focus RS punches above its weight, it delivers remarkable amounts of acceleration and speed for a relatively small amount of money.
The Focus RS produces 345bhp and 347lb ft of torque, that's enough to propel it to a maximum claimed speed of 165mph and we recorded a 0-60mph time of 4.7sec. Even though you can only get the Focus RS with a conventional manual, it still has a launch control system to help you get the quickest possible start off the line. It does however require you to abandon all mechanical sympathy and side-step the clutch then hammer each gear in. The Focus RS copes amazingly well with this sort of abuse, though.
Our testing extended a bit further than just a 0-60 time. We recorded a quarter mile time of 13.5sec at a speed of 104.2mph. We also performed an in-gear acceleration test, and found the Focus RS takes five seconds dead to accelerate from 30mph to 70mph in third gear. To put that in context, that’s the same as 5-litre V8 Mustang.
As remarkable as most of the numbers are, there’s one that seems slightly unimpressive; the weight. The RS tips the scales at hefty 1524kg (although it was a little bit more at 1567kg, when we weighed it), that’s 162kg more than a Focus ST. A lot of that extra weight is likely the 4WD drivetrain, but without that, the RS wouldn't be as quick.
Engine and gearbox
The latest generation Focus RS no longer has the warbling in-line 5-cylinder engine that bestowed the MK2 with huge amounts of charm. Instead it shares the 2.3ltr Ecoboost engine with the European entry-level Mustang. That is no bad thing, the 2261cc 4-cylinder turbo does a good job of making the big Mustang a reasonably fast car, even if the giant V8 suits its character even more.
The engine isn’t left untouched in the RS, though. It has a different turbo to deal with a higher flow of gasses, the material that makes the head casting and the piston liners is changed, and the size of the intercooler, radiator and oil cooler have been increased. The intercooler is so big that, when first tested, it cooled the air to the point water vapour started to appear in the intake. Since then it's had to be blanked off to reduce how efficient it is, but that does mean there’s plenty of scope for more power, at least where the intercooler is concerned.
The engine itself feels strong and eager. It doesn’t have the most linear power delivery, a definite boost is felt at 4000rpm and then again at 5000rpm. But, it feels like it wants to rev right to its limiter, even if the noise it makes isn’t exactly scintillating. Ford have tried hard to make it sound more impressive than most 4-cylinder turbo engines on the market. And although they’ve not failed, it’s really only when the exhaust pops and crackles on overrun when the engine makes anything but an ordinary noise.
It's worth noting that Milltek also do an aftermarket exhaust for the RS which adds even more over the top crackles and pops. You can hear it on our Instagram page here.
The gearbox itself isn’t technically very impressive, but it is competent and the shift is clear, quick and easy. The rest of the drivetrain is worth going into more depth.
Much has been said about the Focus RS’s four-wheel drive system, particularly its Drift mode. So how does it actually work?
The front axle is much like that of a conventional front wheel drive car. There’s an open, non-locking differential that distributes torque to the front wheels and allows each wheel to rotate at a different speed. So far, so ordinary.
As well as the front driveshafts the diff also rotates a propshaft that sends torque to the rear axle. However, the propshaft, unlike the front driveshafts, is not sharing torque with anything else so is permanently being turned. This propshaft turns a pinion and then a crownwheel within a rear diff housing. Just as the propshaft is being continually turned, so is the crownwheel and pinion.
It’s the rear differential where things get interesting. Rather than a conventional open diff, or even an LSD, there is no gears other than the permanently driven crownwheel and pinion. This alone sounds like a recipe for disaster; a 100% locked rear diff that will cause catastrophic understeer and ludicrous tyrewear. However, instead of allowing the rear wheels to turn at different speeds by using gears there are two clutch packs, one on each driveshaft that can fully open and allow each rear wheel to spin independently.
When both of the clutch packs on the rear axle are open, and no torque is being sent to either rear wheel, the RS is essentially a front wheel drive car.
