It's one of the most eagerly anticipated hot hatches of the year, and we've driven it. Read our review of the mighty Ford Focus RS.
UPDATE, JULY 14 2016: The Focus RS is now on sale in Australia, and we'll have a full launch review for you very soon. For now, enjoy our international drive coverage, and catch more about the Focus RS right here.
A quick glance at the speedometer shows 103km/h as we head hot into a tight hairpin corner hugging a humongous cliff. In most other cars this would now be an ideal time to say your last prayers, but we are in the new 2016 Ford Focus RS, and it’s only just getting warmed up.
There’s really no other way to say this, so let's just be blunt about it. The 2016 Ford Focus RS is a staggeringly good sports car. It has almost everything you could expect from an AWD super-hot hatch… almost.
With a starting price of $50,990 (read the full Ford Focus RS pricing and specification), the new and now all-wheel drive Focus RS is without doubt the performance bargain of the year. That’s a big claim, so let's back it up.
For the international launch of the Focus RS, Ford brought us to Valencia — home to the world famous Circuit Ricardo Tormo racetrack as well as insanely twisty and unbelievably smooth roads up through the city’s outer hills. Perhaps a near perfect part of the world to experience what the new RS has to offer.
Having ditched the front-wheel drive system of the previous – and much more hardcore-looking – generation RS, the new super hatch employs a proper all-wheel unit that combines with one of the best torque-vectoring systems we’ve experienced in a car to date. The downside is the additional weight — now tipping the scale at a rather hefty 1575kg in total — the upside though, is everything else.
During regular driving the system can push up to 75 per cent of the car’s torque to the rear wheels, though in extreme circumstances (e.g. front wheels stuck in slippery ice), that ratio can actually rise to 95 per cent. What Ford manages to do with this capability is amazing, as the Focus RS has an uncanny tendency to present beautifully controlled oversteer when pushed hard, one of its most endearing characteristics.
Powered by a 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbocharged Ecoboost engine — similar to the one found in the Ford Mustang, but with a different turbocharger as well as a few other bits and pieces — the Focus RS manages a very credible 257kW of power and 440Nm of torque (or 470Nm when it hits overboost).
This helps it go from 0-100km/h in 4.7 seconds, quicker than all its similarly priced rivals. Even the Volkswagen Golf R, which has the benefit of its rapid-shifting dual clutch transmission - whereas the Focus RS is humbled by a six-speed manual gearbox only — is 0.3 of a second slower.
That amount of power and torque is impressive, but figures are meaningless if the drive experience is lacking. Thankfully then, the Focus RS not only feels dynamically superior to any of its aforementioned rivals, we felt that it approached similar levels of competence to the much more expensive and premium offerings such as the Audi RS 3 and Mercedes-AMG A45.
Press the drive selector mode to go from Normal to Sport (there’s also Race Track and Drift) and the Focus RS turns from what is already a fast hot hatch into something exceptional. Point to point, we found it hard to fathom just how much mechanical and tyre grip the little Ford produced (our test car had the $2,500 optional Michelin Pilot Cup Sport tyres and 19-inch wheels package).
If screaming from one corner to another at tremendous speed is not enough to make you grin like an idiot, the crackles and pops in addition to the tantalising note from the exhaust is sure to bring out any enthusiast’s inner madman.
The steering is not overly sensitive but around the twisty stuff it did feel super direct — although it’s not variable, there’s only one mode. The brakes feel wonderful and despite hours of abuse up and down a mountain, they showed no signs of fade.
All of these goodies put together, our favourite pastime activity quickly became oversteer out of a tight bend. Simply accelerate a little more than you think you should out of a hairpin corner and the back steps out ever so briefly as you counter steer in to it. Hold the accelerator down even further and the dance continues. Of course, Ford even has a drift mode for just this purpose but even just in Sport, it feels very playful.
It’s as if you have all the positive attributes of a rear-wheel drive car but with the grip of an all-wheel drive one. If it wore a Mitsubishi Evo XI badge and cost an additional $10,000 you’d still be very impressed, the fact that it’s Ford’s first attempt at an all-wheel driven Focus RS and to feel just how well they’ve completely nailed the brief is a huge testament to Ford’s performance engineers.
But for everything that it does exceptionally well, and there’s plenty of that, it still does have its flaws. The turning circle is stupendously bad, the clutch is unreasonably light and the gearbox itself feels very vague and disconnected from the action.
The lack of a dual-clutch automatic transmission is a solid negative, though Ford says it was a cost and weight consideration not to do it, given the mission was to make sure the Focus RS didn’t understeer, a requirement that may not have been met with a heavier gearbox sitting upfront.
Then there’s the interior, which in typical Ford style is feature packed with hard plastics and cheap looking interior fitting, the worst of which being the Supercheap Auto-esque three-gauge housing from the ST placed on the dash. We’ve seen toy cars that have a nicer looking gauge set.
It’s unfortunate that while the engineers at Ford have designed an amazing package, it’s let down by some cost-cutting decisions that have no doubt come from the outcome of an accountant’s wrath.
The 8-inch Microsoft powered infotainment system isn't all that bad once you get use to it, but its grid design feels a little old school in nature and it could really do with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The exterior too, looks a little undercooked in some ways. Sure, it’s gorgeous from the front and the side but the rear feels unfinished and when you compare it to the previous-generation Focus RS, which basically looked as though it had come out of a World Rally Championship poster, the new car is rather conservative in appearance.
But you forget all that when you drive it, because the Focus RS is pretty much what anyone that has ever driven an EVO or STI wants. It’s fast, characterful, very loud and while it can make you work for it corner after corner, when you get it right, it’s a sensational feeling.
The ride and suspension felt notably stiff, though we only deduced that from feeling every minor imperfection on test roads that were extremely smooth. It will be our mission when the car arrives in Australia around September or October to note it how it rides locally.
It's also worth realising the Focus RS isn't very economical, as we managed a rather thirsty 25.8L/100km during our fuel tank draining 180km loop, which included at least 50km on the highway.
Nonetheless, if you’ve set aside around $55,000 (estimate of drive away pricing including on-road costs) to buy a hot-hatch, we couldn’t think of anything else that would match the RS for sheer fun factor, let alone outright dynamic performance and acceleration. So stop looking for justification and buy it. Now.
We are spending additional time in the Focus RS around a racetrack to try out its different track and drift modes and will write a separate review of the car’s on-track characteristics in the coming days.
Read the full pricing and specifications story here.