Count me among the embittered, my frustration growing with each passing year as another European sports wagon or hot hatch fails to make it to this side of the Atlantic
But the tide is slowly turning, and with it, my feelings from frustration to jubilation, as more and more bubble-backed dream machines make their way to North American shores. Among the latest to do so is the Ford Focus RS, a rally-inspired ride that would make even the most die-hard Subaru fan blush.
The Focus RS is the third — and hottest — hot hatch in Ford’s current crop of cars, joining ST versions of the Focus and smaller Fiesta. And while those two are easily counted among the most fun-to-drive cars on the market today, they seem optically ordinary when lined up next to the RS.
It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with the Focus RS, but it’s far from understated, and won’t check any boxes for those in the market for a sleeper.
RS-ipe for Success
What’s under the hood will do about as little to avoid the attention of the local police as the in-your-face exterior, with power coming from the same 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder found in the Mustang EcoBoost. Truthfully, I never thought the engine was a match for the Mustang, feeling a bit unresponsive and underpowered. Neither of those issues plague the EcoBoosted RS, though, with a few extra tricks up its sleeve — namely a new twin-scroll turbocharger and larger intercooler — that help push output to a ridiculous 350 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque, a jump of 40 hp and 30 lb-ft compared to the Mustang.
All that power heads to the wheels through a torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system that features a pair of clutch packs that can split power front to back and side to side before you even know you need it there, sending power outside, for example, to kill any semblance of understeer.
The only gearbox available is a six-speed manual, but it is one of the finest examples on the market today, and features tremendously short throws and a nicely weighted clutch that is neither too heavy or too light. Running through the gears takes no time at all, and hitting the proper shift points — which are somewhere in the 5,000 to 6,500 rpm range, depending on what kind of mood you’re in — is rewarded with a burbling backfire that is unrivaled in the segment and beyond.
And now for a moment of honesty: We all stall from time to time, whether we want to admit it or not. The good news is that the RS has a recovery system that’s here to help. Let’s say you let the clutch out too quickly when the light turns green. The engine will die, just like any other car with a manual gearbox, but instead of having to slide the shifter into neutral and turn the ignition over again as you embarrassingly bring traffic to a halt, all you need to do to recover is depress the clutch and the engine will fire right back up — even if the car is still in gear.
As you would expect, the RS has a drive mode selector that can be set to normal, sport or track, with all kinds of electronic trickery at play, adjusting engine and steering response, suspension, all-wheel drive and traction control on the fly. Yes, it also has a drift mode, but no, I didn’t use it on the street. Rumored to have been developed by accident, the computer essentially tricks the car’s stability control and torque bias to turn the Focus RS into a drift-happy, rear-driving machine. This, of course, is a quick way to burn through tires, an expensive proposition considering a replacement set of the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s fitted to our tester will run you about $1,500.
Regardless of drive mode, the suspension can be adjusted independently through a button on the signal stalk, with two settings on offer: Stiff, and stiffer. Leave it in normal and you’ll feel almost every bump in the road. Put it in sport and you’ll be paying a visit to the chiropractor after a long drive.
Of course, none of that matters when you’re behind the wheel, with even the most mundane of drives sure to leave a smile on your face. Push the Focus RS hard and it’s eager for more, playfully nudging you further and further. And just when you think it’s hit its limit — when heading into a corner a little too hot, for example — it takes it up another notch, your mind unable to shake the oh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-this-thing-is-so-affordable thoughts that come creeping in. The steering, while a touch on the dull side, is firm and unshakable, and responds to input quickly and precisely, relying on quick flicks of the wrist to point the nose in the direction it needs to go. The whole package comes together so nicely it’s scary. The car is so capable and user-friendly, I can’t decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It handles phenomenally well, laughs in the face of understeer, and puts down enough power to outrun just about any other new car this side of $50,000. And, lest we forget, it started life as acommuter car.
About the only complaints I have about the car come from inside. The cabin is almost identical to almost every other new Focus on the road outside of the steering wheel, Recaro seats and some boost and oil gauges on the dash, and is in desperate need of something — body-colored trim pieces, carbon-fiber inserts — to set it apart from the crowd. And about the Recaro seats, I love the leather and suede and blue stitching, and they’re definitely up to the job of keeping you planted in the event you feel like tossing it into a corner, but the bolsters are tighter than a pair of yoga pants on a Kardashian. I just don’t understand why they’re not adjustable.
The price can also be a bit deceiving — especially in Canada. Features like the RS2 package, which includes heated leather front seats, a heated steering wheel, heated mirrors, and voice-activated touchscreen navigation, a separate set of winter tires mounted on 18-inch alloy wheels, and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s mounted on 19-inch black forged alloy wheels, add almost $7,000 to the sticker of U.S. cars but all count as standard kit on Canadian models, explaining the drastic price difference.
The Verdict: 2017 Ford Focus RS Review
After years of begging, Ford has finally answered the call, delivering the Focus RS to North American shores for the first time — and with it, a car worthy of the hype. It is one of the most fun, well-rounded sports cars I have ever driven, proving itself user-friendly and smile-inducing in a way that’s hard to match. Throw in an outstanding bang-for-your-buck, and I can’t even remember why I was so bitter in the first place. Now if only I could convince Audi to send over the RS 6 Avant, all would be right on this side of the world.