Performance vehicle bargains are all relative. To the well off, a McLaren 570S is a killer deal compared to million-dollar supercars. Most of us, though, must search for value much (much) lower on the price spectrum.
Used sports cars offer incredible bang for the buck, but carry reliability risks. Then there’s the question of utility. If your speed machine needs to comfortably seat 4 or more passengers and tote items in the trunk, the spread of choices thins considerably. Something new, practical, and affordable – may I interest you in a hot hatch?
For years, sport-tuned 5-doors have rescued enthusiasts from excuses, and the latest crop transcend segment boundaries. Volkswagen’s Golf R has reigned over the hot hatch ecosystem for years, thanks to a potent turbo motor and sophisticated all-wheel drive system, but Ford’s Focus RS is poised to usurp authority.
Get It While It’s Hot
Unlike the ST, Ford’s range-topping Focus is not a product of mild tweaks – this is an all-out performance effort.
Ford started with the Mustang’s 2.3-liter Ecoboost 4-cylinder, mounting it transversely over the front wheels. Instead of slotting in the powertrain and calling it a day, engineers upgraded engine internals and swapped the pony car’s turbo for an upgraded twin-scroll unit. As a result, the motor revs quicker and produces more power. 350 horses and 350 lb.-ft. of torque are channeled through a 6-speed manual transmission to all 4 wheels. Want an automatic? Get off my lawn.
The inherent drawback of a front-engined hot hatch is its weight bias. Ford’s Focus RS is no exception with 59 percent of its heft riding shotgun – but it does offer a solution. Up to 70 percent of available torque can be punted to the rear, where Haldex-style clutches vector torque between tires for optimal grip. As a result, the ailment of front-wheel drive (understeer) is mitigated, while the benefit (controllable rotation) remains.
Rounding out the potent assembly is a set of beefier Brembo brakes, rear shock tower bracing, stiffer front and rear springs, adaptive suspension dampers with two stages of firmness, standard Michelin Pilot Super Sports (or available Pilot Sport Cup 2’s) wrapped around lightweight forged 19-inch wheels, and a fixed-ratio steering rack. Like I said, this Focus can’t be replicated with a trip to your local Pep Boys.
Shaken or Stirred?
The Focus RS is half hoon-mobile and half precision instrument; your experience is dictated by drive mode and aggression.
If the flared bodywork and giant rear wing didn’t clue you into the RS driving experience, its stiff ride will clear the air. With a 25 percent more rigid structure compared to the ST, Ford’s hottest hatch is taunt in normal mode, and punishing in Sport or Track settings. Fortunately, those itching for the throatier engine and burbling exhaust notes of these spicier driving modes can opt for the softer of two damping setting via a column on the steering rack.
If I hadn’t experienced the stiffer settings on a track, I’d call them overkill, but it’s hard to argue with nearly a full G of grip. Piloting the Focus RS on a road course like a responsible adult yields incredible dynamics. Factoring in some mild torque delay, the RS unleashes linear, robust power all the way to its 6,800 rpm redline. Shift throws are adequately brief and wonderfully precise, with a clear engagement window felt through the clutch. Braking is tremendous, especially considering the Focus RS hauls 3,500 pounds between corners. Steering inputs process after a split-second of hesitation – a trait I actually prefer to overly sensitive racks.
Tracing the performance lineage between the RS and its Mustang Shelby GT350R sibling is easier than expected…until you pursue ham-fisted antics. The thrill of a smooth lap in the Focus RS pales in comparison to an angry, loud, slidey romp. And forget about drift mode, especially if you’re repping Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber. The RS pivots and hangs its tail with such finesse that the drift mode’s invasive torque management actually gets in fun’s way. Just disengage traction control and let the RS loose – it’s what you both want.
Who Do You Think You Are?
It’s a question every hot hatch buyer must answer. For better or worse, 5-doors tend to accompany a certain, anarchical stigma. “Oh, you drive a turbo hatchback? Plan on growing up anytime soon?” The modesty of an unmodified Golf R can deter these sentiments, but a Grabber Blue Focus RS hasn’t a chance.
After a moment of self-actualization, you can either choose to give in to the fear of judgment, or put on your big boy pants. That inflated bodywork houses a wider tire and that protruding wing and front splitter keeps the RS grounded at speed – tell the haters to get over it, or simply leave them in the dust.
Within the cabin, however, criticism has a stronger footing. Besides a set of exceptional Recaro sport bucket seats, it’s compact car humdrum all the way. Plastics, dull analog gauges, and a dark monotone dashboard are among the RS’s worst features. Ford’s Sync 3 infotainment system isn’t dreadful anymore, but it’s far from the quickest or most intuitive unit on the market.
Maybe I should complain more about the Focus RS’s lack of interior sophistication, but here’s the deal: you can pair your phone via Bluetooth, it’s available with Sirius XM radio, the seats are comfortable, its rear passengers have sufficient legroom. Isn’t that enough? The instant you’re in motion is the same instant you forget about any and all interior insufficiencies.
The King and I
It would appear Ford is out to conquer every performance segment. The GT350R dominates track cars settled well outside its price bracket, and now the Focus RS strolls into VW Golf R and Subaru WRX STI territory only to be handed a crown. I can only imagine the rude awakening Ford’s new GT has in store for the world’s supercar elites.
This trail of engineering victories should encourage those considering the Focus RS: the same talented individuals behind Ford’s highest performing vehicles tuned your $40K hatchback ($36,605 if you skip the options list).
To the larger populous, you’re just a hooligan in a pastel blue toy, but to enthusiasts, you’re a working class hero. Like the ever-raging muscle car war, it’s difficult to imagine hot hatchbacks getting more refined, more capable than today’s best, but I find it’s best not to question progress – especially when it serves up a dose of dopamine this intense.
: Volkswagen Golf R, Subaru WRX STI
350hp, 350 lb-ft of torque
2.3 liter EcoBoost Turbo 4-cylinder from Mustang
Michelin Pilot Super Sports or optional Sport Cup 2s ($1990) on 19-inch black wheels
$36,605 to start
Recaro sport buckets
0-60 in 4.6 seconds
165mph top speed
0.98 G of lateral grip
For more information, options, and pricing, please visit our 2016 Ford Focus RS page on AutoWeb’s search and configure site.
Photo Credit: © 2016 Ford Motor Company / Miles Branman