by Mark Vaughn, January 25, 2016
We finally get a Focus RS after 30 years of waiting; Yes, it was worth the wait
On Sale: Early April
Base Price: $36,605
Drivetrain: 2.3-liter turbo I-4, AWD, six-speed manual
Output: 350 hp at 6,000 rpm, 350 lb-ft from 2,000-4,500 rpm
Curb Weight: 3,525 pounds (mfg.)
0-60 MPH: 4.7 seconds (mfg.)
Pros: Fast, fun but not frivolous
Cons: Still have to wait until April
After decades of sitting on the wrong side of the Atlantic looking longingly at any number of fabulous Ford Focus RS models, we in The States will finally get the Focus RS performance hatchback.
Rejoice you counter-steering gravel-spewers.
The 2016 Ford Focus RS is the latest in a long line of performance coupes, hatchbacks and sedans with the forbidden RS moniker on the trunk lid that have tantalized enthusiasts here since the 1968 15M RS. That list includes such notable Scandanavian-flickers as the 1984 RS200, 1990 Sierra Cosworth RS 4x4 and any number of Escorts and Capris to carry those two sacred letters. OK, maybe you gray-marketed one of those over in the belly of a C-130 when you returned from your Army or Air Force tour in Germany or the U.K. But the vast majority of American rallyists and performance-car-lovers never got to see, drive or, gawd forbid, own an actual RS bought here and speced-out to meet our ridiculous EPA and DOT standards. Now they can, and by golly, they won’t be disappointed.
First, the design. The look is pretty pure, very straightforward and definitely not overdone. Apart from that top rear winglet, you could sneak this past the five-oh like you were going to the grocery store.
“There is nothing extra on the car, no extra grille openings, scoops, flaps, pseudo aero devices, everything is functional,” said Tyrone Johnson, vehicle and engineering manager for Ford Performance ST and RS products.
As with many cars trying to knock off a billionth of a tick of drag for aerodynamic purposes, the RS shape spent a lot of time on a computer -- over 2,000 hours. As a result, it is one of the few cars on the road that offers true zero lift on both the front and rear axles. That’s why it has that winglet streaming air over the rear hatch.
To move it through the air, the 2016 RS is powered by a new version of the 2.3-liter turbocharged four found in the Mustang. The twin-scroll single turbo engine is lighter and larger than the one in the Mustang and the intercooler is bigger (“…as big as we could put on the car,” said Johnson). Thus, it makes 350 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque in this application, up 10 percent from the ‘Stang and enough to launch the RS to 62 mph in just 4.7 seconds. Top speed is a pompadour-plastering 165 mph.
Then Ford considered a couple options to get that power to the road. Front-wheel drive has its benefits, of course -- the base Focus is FWD and there had been FWD RS models over the years, but it also has traction limitations and tons of inherent understeer. An all-wheel-drive powertrain made the most sense, but not the Haldex-based system found on a lot of competitors.
“A Haldex system offers good straight-line grip but we wanted something better for cornering,” said Johnson.
The idea was something with twin rear clutch packs, one on each rear half shaft. During the research phase the team actually purchased a Range Rover Evoque but broke it pretty quickly. So they designed an AWD system of their own in which the operating principle is the same, but which withstands more torque and abuse.
“The key to faster laps is a high exit speed,” said Johnson.
And this one delivers. The front axle is open and governed by brake torque to whichever wheel is slipping. Nothing new there. The rear axle is what’s interesting. The three-piece rear drive shaft goes to an open differential flanked by clutch packs on each half shaft that are electronically controlled. With about 70 percent of torque going to the rear wheels, the clutch packs can push up to 100 percent of that rear torque to either rear wheel, usually the outside rear wheel to help push the car around the corner. The torque vectoring minimizes understeer and allows you to exit the corner faster than you would with front-wheel drive, obviously, but also faster than you could with a Haldex differential, Johnson says.
That’s in a corner. On long straights, of which the U.S. has plenty, the RS disconnects the rear and becomes a front-wheel drive car for better efficiency.
What’s it like to drive?
Awright, awright, enough context, you bleat, what’s it like behind the wheel, was it worth the 30-year wait? Yes it was, but it’s more than that. The 2016 Focus RS is a true all-around car, one you can enjoy all weekend on twisting two-lanes or even on a track day or two or at a rally, then spend the balance of the week hauling groceries and munchkins through suburbia.
First, the twisting two lanes. On a winter’s day in Southern Spain, we drove it through narrow, winding mountain roads barely two lanes wide to the muy-pequeno hamlet of Dos Aguas. All that day both we and the RS felt terrific. Yes there is body roll but it's so firmly yet politely controlled that it isn’t noticeable unless you really feel for it. And yes there is understeer if you really push it hard, but with the car’s rear drive components all you have to do is step on the gas and out you come from the corner.
Neither is the ride unduly harsh. On straight, level Spanish superhighways we kept the four-channel Drive Mode in normal and it soaked up road irregularities like a Valencian coastal sponge. Switched to sport on those autopistas, a setting that changes internal valving for both jounce and rebound in the shocks, firming them up by 40 percent, it did bounce a little uncomfortably. Back in normal, it was smooth cruise control, amigo.
But what about on the track? The next day we arrived at the 2.5-mile road course Circuit de la Communitat Valenciana Ricardo Tormo, a track you may know from MotoGP. There we had about nine laps at unsupervised full wallop. On the track you see some of the car's limitations. With warm tires and even in the firmest suspension setting, the car is unperturbable. Throw it into a corner as fast as you like -- it seems you really can’t hurt yourself. In that regard the Focus RS reminds us of a really big Miata but with a back seat and room for loads of luggage. When you do start to feel that understeer just nail the throttle and let those clutch packs guide you out of the turn. The only way to feel more than that is to turn the stability control off all the way, which requires holding down the button for a long count. Even then the car is very stable. We did not get to try a gravel road, which is a pity as we’re sure this could be a real weekend club rally car straight out of the box.
There are two more settings in the RS that are a lot of fun: Launch Mode takes a little bit of diving into the menu to get to but once you do it gets you off the line muy rapidamente. Then there’s a Drift Mode, which is more fun than you’ve ever had in a Ford Focus. Just punch the throttle and keep steering. We circled a few traffic cones in the racetrack’s parking lot and had a tire-smoking blast. You still control steering and throttle, of course -- Drift Mode allows you to make a lot of mistakes. It won’t be replacing driver control in FormulaD, but it’s a lot of fun.
Do I want it?
This would be the perfect all-around car, we thought as we drove it those two days. It’s as practical as a Focus hatchback while being as fun-to drive as a Mitsu Evo, WRX STi, S3 or Golf R (maybe almost). It's less expensive than all those. Why can’t all cars be like this?
The RS is in production now, with the first units going to European buyers. We should see cars in showrooms in the first or second week of April. Price starts at $36,605 including destination. Yes, that’s twice as much as a base front-wheel-drive Focus and ten grand over the Focus ST hatchback (must you throw a wet blanket on everything?). But it’s also just as practical as those cars. Consider that if you were buying a generic bland sedan you could spend that same $36,605 and get lost looking for it in the mall parking lot. For this $36 grand you get a world rally car, almost. Get your priorities straight, man! The spouse doesn’t need to know how much fun this is. Just tell him or her that those rear clutch packs are “good for safe driving in the snow.” Or something. Do what you have to do, but know this may be the best way yet to get a rally car for daily driving.
Read more: 2016 Ford Focus RS review and test drive with horsepower, price and photo gallery