by Dan Prosser, 8 Apr 2016
Verdict: Innovative four-wheel-drive and clever chassis make Focus RS most engaging of current super hatches
Evo Rating: 5 stars
For + Fast and fun to drive; good value for money
Against - Cabin quality falls short of German rivals
With the third Focus RS, Ford has finally answered the cries of enthusiasts and made this latest generation Focus RS four-wheel drive. The Mk3 Focus RS is the first all-wheel drive RS since the Escort Cosworth of 1992. It might not have the motorsport background that made RS models of old so captivating, but the colossal amount of hype surrounding the new Focus RS promises a lot.
Developed by the newly founded Ford Performance division, predominantly in Europe, the Focus RS is a global car for the first time. It’ll only be available in five-door guise – another departure from the earlier generations – and it costs from £29,995.
With 345bhp and four-wheel drive the RS slots neatly into the emerging ‘super hatch’ category, so far populated by the Audi RS3, Mercedes A45 AMG and Volkswagen Golf R. The latter is the Ford’s closest rival – we rate the Golf R as a five-star car, but the RS looks well equipped to give the VW a tough time given that it costs almost £1000 less but puts out 50bhp more.
Engine, transmission and 0-60mph time
The engine is a 2.3-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged unit, developing 345bhp and 347lb ft of torque from 2000rpm. It originates from the Ford Mustang Ecoboost but has been suitably modified for the Focus: the material that the head casting is made from is different, the cylinder liners have been changed, there’s a larger intercooler and the turbo is designed to cope with a higher air flow.
With a launch control system, which holds the engine at the optimal rev point before the driver side steps the clutch pedal, the RS will sprint from 0-62mph in 4.7 seconds. Apparently the fastest way to launch the RS is to keep your right foot hard on the throttle during the shift from first to second gear. For reference, the Golf R registers a 5.1 second 0-62mph time.
The official torque figure is 324lb ft, however at full throttle there is an overboost function that gives 347lb ft. The overboost lasts for 15 seconds, before dropping back down to 324lb ft, but a small lift before returning to full throttle will reactivate the overboost.
At 1547kg the RS is no featherweight, but only the 1495kg Golf R really undercuts the Ford to any meaningful degree. The RS’s top speed is 165mph.
The headline technical news is the four-wheel drive system. Whereas the RS’s super hatch rivals use off-the-shelf Haldex hardware – which is fundamentally limited in how precisely it can share torque between the four wheels – the Ford uses a system that can divert as much as 70 per cent of the overall torque to just one of the rear wheels.
The RDU – or rear drive unit – replaces a conventional differential with a pair of clutch packs, one for each driveshaft. With the clutches completely open, no torque is sent to the rear wheels so they can spin independently. The clutche packs can then close independently to varying degrees to send specific amounts of torque to either wheel. The propshaft is permanently driven to the rear axle, so the rear clutch packs always have torque at their disposal.
Ford has also opted to increase the gearing of the rear axle by 2% in comparison to the front. This means the rear is trying to overtake the front and makes the Focus feel more agile and very lively.
There’s proper torque vectoring at the rear, which has enabled Ford’s engineers to programme the four-wheel drive system to behave exactly how they want it to. They can send torque to exactly which rear wheel they want to in order to achieve all sorts of dynamic behaviour.
Ford manages this via a series of drive modes. With Normal as the base setting, the RS also has Sport, Track and Drift options.
Sport sharpens throttle response, adds weight to the steering, teases pops and crackles from the exhaust and recalibrates the RDU slightly. Track mode – which Ford insists is just for circuit use – switches the electronic stability control into a middle setting to allow more slip and primes the RDU to give maximum traction under acceleration. The fastest laps are achieved in this mode.
Finally, Drift mode instructs the RDU to send as much torque as possible to the outside rear wheel to induce a yaw moment. With the car pitched into a powerslide it’ll then continuously vary the torque split depending on grip and speed to maintain that slide.
The driver can choose between three levels of ESC intervention – on, Sport and off – while a button on the left-hand stalk scrolls through two damper settings. Ford says that the stiffer damper mode is purely for circuit use.
The huge grill and vents at the front and large rear wing might look a bit grotesque but they contribute to a very impressive lack of lift. The Focus RS produces no lift at either the front or rear axle.
There are two tyre options – Michelin Pilot Super Sports and the track-ready Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2. Ford’s engineers actually prefer the lower-specification Super Sport for road use.
What’s it like to drive?
The RS’s cabin lacks the premium feel of the more expensive German rivals, but it certainly isn’t under-equipped or poorly built. The standard sports seats offer plenty of support, but the optional shell-backed bucket seats are more supportive still and they look the part, too.
