Suddenly, Ford has become cool again, if not the coolest. First, they gave the masses the new Mustang featuring the neat Line Lock burnout feature. Then they offered the elite a short batch of the unexpected new GT, and now they're going racing with it, asking Ken Block to drift a stanced '65 Mustang at the same time to please the few who hadn't been amused by the previous acts. Most of all this is part of a grand master plan called Ford Performance, a new Blue Oval sub-brand that unifies the Ford performance departments from all over the world (Ford had SVT in the US, RS in Europe, FPV in Australia, and Ford Racing for its motorsport activities) in one bolder and more effective body, vowing to spawn twelve new cars by year 2020.
While the new Mustang has dominated the European headlines for the last months, now here's a big one for Americans: the new Focus RS. The Focus name has never really managed to win the hearts and minds of the American audience, but in Europe, it has grown to be one of the most reputed hatchbacks, most notably thanks to the great RS lineage. Having grown from the traditions of the '70s Escort RS2000 and '90s Escort RS Cosworth, the first two Focus RSs proved to be worthy successors, mixing exceptional street performance, crazy looks and numerous world rally champion titles.
There are few things that the Focus RSs didn't have, though. Firstly, they didn't have an American presence, since the first generation was mostly a British affair with nearly half of the strictly limited 4501 cars built being sold there, while for the second generation Ford decided to do different Focuses for the European and American markets. Secondly, the first two RS generations didn't have the second pair of doors, as they were sold as three-door hatchbacks, whereas the new one comes as a five-door only.
But the news about market coverage and the number of doors fall into insignificance when you remember that another feature the RSs didn't have so far was a four-wheel drive. The introduction of the new drivetrain transforms the RS into a wholly different car. Now, six years after the premiere of the second-gen Focus RS, I can admit that putting 305 hp through its front wheels has never really worked perfectly, and even the very smart RevoKnuckle front suspension system that magically limited the torque steer didn't cut it. Ford knew what the Focus RS fans knew; namely that if they were to up the game, they would need to switch to the all-wheel drive system. First, they leaned towards the off-the-shelf Haldex clutch used by the key German rivals, but they dismissed the idea of using it rather quickly. They found it dynamically hampered by its design limitations. What the Ford guys had in mind was a far more complex system that would allow for a more precise and effective torque distribution not only between the axles, but also among all of the four wheels. What they ended up with was a highly advanced torque-vectoring all-wheel drive design based on the Twinster system developed by the automotive tech giant GKN in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Its design incorporates two electronically-controlled wet clutches in the rear drive unit in the place of the standard differential, where the torque pressure for each of the rear wheels is constantly controlled for ultra-quick accurate reactions and significant differences in the driveline's behavior between the drive modes. In contrast to the Haldex system, it won't wait for the rear wheels to kick in only after the front ones lose traction. The Ford press release promises up to 70% of the torque for the rear axle, but while the testing, the r&d team saw the system channeling nearly 100% through the wheels behind the driver.
After learning that, it may come as a surprise that Ford decided to stick to the manual transmission only, arguing that a dual-clutch unit would add some weight, unnecessary costs and take away part of the driving involvement. All of the other components are pure tuner fantasy: largest intercooler that could be fitted in the front, some additional body strengthening in the rear, along with a small rearrangement to fit the rear wheel drive, and a fiercely styled blue body all around, that spits with vents, spoilers and diffusers (none of them just for a show-off, but all designed purely with the a view to maximizing performance).
What those technological novelties mean is that the 2016 Focus RS handles nothing like its predecessors, even the slightly bonkers limited-series RS500 that matched its 350 hp maximum power, nothing like any other hot-hatch, or, in fact, nothing like any other car. It's pure fun.
The fun comes in four flavors, measured by Normal, Sport, Track, and - uh, oh - Drift modes. There are two further separately controlled damper settings and three levels of electronic stability control intervention on site (on, rather off, completely off). The driving modes basically do what it says on the tin. Enter the car in the Normal guise and it won't scare you, which is both bad and good. It's just... normal. In this setting the RS is reasonably soft and agreeably comfortable. It comes handy when you want to drive your kids to school without getting their ears bleed, bring some eggs home from the grocery store without breaking them, arrive home without the meaningful looks of the elderly neighbors; basically do all the things that the WRX STi and Honda Type R owners secretly desire.
This comes at a the cost of a surprising amount of body roll, at least compared to what could be expected from the spring rates upped 33 percent in the front and 38 percent in the rear from the already springy Focus ST. That's not an issue, though; the RS is more focused (sorry for the pun) on the road than a Volkswagen Golf R, but not as extreme as the track-day toys that some of the hot-hatches also pretend to be. Suspension's short vertical travel setting the whole car in a series of bounces on an uneven road may feel tiresome over long distances, but it still manages to avoid any unsettlement even on the bumpy roads. Even in this most basic of the modes the steering's already meaty and not that helpful on the parking lots, but at the same time it fails to be as precise and transparent as I'd like a sportscar-in-a-hatch-guise Ford RS to be.
Fast forward to the Sport mode with one flick of a button, and the throttle response sharpens, weight to the steering is added, some entertaining popping and banging from the two massive exhausts ensues and the excitement ramps up. This is where the drivetrain really comes to the forefront. The engine is basically the same 2.3 Ecoboost four-cylinder turbo that controversially made its way to the Mustang, though Ford engineers are at paints to indicate they changed many of the internal parts. The upgraded turbo, bore liners, optimized intake and exhaust manifolds, and a new Cosworth (yes, as in the Escort RS Cosworth) cylinder head added 40 hp, while the peak torque is up to 324 lb-ft, with the option of 347 lb-ft allowed for eighteen seconds by the overboost function for occasional antics.
