The 2016 Ford Focus RS is an amazing road car, as we discovered here. But how does it go on a proper racetrack?
To find out, Ford brought us over to Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia, Spain. This track is home to MotoGP and, in the past, DTM, World Touring Cars and even GT cars.
It’s a relatively tight track with plenty of technical corners, well suited to the grippy characteristics of the Focus RS.
Before getting on track, however, we did get to abuse launch control, followed by a drift session that saw us destroy a near-endless number of Michelin tyres (Ford had brought along three giant trucks full of tyres, just in case).
The launch control system is relatively convoluted: you engage it by selecting first gear with the clutch down, then by entering the menu on the instrument cluster, scrolling down three times and picking driver assist and then again ticking launch control.
It really could do with just, you know, one button somewhere to start it up rather than having to go through sub menus to get there – by which point the light has already turned green and the guy next to you is 10 metres up the road.
Nonetheless, once engaged, all you have to do is flatten the accelerator (which sits at around 5000 RPM) and dump the clutch (not ease it off). The Focus RS grips and catapults forward. Ford told us we should flat-shift from first to second (not lifting off the accelerator) and doing so produced amazing 0-100km/h times, definitely matching the claimed 4.7 seconds, which you’ll get while still in second gear.
The drift mode was something else. We can’t say any other car has an actual ‘drift’ mode that we’ve come across (though plenty do it well), but to have it on an AWD is even more unique. Simply turn it on to drift mode, kiss your tyres goodbye and away you go.
It’s a little counter intuitive, as you don’t counter-steer once you begin to slide, you simply turn it in and press the accelerator really hard and watch the AWD system do the work. It’s pretty easy to get it to slide and so long as you can modulate the throttle well enough it just keeps on sliding till the tyres die.
It’s, lets be honest, utterly pointless unless you’ve reached the end of your tyre life and want to completely destroy a set before getting a new one. Other than that, there’s no genuine reason why you need a drift mode in an AWD car. It’s not proper drifting anyway, as it (putting our elitist hat on) doesn’t require the skill of doing so in a high horsepower rear=wheel-drive car.
All that aside, and with new and stickier tyres on (Michelin Cup to Pilot), the Focus RS is a proper monster on track. The amount of grip from the super sticky and soft Pilots mixed in with the AWD system makes for a hell of a ride, one that we took full advantage off.
There’s a lot of feedback through the whole car on track, but the steering wheel certainly can do with more of it. If it wasn’t for the tyre noise, it would be rather hard to tell where the grip ends.
The weird thing about the RS on track, though, is the lack of brake fade. The cooling system Ford has designed certainly seems to work and the company says the car is meant to be able to withstand a full 30 minutes of track use without brake fade or any other mechanical or electronic issue.
The RS hatch's cooling is 20 per cent improved over the ST and, at 100km/h, it can cool its brakes down from 350c to 150c rather quickly - or so Ford claims. The company said it tested the brakes to withstand 13 consecutive full stops from 214km/h without brake fade.
After a good 12 or so laps, we did manage to abuse the brakes enough to have them go a little soft - but even then, we were pushing the limits of the car to the very edge, braking as late as possible, over and over again.
For an everyday driver that is keen to do an occasional track day, the Focus RS is hugely forgiving. It will properly slide around at the back (if you turn everything off) but it’s predictable in nature.
Ford is adamant that its ESC systems are truly off when they say they are, as opposed to other manufacturers that have their nanny controls kick in when things really go bad. This is a good and bad thing, as when you lose the RS at high speed, you’ve basically lost it with no way back (though despite our very best efforts, this proved incredibly difficult to do). But, on the plus side, it gives you enormous freedom to stick the back end out when coming hot through a tight bend, of which there are plenty at the Valencia track.
Having the car oversteer was certainly the name of the game at first, but after the tyres really warmed up and then went past the optimum point of grip, understeer was certainly present when pushed hard, but even then the grip is so resolute that it always comes back to a neutral stance and with the torque vectoring system employed, the Focus RS basically fixes all your mistakes.
In that sense, though, it can be a little predictable to drive fast. It doesn’t really bite and it seemed as though no matter what we did to upset its balance in or out of a corner, it always found a way to straighten itself up and get ready for the next turn. It’s hard to say that’s a bad thing but those of us that prefer a more mongrel character might get tired of it rather quickly. That’s not to say any of its AWD competitors offer that, because they don’t.
Although we are very much looking forward to putting it against the Golf R, STi, Evo and even the Megane RS, it certainly feels far faster point-to-point on a race track than at least the first three mentioned. There’s just so much grip and so much braking force that it becomes a game of finding the absolute last possible centimetre before braking hard and turning in.
Because of its nature, you can actually put your foot down on the accelerator much earlier than you probably should coming out of the corner. What that does is push the RS’ electronics into overdrive, forcing torque into the outer wheel to help turn the car around faster. In some ways, you actually gain speed and better cornering by accelerating earlier in a corner than you’d think would be optimum.
The progressive nature of the car allowed us to push it so hard towards the last few laps that it felt completely at home going flat-out around the track. It’s not a game of point and shoot, per se, but it’s pretty darn close. There’s a great deal of both electronic and mechanical aid that allows for incredible lap times on the RS which is ultimately what buyers in this segment are looking for.
Is it fast on a race track? Unbelievably so. Is it fun? Yes, if you’re willing to fry your tyres getting the rear end out.
At the end of the day, it’s an AWD hot hatch - so there’s only so much you can expect it to do - but it certainly met and truly exceeded our expectations.