A different car each week will make even the most enthusiastic car lover a little bit cynical of performance cars that are engulfed in enormous hype.
So it was with that healthy amount of cynicism that I jumped behind the wheel of my test car for this week, a white Ford Focus RS.
Actually, that's a lie. I didn't jump behind the wheel straight away, I ogled in amazement as to how Ford has managed to take a Focus and make it look so damn good. Then I got kind of annoyed. If they can make it look this good, why did they have to keep us waiting this long? Anyway, the folks at Ford's marketing and product planning department sure know how to get the very best out of a halo car and the Ford Focus RS truly is the ultimate in the Ford range.
From the moment you plant your rear-end in the Recaro bucket seats (front or rear), you know the Focus RS is a real man's car. It oozes so much masculinity that you could almost bottle it and sell it as a cologne (but please, don't).
The man behind the counter at Ford told me to try to not lose my licence as he sheepishly smiled and handed over the smart key for the RS. This was wise advice, no doubt gained from experience. I finally unlocked the doors and sat inside. I gripped the thick RS steering wheel and with a deep breath, reached for the engine start button.
The German-built Ford Focus RS comes to life in the same way as a supercar: with subtle elegance and a hint of anger. It snarls as it ticks over and kicks into action. It then goes quiet. Waiting eagerly for you to engage first gear. And yes, it's a manual and of course, it's only available as a manual. If you even contemplate that as a bad thing, this car isn't for you.
The clutch is a lot lighter than I had imagined, but that's not a bad thing as it makes driving a lot easier. The steering, on the other hand, seems to be heavier than a BMW M3, which is fantastic as it makes cornering addictive.
As I drove out of Ford's compound I resisted every urge to plant it in second gear. The 2.5-litre 20V DOHC RS engine has 224kW (6500rpm) and 440Nm of torque (2300-4500rpm), and believe it or not, this engine was originally designed by Volvo. That much power and torque in a car that weighs just 1492 kg (kerb) demands respect. So, I slowly creeped up to the intersection and stopped, patiently waiting in first gear for the green light.
A quick look around the cabin made me realise that unlike its main competitors, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X and Subaru Impreza WRX STI, the Focus RS actually has an interior designed for comfort. That means soft touch plastics all around the dash and doors, a well-designed cabin and instrument cluster, plus, and here is the clincher, usable rear seats.
So while it's not a practical five-seater, it can comfortably sit four adults for long journeys. But really, interior? Comfort? Practicality? Who cares! The Ford Focus RS is not about any of that, it's about knowing you're alive. It's about getting that uncontrollable smile that makes you look like a man possessed with a mission, a mission to go as fast as possible around as many corners as possible.
After what seemed like hours, the light finally went green. First rule of automotive journalism, get to know the vehicle before you explore its potential. With that mind, I began to get on boost momentarily in first, quick change to second (accompanied by a pop from the exhaust and the sound of a blow-off valve doing its work) with a progressive push on the right pedal.
The Focus RS really started coming to life, growling as the boost gauge began to climb. The twin rear exhausts emit a sound befitting a world rally car. In fact, unlike other cars where heaps of sound deadening is used to keep the cabin quiet, the Focus RS uses a 'sound symposer' system, which, according to Ford, amplifies certain engine frequencies and brings that nice angry engine sound into the cabin. Don't tell the wife.
Ford says the Focus RS is as loud as it can legally be, complying with European drive-by noise limits. Thankfully, given that the Europeans aren't governed by a bunch of arrogant do-gooders hellbent on being the fun police, the RS is still bloody loud.
Again, if the thought “oh, will it be too loud?” came to mind, even for an instant, stop reading now, this isn't the car for you. This is not an EVO, this is not an STI, it's significantly more hardcore than that. Just look at it. It means serious business.
Some have suggested that one should compare it to the Volkswagen Golf R three-door (soon to be replaced with the Volkswagen Scirocco R) but as much as I love those two cars, they are not comparable. They simply don't give the same level of engagement. Before you start commenting though, let me define my idea of engagement.