While the ride quality in Normal mode is a little livelier than a Golf R’s it didn’t ever feel overly stiff on the smooth roads that made up the Spanish test route on our first drive. The bumpier, and much rougher, roads in the UK provide a challenge for the Focus; it’s about as stiff as you’d want a car to be. It can, occasionally over very bad roads, feel a bit bouncy as sharp bumps jolt the car upwards, particularly at the rear. Also, rougher pieces of tarmac can agitate the chassis, which can result in a loss of traction from the rear axle.
It maintains incredible amounts of control, and the stiffness does make the RS very readable. It may not be perfectly suited to British roads, but the stiffness is acceptable considering how sharp it makes the RS.
In Sport, the engine makes a series of contrived noises – a warbling induction note with pops and bangs from the exhaust on the overrun. The 2.3-litre engine isn’t exactly bursting with natural charisma, but no modern four-cylinder turbo is. Throttle response is sharp and the engine pulls hard throughout the rev range, picking up a little at 4000rpm and then again in the final dash to the 6700rpm rev limiter. The gearshift, meanwhile, is slick and direct.
Initially, the extra steering weight that comes in Sport mode seems unnecessary, muting the sense of connection between the steering wheel and the front axle around the straight ahead. When you dial in more than a few degrees of steering lock and get the chassis loaded up in a corner, though, it does become crisp and detailed. Significantly, it isn’t blighted by the springy, heavy self-centring effect that ruins many modern steering systems.
The steering is very quick, however the firm chassis complements this well. There’s a real sense of cohesion as the steering and suspension help make the RS feel direct and immediate.
The firm suspension can shake the driver around making it difficult to avoid adding unwanted steering inputs though. This is only really a problem on straight roads, once some lock has been applied and the steering has some extra weight, it isn’t a problem. The added steering weight of Sport mode also helps resist unwanted inputs.
The Focus RS does seek out cambers and ruts in the road. Over rippling, undulating tarmac you can feel the steering wheel being tugged around. It’s never really strong enough to move the car, but it does make for a busy drive.
The Super Sport tyres find such resilient grip on the way into a corner, particularly if you trail brake, that the Cup 2s might well be overkill on the road. There is a degree of roll in cornering, but it’s not through a lack of control and it actually helps to paint a clear picture of how hard the chassis is working.
The stiffer damper mode takes the natural pliancy out of the suspension and jolts little vertical inputs into the body, even on the smoothest roads, so it’s best left for the circuit. Besides, the default damper mode offers such taut body control that you never feel the need to tie the car down any further.
Finding so much traction in the dry the RS simply fires itself away from corners without any sense of the rear axle breaking free (in the wet the RS can be made to slither around a little). The natural chassis balance is actually quite lively, though, so on the way into corners the rear axle will take on some attitude if you attack the apex hard. Set that way, if you then stand on the power very early the four-wheel drive system will convert that slight lift off oversteer into very gentle power oversteer – all within the constraints of the Sport ESC setting.
It’s compelling behaviour; exactly what we crave in those Haldex cars. It means the RS is more playful and exciting to drive than the other cars in this class, the only one that uses four-wheel drive to enliven the driving experience rather than merely add traction.
The Brembo brakes offer very strong stopping power with a pedal that’s easy to modulate. Even as the system temperatures soared on mountain roads braking performance was sustained.
In track mode, with the dampers in their stiffer setting, the RS feels agile and well controlled on circuit, too. Naturally it’s at its best on the Cup 2 tyres, which give the car enormous turn-in and mid-corner grip. The four-wheel drive system, combined with those sticky tyres, enables the driver to get on the power incredibly early to slingshot up the next straight.
The Drift mode may seem gimmicky, but if you can find a suitably understanding set of trackday marshals it is terrific fun. The key is to the car understeering slightly on entry before standing hard on the power. The car then breaks into a big, sweeping arc of a drift, front wheels pointed straight right up until the end of the slide, at which point you do need to dial in some corrective lock.
It’s completely different to a rear-wheel drive powerslide because there’s no need to modulate the throttle, steering inputs aren’t so critical and the pivot point seems to be 20 or 30 metres in front of the car rather than at the car’s centre point.
What the RS loses out to the Golf R, RS3 and A45 AMG in badge appeal it wins back in value for money and driver engagement. It’s at least £10,000 cheaper than the Audi and Mercedes and although it doesn’t trouble either of those for cabin quality it is more exciting to drive than both.
The Ford will also have to prove itself against the very best front-wheel drive hot hatches in this price point, notably the Renaultsport Megane 275, Honda Civic Type R and Seat Leon Cupra.
The Ford Focus RS starts at £29,995, which represents strong value for money compared to the £30,820 Golf R – which is 50bhp down on the RS.
Ford Focus RS review - prices, specs and 0-60 time | Evo