As the propshaft is being constantly driven, as soon as the clutch packs in the rear axle begin to close they immediately send torque to the rear wheels. And, as each of the clutch packs can work independently of each other, and vary the amount of torque they distribute almost instantly across the axle, they can make huge changes to how the car behaves.
Ford have said that, with the factory RS’s 4WD control system, they have seen up to 70% of the torque being sent to just one rear wheel. With the car in Drift mode, the system can send huge amounts of torque to the outside rear wheel to induce an exaggerated yaw movement to put the car into a slide. The rear diff can then vary the torque across the rear axle to maintain a slide as the driver keeps their foot pinned.
What’s more, the rear axle is geared 2% quicker than the front. So every time either of the rear wheels is engaged, the back is trying to overtake the front. The over-speed rear amplifies the already naturally agile rear axle.
Ride and handling
The Focus RS is certainly a firm car. On UK roads it’s probably just on the cusp of being too stiff. The ride is fidgety at low speeds, however above 50mph or so it starts to smooth out anything but the most severe bumps.
When the road becomes more demanding, and the bumps become crests that can really upset a car, the Focus maintains supreme control. The body remains well supported in compressions, and never seems to get close to bottoming out. Large undulations, that could confuse the body and cause it to become out of sync with the road, are dealt with quickly and effectively.
If you fancy trying the firmer dampers on the road, then a button at the end of the left hand stalk will allow you to make them 40% stiffer without you having to put the car into full track mode. But it doesn’t take long for you to realise that they are far too firm, and vertical inputs are transmitted into the car and don't improve the RS's compsure.
The RS has very quick steering that feels very sensitive to even minor inputs. The sometimes-bumpy ride does mean that, as you’re jolted around the cabin, you can inadvertently add steering inputs you don’t want to. This means on rough roads you constantly have to correct the steering.
But the hyper-active steering works brilliantly with the front-end. There’s plenty of bite, especially if you trail brake a little, and the front responds immediately. This pointy front end endows the RS with a naturally neutral to oversteer balance on corner entry. It behaves very much like an aggressively set-up front wheel drive hot hatch, and can use a throttle lift to agitate the rear end.
The chassis allows some roll, but it’s very controlled and acts more of a barometer for how much grip the Michelin Pilot Super Sports have in reserve. It’s most useful mid-corner, as it allows you to judge when to get on the throttle.
The rear end of the Focus can be persuaded to step out more easily on a wet road. However in the dry, if you’re aggressive on turn in and then on the power early, the rear will trace a greater arc than the front. It does require a lot of commitment and a well-sighted corner, though.
If you aren’t as committed at the start of a bend, and you try to induce some oversteer just on the exit in the dry, nothing really materialises. There is a sense of an exaggerated yaw movement, that even with more throttle sadly never turns into oversteer. This is the only time the Focus RS ever feels contrived. But considering the control the systems have over the car, that’s mightly impressive. In the wet, and over much bumpier terrain, the rear finds less grip and breaks away more naturally.
Be smooth with your inputs and the RS will carry huge speed through a corner. If you haven’t unsettled the rear, there are times where it feels like the drivetrain is fighting with the tyres. There’s a sense it’s almost tearing itself apart and it can create a pulsing, bouncing movement throughout the car.
If what you really want is some lairy, sideways action — and you’re within the safe confines of a circuit or closed road — then you can experiment with the Focus’s Drift Mode. When selected, the GKN 4WD system sends a large proportion of the available torque to the outside rear wheel to induce a slide. The driver has to apply a lot of throttle so there’s enough torque to overcome the trye’s grip. So far, much like trying to get a rear-wheel drive car sideways but it’s once the Focus has started to slide that it begins to feel unique to the RS. The rear differential manages the torque between the rear wheels to maintain the angle of the slide, all the driver has to do is keep their foot pinned and point the front wheels where they want to go.
It sounds like a lot of fun, and to some extent it is. However if you’re used to the way a rear-wheel drive car looses grip under power, performing a slide with Drift Mode on takes some getting used to — instead of backing off the throttle slightly to regain some control, maintaining full throttle doesn’t feel very natural. The lack of interaction needed to pull-off a clean, competent slide robs you of some of the satisfaction but it's undoubtedly fun, if a little childish.
