You have to admit that lately, Ford has been dishing out some fairly impressive performance cars. The Fiesta ST was one of our favourite hot hatches in 2014, combining economy roots with usable performance. The new Mustangs with their independent rear suspensions and turbocharged EcoBoost engines were awe inspiring and fabulous to drive, not to mention the hardcore Shelby GT350R, which was one of the most thrilling cars we’ve ever taken on the track. But now all the hype and attention has turned to the blue winged Smurf sitting in my garage, the 2017 Ford Focus RS.
Ford’s RS brand might not sound familiar to fellow Canadians, but the fact of the matter is that the Blue Oval has actually been building these hardcore models for decades. None of them have made it to this side of the pond however, which makes this new RS’ voyage across the Atlantic that much more exciting.
What’s got our blood pumping is the RS’ concoction of a 350-hp Mustang engine, a clever all-wheel drive (AWD) system, proper torque vectoring, an electronically adjustable suspension, Recaro seats, and huge Brembo brakes. Ford has its crosshairs dead set on the relatively small AWD compact car market, currently contested by the Volkswagen Golf R and Subaru WRX STI. The RS may be late to the show, but the audience is still patiently waiting in intermission, eager to find out if it is really as good as the hype suggests.
Like we mentioned earlier, the engine in the RS is borrowed straight from a Mustang EcoBoost, which is a 2.3-litre turbocharged inline-four turned sideways and with a larger turbo, upgraded cylinder heads and liners, and a massive intercooler. They managed to squeeze out an extra 40 hp and 30 lb-ft out of the mill, resulting in a total output of 350-hp and 350 lb-ft straight through a standard 6-speed manual.
When all is said and done, the RS can launch from 0-100 km/h in 4.7 seconds, which trumps the Golf R and WRX STI, which reach it in 5.1 seconds and 4.9 seconds, respectively.
But that’s not all. The RS gets stiffer springs (33% stiffer in the front and 38% in the rear compared to the Focus ST), bigger four-piston brakes, and a fixed steering rack. The bodywork is nothing shy of a rally car either, sporting a planetary hatch spoiler, a new front grill that looks like its wearing a retainer, a more aggressive bodykit, 19-inch wheels, and the most obnoxious yet sexy hue of Nitrous Blue paint I’ve ever seen on an “economy” rooted vehicle.
At city limits, the RS doesn’t feel much different than an ST. Unlike more refined turbo powertrains, peak torque doesn’t come that low in the powerband. In fact, you have to rev out to 3,200 rpm until a surge of boost comes chasing after you, so off the line the RS might feel slower than the numbers suggest. Once you get the RS hovering over the mid-range however, the car hastens up, spools quicker, and finally shows signs of life.
Hit the rev limiter and it will ping like a B-spec rally car while a little yellow “RS” light blinks and reminds you to shift. The noise is intoxicating, which if I’m being honest, sounds just like a Golf R with the volume turned up just a notch. The RS will even pop and burble like a MINI John Cooper Works – a neat little trick Ford engineers have programmed to let extra fuel combust in the chamber while the exhaust flaps are open.
Turbo lag shows its face every now and then, but it only takes a quick second before the party comes alive. On the bright side, the RS revs much quicker and happier than the Mustang it stole its engine from.
You won’t be wowed by the power delivery or torque figures – not these singular factors, no. But the sum of the parts is what you will fall in love with, with the RS delivering neutral handling, loads of grip, and real track day potential.
The RS’ all-wheel drive (AWD) system is the big headliner here. Where it differs from traditional Haldex AWD systems, say on the Golf R, is that on the front axle the RS uses brake-based torque vectoring, while on the rear axle the rear drive shaft comes with a pair of clutch packs that are able to shuffle 70% torque to the rear, and 100% of that torque side-to-side.
In layman’s terms, what this means is that the RS is able to distribute power to where it is needed most and allows the car to exit a corner much faster. The system works seamlessly, nearly remedying any chance of understeer and allowing the RS to rotate in ways a FWD-based economy car could only dream of behaving.