To be perfectly frank, a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X would be faster around a mountain than the Focus RS, not because it has more power or torque, but because it's all-wheel drive and even more than that, it's absolutely clinical. It's like a Nissan GT-R, you just point and shoot. It goes exactly where you want it. It doesn't matter how you approached the corner, how badly you took the racing line. It's all irrelevant, it just does it anyway. The Ford Focus RS on the other hand, will try to kill you if you get lazy or stop paying attention. It demands absolute concentration, it begs to be driven hard, but it needs to be driven with finite precision.
Never before would I have considered buying a front-wheel drive sportscar, in fact, just the words 'front-wheel drive sportscar' generally represented an oxymoron for me. In the case of the RS, though, all the things that I hate about front-wheel drives (torque steer, lack of cornering ability) have been significantly improved.
224kW and 440Nm of torque to the front wheels in a small hatchback is, by all accounts, a ridiculous idea. Unless of course, you've got German engineers. The smart folks at Ford's R&D centre in Aachen, Germany worked out this clever system called 'RevoKnuckle'. These are the same folks that were involved in creating the suspension and kinematics of the Focus World Rally Car (back in the day). So they really know what they're doing. Apparently it has something to do with having two suspension knuckles, one fixed to the strut while the other rotates with the steering line of the car. It's obviously more complicated than that, but the result is much more tolerable levels of torque steer for a front-wheel drive car with so much pull.
The easiest way to get a car to understeer and torque steer is to suddenly plant the right pedal coming out of tight roundabout with the steering wheel turned sharply (on private property, of course – yes, ones with roundabouts). Even the EVO X and particularly the WRX STI, show torque steer in these conditions. The Focus RS? Not that much, and significantly less than the AWD STI.
Nonetheless, it's impossible to properly road test and review a car as mighty as a Ford Focus RS if it wasn't taken up Brisbane's own rally-like course. That being the sweet and deadly roads of Mounts Nebo and Glorious. Over 20km of twisty roads with perfect bitumen and almost nothing around but nature (well, at least for Glorious). One mistake and you'll face a massive drop down the mountain or be presented with a nice tree to the face. Mount Glorious sees more bike accidents and fatalities than any other location in Brisbane. For those reasons it's also a place commonly frequented by the men in blue hiding behind trees and even using vehicles like STIs/EVOs to catch culprits (they'd have more fun if they had an RS).
Thankfully, the relatively high speed limit of 80km/h (given the style of the road) is just adequate for some fun cornering and enthusiastic driving without breaking the speed limit (although that certainly helps – not that I would know).
I had been raving about the Focus RS all week to my colleague, Anthony. So he decided to get on a plane from Sydney and fly up for the drive around the mountain. Something he'd usually do if I had an Aston Martin or some other supercar. Alas, it was just a Focus. But when I said, “you need to drive this”, he knew I was serious.
The Ford Focus RS has a 62-litre fuel tank (7L more than the XR5) and I can assure you, fuel economy is not high on its priority list. Officially it uses 10.4L/100km for the combined city and highway cycle, that's pretty true and when driven around town I managed just 9.9L/100km. I wasn't exactly being gentle on the throttle either.
However, in the seven days that I had the RS, it went through over 150L of fuel (driven about 900ks). If you intend to keep the turbo working at all times, expect dreadful fuel economy. It's still better than an EVO X, but that's like saying Tony Abbot is better than Julia Gillard.
It was 150L of fuel well used, it may as well have been anti-ageing cream because the RS is like an addictive drug that awakens the soul. I can't exactly pin point if it's the sound, the impeccable handling, the raw and edgy driving dynamics or the hyper-aggressive looks. Perhaps it's the package as a whole that makes the Focus RS such an incredibly fun toy to drive. Whatever it is, put it on your “to-drive” or “to-own” list, because it deserves to be there.