Although the turbo lag wasn't defeated altogether, the engine responds to the accelerator pedal keenly and pulls in the midrange fiercely and doesn't loose its vigor until the limiter cuts in at 6700 rpm, just after it achieved its maximum power at 6000 rpm. High specific output from this reasonably small engine doesn't stop it from revving freely, but sitting behind the wheel I couldn't help the inner feeling I could do with a more extreme stage of tune. When it comes to natural charisma, the 2.3-liter Ecoboost is nowhere close to the turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder that powered Focus RS Mk 2, one of the most characterful and best sounding motors in all of the hot-hatch world. But then again no modern turbocharged inline four is better than the Ford unit, not even the ones coming from the incomparably pricier (and unavailable in the US) competition from Mercedes-AMG.
This leaves the all-wheel drive system as the highlight of the Ford. In the Sport mode it shuffles more power to the rear for different reasons, depending on what the driver fancies. Should he stay on the power, the car will gently move to a nicely balanced long oversteer; should he intuitively make small corrections through the steering wheel, the rear wheels will fight their way to get in line with the front ones. This advanced system can generate such huge amounts of grip that it makes precision driving even more fun than drifting on each corner. Understeer is tackled on both ends, the magic happening in the rear aided by the electronic torque vectoring system on the front axis that mimicks a limited-slip differential by braking individual wheels, the patent known from the playful Fiesta ST. RS pivots keenly for the apex and enables the driver to get on the power incredibly early and chase for the next corner with rarely witnessed passion. It's a compelling drive that allows all sorts of the drivers to get close to the car's dynamic limits, while making them feel safer at the same time. This AWD shows everything that's wrong about the Haldex system; instead of using the additional pair of driven wheels merely to add some more traction, it adopts it to light up the whole driving experience.
In the Track mode, the drivetrain puts on the serious face again; it keeps the body movements tightly in check, together with the 40% stiffer setting of the Tenneco dual-rate shocks, now really stiff and, indeed, best used on track only. The RS becomes a corner killer, tackling bends with precision and agility of a well-trained assassin, putting the tail off the line ever so slightly for more effective power delivery. Some laps later, after learning more of the car and the fast Ricardo Tormo track located in Valencia, Spain, the car feels perfect, building its position as a new track day hero. If we need to fault something, this may be the braking phase, but only because so high is the level of all of the other dynamic talents that this becomes evident; there's even nothing wrong with the 13.8-in Brembo brakes per se, but you can see that they need to work hard to deal with the 3,410 lbs. that this AWD Focus carries around.
After a heavy track session, there's no better way to finish the tires off by moving on to the Drift mode. Find a big skidpad, enter it with around 15 mph on the speedo, turn in, and mash the throttle pedal to the floor while putting an opposite lock. And there you have it; you're drifting with the tire smoke, squeaks and all, and you will drift around as long as you want to, since there's hardly anything to go wrong. The trick system balances the torque between the rear wheels to hold the slide on its own, so it doesn't require much steering correction or throttle modulation (just keep the right leg stretched out). It does feel a little artificial, certainly not like a rear-wheel drive Mustang powerslide that will let you believe you can be the star of the next Gymkhana movie, as the drifting angle is reasonably limited, and all of the movements are slower, smoothened, and the pivot point is four car lengths ahead, rather than in front of the car's hood. After a few attempts on an open lot, the drift function may become more of a gimmick for regular owners, but it'll still prove entertaining on an occasional skid on a track or on an empty road when the driver can carelessly stomp on the gas pedal, knowing that nothing bad will happen, even with the ESC off. It may sound like it takes some part of the drift magic away; so it may come as a consolation that not all of the journos present at the car's media launch got a satisfying slide even with the help of that gadget.
After all that, you can even accept the fact that the interior feels cheapish in comparison to other German hot-hatches, both the premium segment mini-rockets from Audi, BMW and Mercedes that America doesn't get, and the imported Golf R. The fast Ford doesn't lack quality though, with some neat design details, partly leather upholstery and decent finish of the normal Focus. Just like the Focus ST, the RS gets additional boost and temperature gauges on the top of the dashboard and some contrasting stitching on the steering wheel, gearlever mesh, manual handbrake and seats to complete a slightly boy racer aura inside. Just like in the previous RSs, you can fault a bit too high a seating position. Otherwise, the standard Recaro seats do the job, supporting the body alright, though they take irritatingly much space of the cabin and put the driver slightly away from the steering wheel and pedals axis. The optional shell-backed thin bucket seats work better and look better, but, in all probability, they won't come to the US. Pity.
With the competition buckets or not, you can't deny that this is one polished, highly capable and hugely rewarding car. Guys at Ford spent many sleepless nights during the three-year long development process, and they did a remarkable job. Focus RS may not feel as fast as the Mercedes-AMG A45, whilst the VW Golf R400, which will probably come later this year, is going to deliver bigger speeds. But if this Ford is about any number, it's the price. At $36,605, the new RS a great offer, guaranteeing much more than the similarly priced rivals do and undercutting the rivals it should really be compared with by tens of thousands of USD. It may be different from its predecessors in the way it drives, but it's exactly the same in terms of combining the supreme driving experience with a bang for buck benefit. And for that, nothing in the hot-hatch segment comes close to the 2016 Focus RS.