With the Focus in Track mode, with the traction and stability control fully turned off, it will still perform power-on oversteer. It isn’t quite so easy to provoke, but the result feels similar to that of Drift Mode just not quite so easy to sustain a long slide. Neither mode makes the RS feel like a proper rear-wheel drive car, but no other 4WD car offers this level of riotous playfulness.
There’s no doubt the RS is an extremely effective and fast car. There’s a real quality to the way it rides and how cohesive the package feels; the steering, rate of roll and drivetrain have been engineered to perfectly complement each other. But unlike many of its competitors, of which their talents only stretch as far as being effective, the Focus is adjustable, fun and makes for a very entertaining, involving drive.
MPG and running costs
If you’re really fussed about such things as MPG, the Focus RS probably isn’t for you. Its official combined MPG figure is 36.7mpg, however try to use any of the RS’s performance and that will plummet.
The Ford sits in insurance group 40, the same as an Audi RS3. So, although not likely to mean cheap insurance, it won’t be the crippling costs previous RS model Fords have suffered.
One of the biggest costs will be tyres. The RS’s aggressive chassis and drivetrain suggests it might eat through tyres quickly. A set of Michelin Pilot Super Sports will be over £650, but if you opt for the grippier Cup 2s (although we can’t imagine you’d need more grip than the Super Sports provide on the road) you’ll need to find over £800 to replace all four.
Prices, specs and rivals
The RS crowns the Focus line up and has a range-topping price tag, but at just a couple of thousand over £30k it’s only marginally more than the electric Focus. It is £5k dearer than the junior performance Focus derivative, the ST, but in light of what the Focus RS offers it’s an awful lot of performance for the money.
Luckily the RS has a pretty sparse options list with plenty of kit fitted as standard. The Optional Recaros at £1000-plus are worth considering if you have track days in mind, although if you prefer mod cons you could opt for the Luxury pack which adds power fold door mirrors, rear parking sensors, keyless entry and cruise control for about £1000. If the standard Stealth (grey) is a little tepid for your tastes, there are four other finishes to choose from ranging in price from £250 to £745, including Nitrous Blue. A set of black wheels will supplement the final price by about £1000.
The VW Golf R is one many cars competing in the hot hatch melting pot. While priced on a par with the Ford, the options list is much longer, so a nigh-on £40k Golf R is possible. Despite the similarities of a four-wheel drive platform, the German hatch simply can’t live with Focus in performance terms; down on both power and torque by 48bhp and 67lb ft respectively — ultimately it isn’t as thrilling either.
The Ford’s power output is only trumped by the Mercedes-AMG A45 and recently refreshed Audi RS3 in the hot hatch arena, both knocking on the door of 400bhp. The German duo exude a much more premium feel which of course you pay for — both cost over £40k — although they’re less engaging to drive as the Focus in spite of the extra speed offered.
The latest FK8 Honda Civic Type R may not boast two driven axles but it’s all the better for it. With less weight to carry the Type R is lithe, responsive and well balanced too.
Interior and tech
The interior is the Ford’s Achilles’ heel. It’s much like a standard Focus interior, with very little that defines it as a hot hatch. It doesn’t have the finish, or quality of the materials of its rivals — even the similarly priced Golf R feels significantly more premium.
The biggest issue is the placement of the front seats, even with the optional Recaro bucket seats you just can't get low enough in the cabin to really feel apart of the car. Add to this Ford's old SYNC 2 infotainment system and iffy erginomics of the gearstick and handbrake and the RS's interior starts to feel like a bigger compromise than you would expect to make for an RS against more sound rivals like the Golf R and Audi S3.
As it’s a Focus though, it’s practical, big enough for 5 people and has a relatively large boot.
Only available with five doors and no wider than the standard model, the new Focus RS isn’t as bespoke at the previous versions. It doesn’t posses the subtle menace of the Mk1, nor is it as wild or as outrageous at the Mk2. The new Focus RS might not look that exciting in pictures, but in the metal the large grill opening, rear wing and big exhausts do make it look suitably imposing.