The way the RS fights for grip and replaces dreaded understeer with tail-wagging fun is nothing short of spectacular, whereby applying more throttle and adding speed around corners only pushes the RS faster and excites the rear end. Not to mention, the amount of grip from these amazing 19-inch Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires is insane. Did I mention that they come standard with the vehicle too? And to make matters even sweeter, Canadians that order the RS will get a set of winter tires at no extra cost.
As far as electric setups go, the steering in the RS isn’t bad. It doesn’t do much to communicate with you what’s exactly going on with the front tires – the wheel is numb, but weights up nicely and naturally when the speeds pick up. The front end is incredibly reactive to input, requiring only a slight shift of the wrist to get the car pointed in the other direction.
The clutch is light, springy, and lenient, making it one of the easiest manuals to drive and very beginner friendly. It’s got an easy grab point, however the pedal placement makes it hard to heel and toe. There is no auto-rev matching, but the RS does come with auto start/stop tech to save fuel.
There are four modes to choose from to tailor your driving experience: Normal, Sport, Track, and Drift. These adjust shock tuning, stability control, engine and steering response, and exhaust noise. Unfortunately, there is no option to individually modify the settings like the Golf R does, which seems like a missed opportunity here.
In Drift Mode, the RS sends most of the power rearward while the stability control guides you into a beautiful slide that is easily sustained by keeping power on the throttle and applying only a pinch of steering input. The result is a hooligan drift-mobile capable of pulling off heroic moments of showboating for YouTube. Now release your inner Ken Block… if you have the money to replace those tires. Driftoooo!
What many people forget is that the Focus RS is based on an economy car platform, meaning it carries the functionality, practicality and spaciousness of a standard run-of-the-mill Focus hatch. The cabin details are nearly identical too, bar the blue RS badges littered throughout like a BMW M car, and boost gauges on the dashboard, but this isn’t exactly a bad thing.
The front and rear seats are roomy and give your legs lots of room to stretch, while the standard and insanely bolstered Recaro seats keep your spine from falling apart. These are good seats for short bursts on the track, but taking a 3.5-hour weekend trip up to Bruce Peninsula will leave you searching for the nearest masseuse (trust me, we’ve tried).
The center console is a bit tight for storage but there is more than enough space in the rear hatch to stow your suitcases, groceries, and even a few spare tires. The rear seats can fold down in a 60/40 split fashion too, and there’s even a sunroof for summer cruising.
So it comes down to this: has the Ford Focus RS been overhyped to the masses? The answer is no, not at all. It’s everything it was made out to be, and more. The powerplant is phenomenal, its finesse and agility is unmatched in its segment, and Ford never forgot to make it usable as a daily driver with creature comforts like a heated steering wheel, a rear view camera, and a premium Sony audio system.
In the midst of the battlefield, I wouldn’t exactly say that the Focus RS ($47,969) is a better car than the Volkswagen Golf R ($42,010) or the Subaru WRX STI ($45,395). The RS is more expensive, that’s for sure, but it comes fully loaded off the bat with every feature in the book. In fact, the only options to choose from are the paint colours.
The RS is more engaging than the Golf R, especially around corners where that torque vectoring system and standard Michelin Cup 2 tires really work their magic, but its suspension and ride quality doesn’t offer the same amount of comfort, compliance and on-road refinement. The Golf R also comes with the option of a dual-clutch automatic for those who refuse to row their own gears, and the cabin looks and feels more expensive, but nothing seems to make up for its 58 hp and 70 lb-ft deficit.
Compared to the 305-hp Subaru WRX STI, the RS is easier to manage and is more beginner friendly with a forgiving clutch and adjustable suspension. The ride is relatively more complaint and interior noise insulation is much better. Though both vehicles share a no-frills interior, the RS is smaller on the inside, has less cargo room, and certainly doesn’t feel as focused or as purpose built as the STI.
So where exactly does the newcomer stand? Right in between. Turns out, this market has room for a third. The Focus RS may be the more expensive vehicle on the lot, but it comes well equipped with phenomenal tires straight out of the box, an endearing Mustang engine, and a crafty all-wheel drive system. Marrying the art of the road and track isn’t easy, but Ford has managed to learn some tricks overseas and have turned this civilian 5-door Focus into one hell of a performance bargain. Turns out that for once, the hype is real.