By Marc Noordeloos - February 5, 2015
The Ford Focus RS is finally coming to America. It has only taken 15 years for a mega-performance Focus to make it to our shores. Was it worth the wait? Being a long-standing hot hatch fan, I’ve been dissecting and cogitating the details of the Mark III Focus RS like Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Rain Man.”
The first- and second-generation Focus RS, neither of them imported here, were both two-door hatchbacks with front-wheel drive. The newest RS is a four-door hatchback with all-wheel drive, both positive changes, as the less powerful Focus ST already feels like it has a bit too much torque running through the front wheels, and because I like the practicality and shape of a four-door hatchback.
But what will these changes do to the -- pardon me -- focus of the Focus RS? This model always has been a bit hairy and hard-edged; it’s not a car for everyone. Jost Capito, the former director of Ford’s Global Performance Vehicles division, once likened the ST models to dolphins and the RS models to sharks. A Focus ST is already more aggressive and less refined than a Volkswagen Golf GTI. The Mark III Focus RS is obviously a competitor for the Subaru WRX STI and VW Golf R.
The Golf R is in some ways more refined than VW’s Focus ST rival, the GTI, and the WRX STI is not nearly as comfortable to live with day to day compared with either Golf model. The big question is: Where will the Focus RS fall on this refinement spectrum? I hope it has greater breadth of capability than hot Fords of the past. This car should be so balanced that it rewards the driver when pushed, loves being flogged within an inch of its life, and is still comfortable for a daily commute in all weather conditions and on rough roads like those in Michigan. In other words, I’m hoping for balance that falls between the WRX STI and the Golf R. Ford’s latest all-wheel drive system is a step ahead of the Golf R’s and WRX STI’s and should help the Focus RS handle changing northern U.S. weather conditions. It can send up to 70 percent of its power to the rear wheels, and with two clutches on the rear axle, it can juggle up to 100 percent of available torque to either rear wheel. Ford engineers say their latest AWD setup “virtually eliminates understeer” and gives drivers “controlled oversteer drifts at the track.” That’s a good sign. Let’s hope it performs as promised.
Of course, this sort of control needs power. The Focus ST makes 252 hp. The Golf R has 292 hp, and the WRX STI puts out 305 hp. All Ford will reveal about its turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-four is that it makes “well in excess of 315 hp” and will be the most powerful “standard” Focus RS to date. The Mark II Focus RS currently holds that record, at 301 hp. My guess for the new car is 340-350 hp. The hottest “special” Focus RS was the 345-hp Mark II RS 500. We’ll see if Ford can trump the RS 500 straightaway, or will wait for an even crazier version of the Mark III Focus RS coming later. In any case, Ford beats VW and Subaru in the power department.
Like the Shelby GT350, the RS comes standard with Michelin Pilot Super Sport performance summer tires. Optional track-focused Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, the same sticky rubber you’ll find on the Shelby GT350R, Porsche 911 GT3, and Ferrari 458 Speciale, will be available in the U.S., Ford says. Both Michelin tire options on the Focus RS are the same size, at 235/35R-19. Forged wheels in a low-gloss black finish are optional, saving a little over 2 pounds per wheel versus the standard RS wheel. The WRX STI is fitted with 18-inch wheels, while the Golf R comes standard with 18-inch wheels, with a 19-inch setup offered as an option.
The Golf R launches this year with VW’s DSG dual-clutch gearbox, and a manual will be offered later in 2015. But like the WRX STI, the Ford only comes with a conventional, three-pedal six-speed manual. No complaints from me. Let the Golf R attract buyers who don’t like to row their own ratios.
Recaro seats hold you in place as you work that Focus RS gearbox. I’m eager to see how they fit. The optional Recaros in the less expensive Focus ST aren’t great. They look cool but aren’t comfortable for many body types; they’re too aggressive and don’t offer enough adjustment. U.S.-market Focus ST models are built just outside of Detroit, and their Recaro seats also come from a Michigan factory, so the European ST Recaros are slightly different.
The good news is that because every Focus RS, no matter what country it’s heading for, will be built in Germany, the kind of market-specific changes that often compromise a global car will be held to a minimum. More good news is that cars headed for the U.S. will get the latest Blackberry third-generation SYNC system, while Europe is stuck with the old Microsoft second-generation system. Ford will offer the RS with two Recaro seat options -- a part-leather sport seat standard and a more aggressive “shell” seat. But now the bad news: I’ve learned that the shell seats will not be offered in the U.S., no doubt the result of our crash-test standards. Let’s hope Ford gets the base Recaro seats right on the RS.
Ford did get the handbrake setup on the Focus RS right. A car like this needs a conventional manual handbrake, like a rally car and like the WRX STI. It’s key for snow-driving fun. You know -- acting like a hooligan. Sadly, the Golf R is fitted with an electric parking brake, which is useless from a rally driving point of view. If you want a proper handbrake on a sporty Golf, you must downgrade to a GTI.
What about price? The 2015 Subaru WRX STI starts at $35,290. The 2015 VW Golf R is $37,415 with the DSG gearbox. Figure a manual Golf R will cost about $36,500 when it comes to the U.S. for the 2016 model year. The Focus RS offers more performance potential than either the Subaru or the VW, but the Focus RS name isn’t as strong or established as Golf R or WRX STI. I predict the Ford will start at about $36,000 and push to the $40,000 neighborhood if items such as heated seats, a heated steering wheel, Sony 10-speaker audio, a parking camera with parking sensors, navigation, and the optional wheels and tires are added. No matter what, I can’t wait to learn more about the Focus RS at the Geneva Motor Show in March, drive the car likely very late this year (when production begins), and see it on U.S. roads in 2016.