Ford has effectively nudged the hot-hatch bar to the top rung with the sizzling Focus RS
By Costa Mouzouris, 25 January 2016
VALENCIA, Spain – ‘Hot hatch’ is the de rigueur designation for sporty, high-performance hatchbacks, though I don’t really like the term — I find it a bit crude, actually. But I do like the cars that fall under its umbrella, which combine everyday practicality with track-ready performance. Among the hottest cars in the category today are the 292-horsepower Volkswagen Golf R and (although it’s no longer a hatchback) the Subaru WRX STI, both of which also benefit from all-wheel drive, a boon for Canadian winters.
Well, Ford has just nudged the hot-hatch bar to the top rung with the introduction of the German-made 2016 Focus RS. This isn’t a dressed-up Focus ST, but rather a new car boasting much higher performance and all-wheel drive.
Despite its increased track capability, the Focus RS’ styling is understated and mostly discreet. There are no pseudo-racer trim pieces, aero flicks, or turbulence-reducing airfoils. Changes to the body are minimal, designed more for go than for show. The extra-wide grille opening allows air to flow through the largest intercooler engineers could fit into the car, while the air intakes in the front spoiler feed ducts that cool the brakes. The rear spoiler helps achieve zero lift at speed and the rear diffuser reduces drag.
Its 2.3-litre EcoBoost four-cylinder engine, which is built at Ford’s plant in Valencia, Spain, produces 345 horsepower and 325 lb.-ft. of torque. Save-the-manual types can rejoice, as the RS is available only with a six-speed stick. Engage the launch control mode, get the gear changes right and the RS rewards you with a zero-to-100 km/h time of 4.7-seconds, two-tenths quicker than the WRX STI. The gearbox is not supplemented by driver aids like an auto-rev-matching function to assist downshifting, so you’ll have to hone your heel-toe technique when lapping your local racetrack.
And the racetrack is where the Focus RS feels most at home, as I discovered during its launch at Valencia’s Circuit Ricardo Tormo. Engineers strengthened the chassis, which has a stiffer rear subframe with added bracing and an improved anti-roll bar, and there’s an additional crossmember welded to the floor pan, thus increasing torsional stiffness by 23 per cent. The steering ratio is quicker at two turns lock to lock, and spring rates are more than 30 percent stiffer. Adjustable shock damping is the same as the ST in Normal mode, and 40 per cent firmer in Sport mode.
The interior is functional and relatively low on frills; front seats and the tilt and telescoping steering wheel are manually adjustable; there’s no top-heavy sunroof, Alcantara headliner or mood lighting available. I’m sure Ford engineers probably even grappled with the idea of delivering it with roll-up windows, but alas, they are electric. The dash display is neatly laid out, with round analogue gauges (now old school) in the instrument cluster and a small array of gauges atop the dashboard that read coolant temperature, turbo boost and oil pressure.
Squeezing into the deeply scalloped Recaro race-replica front seats is a good incentive to follow up on your New-Year’s-resolution diet, because the fit is supermodel-slim. The side bolsters hug you snugly and aside from promoting a healthier diet, they grip your torso like Velcro when driving through turns at traction-testing speeds.
There are four drive modes: Normal, Sport, Track, and — to the chagrin of parents of teenagers across the country — Drift. Each mode adjusts six settings to one of two levels. Suspension damping and traction control can also be adjusted independently of the drive modes; the shocks, for instance, can be set firm or soft at any time via a button on the end of the turn-signal stalk. You need not hide the keys from your kids; the more advanced drive modes can be locked out.
Track mode is selected for the track sessions, which loosens the traction-control noose (although it can be turned off completely), sharpens throttle response, makes steering more responsive, firms up suspension damping, livens up the exhaust note by introducing burbling and popping on throttle lift, and adjusts the AWD system for optimal front to rear torque delivery – up to 70 per cent rear. To assist cornering, the RS uses brake-assisted torque vectoring front axle and two clutch packs on the rear axle to transfer up to 100 per cent of the rear torque to either wheel as needed.
This system proves seamless at the track and nearly eliminates understeer. About the only way to get the RS to push is to force it by trail-braking exceptionally deep into a corner, or as I scribbled in my notes, to drive like a newbie. Otherwise, the car steers exactly where you point it, with a quick turn-in and a faultless adherence to a chosen line. To correct for any understeer the trick is to counter-intuitively apply the throttle, thus allowing the torque vectoring to do its job.
The engine pulls hard enough in second and third gears to sink you deep into the Recaro seats until it redlines. And kudos to the folks at Ford for equipping the RS with proper racetrack brakes; the big Brembos maintain brake feel and power throughout the lapping sessions. Ford rates the brakes for “30 minutes,” which means they can handle 30 minutes of lapping without exploding into flames.
After the lapping, I’m directed to a skidpad to practice some drifting. Drift mode backs the TC way down and adjusts the AWD to allow steady, controlled slides. It takes about one lap to get into a steady drift – even though it is an AWD drift, in which the front wheels are mostly centred as the car skids sideways. I don’t care much for drifting, but I’m sure tire manufacturers everywhere have Focus RS posters hanging on their boardroom walls.
For all of its hooning potential, the Focus RS is remarkably composed on the road. In Normal mode the engine purrs along quietly and the suspension, although still quite firm, is compliant enough to handle the daily commute without fusing your vertebrae.
At $46,969, the price is steep. It’s about $16,000 more than the Focus ST, but consider this: In Canada, the Focus RS comes with heated leather Recaro seats, an 8-inch touchscreen with navigation and SYNC3 and dual-zone climate control, as well as a number of other features for which our neighbours south of the border must pay extra. Also standard are the lightweight, 19-inch forged aluminum wheels and grippy Michelin Pilot Sport Cup2 tires, which cost American Focus RS buyers an additional US$1,990. Ford Canada even throws in a set of winter tires at no extra cost.
After spending a day in the hooligan’s seat of the 2016 Focus RS, I can confidently say this hatch isn’t hot. It sizzles.
First Drive: 2016 Ford Focus RS | Driving