The trick to staying alive in a fast car around a twisty mountain road is to have good, no, excellent brakes. The RS makes do with 336mm x 30mm, ventilated front discs (gripped by 60mm single piston callipers) and 302mm x 11mm rear discs. It can stop from 100km/h in just 34.8 metres. A brand new Ferrari 458 Italia (almost 10 times the price) stops from the same speed in 32.5 meters. Charlie Sheen would call that statistic #winning.
The brake feel is a little peculiar at first, as it seems to be a case of on or off. The brakes come on really hard at first touch, which is excellent for the sort of driving the RS is meant for, but perhaps a little annoying around town. You will adjust to it, eventually.
Around the mountain the six-speed manual gearbox makes the driving experience even better, the RS doesn't need paddles as gear changes are simple and effortless. You can only really heel-and-toe when you're hard on the brake as the accelerator pedal is positioned just a little too far down to make it possible for show-off purposes. Speaking of which, if you blip the throttle on the down shifts, the RS sounds like a finely tuned Italian supercar as it erupts in a sudden and violent burst of noise.
From corner to corner the Ford Focus RS performed without fault around Mount Glorious. Sure, it torque-steered on a few occasions and yes, it did try to kill me as much as it could. But that's what I love about it, it's a car with character, it has soul. Its inherent flaws are what makes it such a perfect car. Stability control was left on for the majority of the time (for safety reasons) but even when driven without the system on, the Focus doesn't misbehave too badly.
Would it have been better as an AWD? Sure, it would go around corners easier and probably accelerate out of them with more control, but frankly, it wouldn't be nearly as fun. It's the only car I can think of where I'd say keep it FWD because it's more fun that way.
Conquering Mount Glorious made one point about the RS very clear: it has sensationally good steering. It's as if there is nothing but a piece of metal connecting you directly to the front wheels. It's heavy, direct and precise. If they told me it didn't have power-steering, I would've probably believed it. There is little to no play in the steering wheel and even a miniscule amount of movement will result in the front wheels changing direction. In that regard, it has got EVO-like steering precision but M3-like steering weight.
There is no body roll. I mean none. It's just flat. It's the sort of car that will have one of its front wheels hanging in the air when you're going into a car park with a bad on-ramp – it has solid and uncompromising suspension. Around the mountain it's exactly the sort of suspension you want, it inspires confidence and never feels like it's giving up. The same can be said about the bespoke Continental tyres wrapped around the 19-inch alloy wheels.
The ride is hard but not that uncomfortable (unless you plan on driving around pot-hole-infested roads). It will certainly give your back a workout if you're going to use it as a daily, but the second you get a chance to flatten the accelerator pedal (to get to the next red light), or if you plan on doing mountain runs, you'll realise it's worth it.
Acceleration is pretty brutal, 0-100km/h figure is 5.9 seconds, but that doesn't do the car justice as it's the in-gear acceleration that makes this car what it is. A monster. Flatten the pedal in second and it will hammer you back into the seat with enormous force as it gathers speed. The folks at Ford have designed it so that it can, in fact, hit 100km/h in second gear.
After nearly 40km around the mountain, the Focus RS had proven its point. You can have enormous amounts of fun in a high-powered but well-engineered FWD sportscar (just make sure you have someone else's fuel card). The RS is quick, agile and handles brilliantly, but is naughty enough to make driving fun.
By all means, begin to compare this with the STI, EVO X and even the Golf R. Yes, they may all be quicker from 0-100km/h and possibly even around a race track. But that's all irrelevant because it just doesn't matter what the statistics say. Gwyneth Paltrow might be a better actress (and a really nice person), but would you rather date her or Megan Fox?
There were only 315 Ford Focus RS units destined for Australia ($59,990) and they are all already sold (had I told you that at the beginning, would you have kept reading?). If you really, really must have one, a few Ford dealers might be able to work something out for you, so best to express interest ASAP. But, don't do it too quickly, because I want mine first.