The body modifications aren’t just for looks though, the Focus RS produces absolutely no lift. It might not be downforce, but for a hatchback, that’s incredible.
Ford Focus RS vs rivals
Now in its third incarnation the Focus RS has developed a strong following but how did it fare when we pitched it up against SEAT’s Leon Cupra 300 and the new kid on the block, Honda’s latest Civic Type-R in our Supertest in issue 241?
The RS looks to have it all on-paper — nigh on 350bhp, four-wheel drive to keep it in check and a tweaked and lowered chassis set up. Plus it looks the part with aggressive styling and couples this with an entertaining soundtrack. It’s blisteringly quick but does it have the finesse to go with its outright speed?
Weight, dimensions and performance data
Thanks to its four-wheel drive it’s the heaviest car here at 1569kg — 220kg up on the SEAT and 150kg more than the Type-R — but even this can’t stop the RS from being the fastest to 60mph from rest, and by quite a margin. At 4.9sec it’s a full second quicker than the Type-R and 1.3sec faster than the SEAT. Extracting that figure is a brutal process though and not one for those with an ounce of mechanical sympathy as the RS’s launch control effectively involves dropping the clutch at 5000rpm. The Focus’s brakes lagged behind the Civic’s though, taking 15 metres longer to stop from 100mph.
Lap time and track driving
On Bedford’s West Circuit the Focus RS was somewhat hampered by its weight — it was fast at the beginning of the lap but its times dropped off as the brakes and tyres struggled towards the end of each lap. At 1:26.9 It was faster than the SEAT (by 0.9sec) but 0.7sec slower than the tenacious Type-R.
The RS’s unruly nature saw it struggle in some of the faster corners such as Tower where the Civic could manage an 83mph maximum, nearly 10mph faster than the RS which was impeded by its tendency to oversteer. Ultimately the RS was fun, but not the quickest.
Supertest data and specs table
Ford Focus RS Honda Civic Type R SEAT Leon Cupra 300
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 2261cc, turbo In-line 4-cyl, 1996cc, turbo In-line 4-cyl, 1984cc, turbo
Power 345bhp @ 6000rpm 316bhp @ 6500rpm 296bhp @ 5500rpm
347lb @ 2000-4500rpm 295lb @ 2500-4500rpm 280lb @ 1800-5500rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, four-wheel drive, torque vectoring rear differential Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive, limited-slip differential Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive, electronically controlled LSD
Tyres 235/35 R19 front and rear, Michelin Pilot Super Sport 245/30 R20 front and rear, Continental SportContact 6 235/35 R19 front and rear, Pirelli P Zero
Height/width 1472mm/1823mm 1434mm/1877mm 1423mm/1810mm
Weight 1569kg as tested (1547kg claimed) 1412kg as tested (1380kg claimed) 1347kg as tested (1300kg claimed)
Power-to-weight 223bhp/ton using test-car weight (227bhp/ton claimed) 227bhp/ton using test-car weight (233bhp/ton claimed) 223bhp/ton using test-car weight (231bhp/ton claimed)
0-60mph 4.9sec as tested (4.7 to 62 claimed) 5.9sec as tested (5.8 to 62 claimed) 6.2sec as tested (5.7 to 62 claimed)
Top speed 166mph (claimed) 169mph (claimed) 155mph (limited)
evo mpg 22.2 (average over duration of test) 26.6 (average over duration of test) 27.6 (average over duration of test)
Basic price £32,265 £30,995 £30,155
PCP monthly price £445 (36 months, £3500 deposit, 9000 miles per annum limit) £491 (36 months, £3500 deposit, 10,000 miles per annum limit)
Ford Focus RS review – is Ford's hyperactive hatchback a cut price Audi RS3?
I’ve always respected Evo, even after much of their original staff left to do other things.
Everything they say about the RS is true in my experience, except that maybe the gearshift is more special than they say. The way they describe the highs and lows of the suspension, the chassis balance on and off throttle, and the way the car sometimes feels like it is “trying to tear itself apart” is all spot on IMO.