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AutoExpress: New Ford Focus RS 2016 review

by James Disdale, 18 Jan, 2016

Ford's legendary RS brand returns with the new Ford Focus RS setting a new hot hatch standard

Verdict: 5 stars

It’s been a long time coming, but the RS is worth the wait. Its aggressive looks won’t be to all tastes, yet the blistering performance and acrobatic handling are hard to fault. The highlight is the clever all-wheel- drive system that delivers involvement rivals can’t match. The stiff ride could be an issue in the UK, but in all other respects the RS is a performance car bargain.

This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. After months of spy shots, teaser videos and motor show stand appearances, we’ve finally been able to get behind the wheel of the Ford Focus RS.

Featuring a thumping 345bhp power output, hi-tech four-wheel-drive transmission and an eye-catching price tag, the fire-breathing Focus promises to be one of the most thrilling driving machines of 2016.

Even before you open the door and settle down into one of the figure-hugging Recaro seats, it’s clear the RS means business. The gaping grille with matt black surround, prominent front splitter, bulging wheelarches and high-rise tailgate spoiler ensure the RS looks like it’s driven straight off a rally stage. Yet these additions aren’t just for show.

For instance, the front grille features a unique honeycomb design that increases airflow for better engine cooling, while a pair of vents lower down channel air to the brakes, keeping temperatures down to allow up to half an hour of continued hard use on a track. The various spoilers and diffusers also result in zero aerodynamic lift at speed.

Look closer still and you’ll spot the huge 350mm front discs (the largest ever on a fast Focus) clamped by four-piston Brembo brakes. Other additions include the imposing twin exit exhaust and large 19-inch alloy wheels, which can be upgraded to matt black forged items that save nearly 4kg in weight. Our car’s head-turning kerb appeal was given an added boost courtesy of its vivid £745 Nitrous Blue paint finish.

Yet it’s under the skin that things get really interesting. For starters, the five-door bodyshell has benefited from extensive strengthening in an effort to securely locate the suspension for more accurate handling.

Then, of course, there’s the engine. The turbocharged 2.3-litre four-cylinder is taken from the latest Mustang, but a number of internal revisions, including the addition of a unique cylinder head machined by British tuning specialist Cosworth, has helped boost power to 345bhp and torque to a muscular 440Nm. More importantly, this powerplant is mated to a four-wheel-drive transmission – a first for any fast Ford since the legendary

Escort RS Cosworth of the nineties. However, while its predecessor’s set-up was fairly crude, the Focus’s system is packed with cutting-edge kit. At the heart of the transmission is the clever Rear Drive Unit that can send up to 70 per cent of the engine’s torque to the rear axle, plus divert 100 per cent of this power to an individual rear wheel. In effect, Ford has engineered in a torque vectoring facility that aims to combine the stability and traction of an all-wheel- drive car with the adjustability and agility of a traditional rear-driven machine.

The extra driving dexterity that this transmission delivers has also allowed Ford to drop the Focus ST’s variable ratio steering rack in favour of a fixed rate set-up, which it claims will deliver greater feel and more consistent responses. Other RS innovations include two-stage adaptive dampers, plus the addition of four selectable driving modes – Normal, Sport, Track and Drift – that alter the responses of the throttle, steering, transmission and stability control to suit driving conditions and your mood. This all looks good on paper, but does it translate into real thrills on the road?

Prod the starter button and the engine fires quickly before settling down to a baritone burble at idle. As in the last Focus RS you sit a little too high, but the Recaro seats offer supreme support, while the chunky three-spoke wheel and short throw gearlever are perfectly sited. Pull away and the RS feels as docile as any Focus. The pedals are ideally weighted and the engine feels smooth and tractable. Floor the throttle, however, and the Ford soon reveals its wild side. With a hefty 440Nm of torque available at just 2,000rpm and almost unbreakable four-wheel-drive traction, the Focus erupts off the line, pushing you back in your seat. It’s not as brutally quick as a Mercedes-AMG A 45, but it’s not far behind.

A launch control function holds revs at exactly the right point for the fastest getaways, while the slick and precise six-speed manual gearbox allows you to extract every last ounce of performance. Better still, the engine emits a sporty growl that increases in volume and intensity as the revs rise, while lifting off the throttle when in Sport mode results in a barrage of pops and bangs from the exhaust.

With such accessible and impressive power on tap, it’s not long before you’ve devoured the first straight and are heading for a corner. And that’s were the fun really begins. For starters, the Brembo brakes are powerful and perfectly progressive, while the new steering set-up is quick, well weighted and delivers just enough feedback, making it easy to place the Focus’ front end with laser-guided accuracy.

Front-end grip is strong, and the RS locks easily on to your chosen line, but it’s when you start to apply the power that things get really interesting.

Rather than wash wide or succumb to unruly torque steer, the Ford pivots around your hips to get as straight as possible for a faster exit from the bend. Select the sportier driving modes and you can get the rear end around more aggressively. Out of slower corners in greasy or wet conditions, you’ll even be treated to a delicious flick of oversteer as power is diverted to the rear axle. It’s all very natural, and with the stability control switched on, the electronics smoothly intervene to stop the RS getting too wayward. However, even with the ESP disabled, the four-wheel-drive system helps halt any big slides by shuffling power to the front wheels.

This is effectively what happens when you select the exciting sounding ‘Drift Mode’. The idea is that you turn into a corner with the throttle wide open and the Ford will slide sideways in a perfectly controlled drift. In reality, however, the four-wheel-drive system wants to send torque to the front axle in a bid to pull the car straight. For drivers used to traditional rear-wheel-drive cars it’s a bit of a gimmick, but for owners of standard hot hatches this boisterous behaviour will be a revelation.

When you’re not playing the hooligan, the RS is capable of covering ground as fast, if not faster, than many supercars. The combination of compact dimensions, scorching acceleration and balanced, grippy handling allows the car to fly along twisting back roads. Body control is excellent – although Sport mode, which stiffens the dampers by 40 per cent, feels unrelentingly firm even on a smooth track.

In slippery conditions, the Ford feels safe and secure, but the clever rear-biased four-wheel-drive system makes it more engaging to drive than other all-wheel-drive hot hatches such as the Audi RS3 and the A 45.

However, look past the aggressive styling, explosive performance and trick transmission and you’ll discover a standard Focus. The five-door layout is family friendly, while the interior is as robust and easy to use as other models in the line-up. There are one or two issues, however.

Even in its softest setting the ride is on the firm side, and the Focus follows lumps and bumps in the road. It’s never harsh or crashy, but it rarely settles down. Also, the addition of a rear differential and unique subframe results in a cramped 260-litre boot.

Still, these are relatively small niggles for a such a high-performance machine, and are soon forgotten when you consider the car’s £29,995 price tag.

That looks like a lot for a Ford Focus, but it’s the same price as the less powerful 306bhp Honda Civic Type R, and you’ll have to spend around £10,000 more on the Audi or Mercedes. Quick, exciting and affordable, the Focus RS is another true fast Ford hero.

Key specs

Model: Ford Focus RS
Price: £29,995
Engine: 2.3-litre 4cyl turbo
Power/torque: 345bhp/440Nm

Transmission: six-speed manual, four-wheel drive
0-62mph/Top speed: 4.7s/165mph
Economy/CO2: 36.7mpg/175g/km
On sale : Now
 

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