Barack Obama laid down the law, along with vast sums of tax-payer money, recently. The days of the big-engined gas-guzzler are numbered, and America must downsize. That sounds like a death knell for fun if ever there was one, but all we need is for the Big 3 to bring their European stars across the Atlantic—starting with the all-new Ford Focus RS, the best of the bunch.
We only have the cooking Focus model over here on U.S. soil, but in Europe the RS models have blazed a trail through the hot hatch ranks. This is the 22nd Ford model to wear the RS badge and it’s the quickest road-going Ford of all time—on the right road, at least. Anyone scoffing at the claim and thinking maybe the Ford GT has slipped the mind might be shocked to know the front-wheel-drive RS ran rings round the big, lummoxing supercar on Ford’s Lommel test center in Belgium. And that is just plain scary.
As is the car itself, especially in the daring shade of Ultimate Green that greeted our arrival to the launch. The fastest Fords have never been subtle; they are working-class heroes rather than elitist snobs, and the body work is a not-so-careful blend of World Rally Championship and night club bouncer. That deep vent and front splitter look like missing teeth from a good distance, and then there’s the flared arches to cope with the 40mm wider stance over the standard car, vented bonnet, fake carbon interior, green trimmed Recaro seats and savage spoilers. It’s about as subtle as a tequila IV, but then it has just as much kick.
This hyper hatch, which Ford seems to have trademarked as a new genre, has 300 bhp and an epic 324 ft-lbs of torque—all of it heading through the front wheels. Not so long ago, the men with beards said that more than 200 bhp through the front wheels was a recipe for torque steering disaster.
But planting the throttle on the Focus reveals an altogether different response—it takes off down the road like a stabbed rat. Yes, there’s a squirm from the front, but only a playful tug at the fingers as the RS tears off down the road. That’s partially due to the 8.5x19-inch alloys clad in ContiSportContact3 tires, though, which are normally the preserve of much more exotic fare and give those front wheels enough purchase to send the RS hurtling down the road as if drawn by elastic as a dangerous grin spreads across my face.
The lime-green nightmare slams through 60 mph in just 5.9 seconds with that torque-rich approach dragging from low down in the range. And it will keep storming through the gears all the way to 163 mph. Of course, the 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-five cylinder can be kept off boost, around 2500 rpm, relying on the wave of torque. Then it’s simply quick and even refined, although the firm independent McPherson strut and multilink rear suspension complemented by antiroll bars, which is reportedly as stiff as the company WRC car, rattles over big bumps in the road. This was never going to be a magic carpet ride after all, especially when combined with the 19-inch wheels. But when there are 3500 rpm and a whole world of fun awaiting, you just won’t remain in the realms of sanity—the temptation is simply too much.
That needle hammering toward the redline brings the kind of gurgling roar that reduced grown, elderly and even reasonably rounded men into young hooligans on the launch. Grab the next gear on the fingertip-light 6-speed gearbox and the chuffing of angry wastegates precedes the next lurch at the distant horizon.
It’s an angry car, which was all part of an apparent design ideal as Ford attempted to create a shark, compared to the dolphin that is the warm Focus ST. There’s even the rally-style “pop” of unburnt fuel in the exhaust with a serious lift of the throttle, and it’s hard to believe this engine came from the epitome of calm—sister company Volvo. Ford engineers went to work on the internals, though, and took inspiration from the WRC car when it came to tuning the exhaust and attitude. With the help of a bigger turbo, reprofiled camshafts, new pistons, inlet and exhaust system, they have created a diamond from something that was arguably as dull as raw carbon. It really has the pace to mix it with the sporting elite that cost much, much more, and then it hits a bend and things get really interesting.
Even though this car supposedly has about 50 percent too much power heading through the front wheels, the fun doesn’t have to stay in straight lines. Quaife’s creation of Revoknuckle, a system that limits the kingpin movement has, according to Ford, redefined what’s possible with front-wheel drive—especially when combined with an automatic torque-biased limited-slip diff between the front wheels. That effectively creates a lower wishbone arrangement and is the secret of the RS’s monstrous success and turns what—on paper, at least—is an accident waiting to happen into a perfectly balanced supercar in hot hatch clothing. Four-wheel drive would have made more sense with this power, but it would have added weight and pillaged the experience.
It should plain understeer off the road, but with a healthy dose of throttle through the apex, it simply tugs at the reins and does as its told—long after it should be in a wall. The car just holds the bend and won’t be budged from its line no matter what you throw at it, and it will even tighten up with a severe mid-corner lift and the composure of the chassis is one of those things that has to be felt to be believed.
Only a few years ago, the Impreza WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution were the established masters in this field. (Both are four-wheel drive.) That Ford has managed to blow them off the road with a car where the same wheels drive and steer is a bone fide miracle. As for the conventional competition like the VW Golf GTi, forget about it; the German would be a speck in the Ford’s mirror on anything like the right road, and it’s genuinely hard to imagine going faster through a bend in any car.
The 3,230 lbs just seem to disappear, and there’s such a confidence to the attitude that it takes 10 mph more in every bend without even suggesting consequence. For approximately $35,000 in the U.S., or slightly more with the near $1,000 optional green paint, that is a bargain.
Most modern supercars are simply wonderful technical achievements that achieve prison-baiting speeds without the sense of occasion and require a sense of moderation. The Focus RS is a mind-blowing technical leap forward, yet it’s more than that—it’s a laugh riot the moment you turn the key. This car has soul, it makes you want to drive the nuts off it on every roundabout and will take whatever you throw at it with a sense of humor and the odd lairy slide. That is what makes it great.
Even the lucky few who can still put a deposit down on the latest Ferrari might do well to test this new breed of hyper hatch first. This has been hailed as credit-crunch supercar for Europe’s masses, but it’s also one of the most entertaining cars on the road today and the answer to our prayers. Focus RS: America needs you.