On the Road Review: Ford Focus RS

Do you ever think about those drivers who have slid off a snow-covered roadway, resting sideways, or worse, upside down in the ditch or the median? I do. I wonder if they were traveling too fast for the grip of their tires, perhaps believing that tires that work great in South Beach Miami are suitable for Etna when the winter squalls blow through the hills and the pavement has more icing than a Governor’s dessert. Were they paying attention, or, was their cell phone more important than the task of driving a three-ton vehicle in challenging conditions, a multitasking chore they claim to handle, but obviously can’t. And do their skill levels match the conditions, as mounting evidence, and crash data, clearly indicates that more than one-third of drivers lack rudimentary operating skills and the proper attitude for driving in wintry conditions.

I think these thoughts being stuck behind dozens, sometimes hundreds of other drivers, as we are inconvenienced by these chuckleheads, the disdain for these subhuman life forms growing as an accident must be cleared or vehicles extricated from the ditch/median/etc. An old military saying comes to mind; “Get out of the way, or go home.”

To not be “that” driver, our Stealth Gray Ford Focus RS rested in the driveway for three days while two snowstorms moved through in “fall” just before the holidays. Arriving with a vast performance portfolio — driver-select sport suspension, performance AWD, 350-hp 2.3-liter EcoBoost engine, six-speed manual gearbox, large dual exhausts, huge rear spoiler, Brembo brakes and Recaro power sport seats — the Ford lacked the most important piece for this time of year. Tires, winter tires. Rolling on Michelin summer performance tires, tires meant for stick on warm pavement, tires for maximum cornering power, tires for spine-tingling thrust, our hot-rod Focus was slightly neutered as the pavement was very cold and very white.

This is not the Focus’s fault for sure, as those days when bare pavement was available, we exploited the Ford’s engine thrust, its cornering prowess and its steering and braking limits — all pieces that place this sporty five-door compact car squarely in the hunt with VW Golf R and Subaru’s WRX/STi, as well as Audi’s new S3. This car is a blast, a compact hatch on steroids — turbocharged steroids.

In the European theatre, cars such as this Focus RS are the rage. They are to the Euro sporting driver what Camaros, Challengers and Mustangs are to us. Yet, the market for these “hot-hatches” has been expanding to the United States. This niche segment remains small, but profitable; the RS is twice the list price of a base Focus, starting at $36,605 — almost exactly the starting price of a VW R.

The RS is 4 inches longer than the VW R, 172.8 inches, but 8 inches shorter than the STi. Each has similar 103-104-inch wheelbase lengths, each car rides on wheelbase tracks that are 60-61 inches wide (the Focus has the widest) and interior volume is 51-53 cubic feet. Cargo space for the Ford and VW exceed the trunk of the Subby — 20, 23 cubes respectively compared to 12-cubes in the STi trunk — while the VW clearly edges the Ford and the Subaru in weight, 3,292 pounds compared to 3,459 for the Ford and 3,456 for the STi.

Each of these marauding all-wheel-drive warriors uses a turbocharged powerplant. The Golf uses the same 2.0-liter four as the Audi S3, a 292-hp overachiever that feels more powerful than the numbers. The Subaru packs a turbo-version of the brand’s 2.5-liter flat-four, making 305 hp. The Ford ups the ante considerably, pumping 350-peak horsepower from the 2.3-liter EcoBoost engine, 98-hp more than our recent Focus ST sample.

Punch the Focus’s throttle in the lower three gears and acceleration flows forth in big surges. There is a distinct blat from the dual exhausts on engine overrun at high rpm shifts; otherwise the car is not overtly loud while having fun. Small doses of throttle for passing are adequate and often gear selection dependent; revs build much more slowly if lugging the engine along at a relaxed pace. Test numbers, by others, indicate that the Focus RS is quicker than its rivals, yet the seat of the pants feeling is similar with no defined advantage over the Subaru or the VW. Make no mistake; this trio is quick.

Wearing a similarly sporty type of Michelin Pilot tire as our recent Mustang GT350R, the Focus also produced some of the same tendencies. On anything less than perfect pavement, the steering wheel tugs at your hands as the tires grab any groove, seam or crack in the pavement. Cross over the crowned centerline to pass another vehicle on rural roads, or the highway, and the car has a decided pull that requires full driver attention and a two-handed grip on the heated steering wheel.

The Focus also exhibited some front-drive torque-steer bias before the rear wheels engaged in your forward progress request. Open the throttles sharply in a tight turn, however, and the RS sends power to the rear wheels smartly and snaps the car around your turn with the four-wheel assured grip that enables Ford to offer a track mode and a drift mode in the RS’s portfolio. Tire shredding drift mode I assume.

The VW and the Subaru don’t have either drift mode or the darting steering feel because they use different chassis setups, and less aggressive tire choices. So while the Focus will smack both of these rivals upside the head on a racetrack, it takes a perfect driver on perfect roads to exact what the Ford produces and most everyday commutes don’t require that precision.

Clutch and shifter, excellent. Cargo access and expansion, usefully practical. Heated wheel and seats, awesome. Fuel economy? What are you expecting with 350 hp boosted horsepower? EPA estimates are 19/25 on recommended super grade fuel. We saw 22-23 mpg consistently on the trip computer.

Inside, the Ford has blue-accent stitching on the seats and doors, a much larger and clearer Sync center-dash screen (hooray) plus convenient control access. The interior is cozy, snug, but feels well-finished. Gripes include a hidden keyless ignition tucked behind the steering column, a tiny end-of-stalk button for the rear wiper that is difficult for large fingers, and heated Recaro seats that are entirely size dependent. If you look like Olive Oyl, you’ll be slipping in and out of these sharply-shaped buckets with ease. If you look like Hulk Hogan, the oversize side bolsters and hip supports will require extra effort. The seat positioning also has a forced recline angle that took some getting used to.

Again, like the Mustang GT350R, this is a full expression of peak performance. The tires, the seats, the Brembo brakes, the big spoiler for rear downforce, plus the potent EcoBoost engine are all designed for peak performance on a track. If you want it all, this is the Focus to get. If you don’t need this level of commitment, a Focus ST could satisfy your sporting intentions.

The Focus RS is tight, taut and not timid. It darts, it farts, and it punches you in the back when you ask for it. The Focus RS is a personal choice compact car that offers more of everything.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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