The 2017 Ford Focus RS is the best hot hatch for the money. It eclipses all that has come before it through a masterful balance of performance and everyday liveability. It is, in many ways, the benchmark of what a performance hatch should be, but it’s not without its flaws.
From the outside, particularly in the nitrous blue colour our test car came in, the new Ford Focus RS stands out wherever it goes. It’s a magnet for car enthusiasts who instantly recognise it as the new king on the block.
Be it the aggressive front grille, the wider stance and flared guards or the RS wing that clearly says to all that pull alongside that this is not a car to be messed with. Doesn’t matter what angle you look at it from, the Focus RS is a sensationally aggressive hatch that doesn’t take any prisoners.
Inside though, is a bit of a different story. It’s basically a Focus ST with minor updates and a few RS badges here and there. Those aftermarket-looking performance gauges are still present and tend to set the scene for what is, unfortunately, a rather cheap feeling cabin.
The sport seats are comfortable and it does still have all the practicality offered by a regular Focus, so rear seats can house two adults and the boot is large enough for a pram and the week’s shopping. The Microsoft-powered 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system is ok, as in, it does the job, but it can really do with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
It's also worth noting that given the Recaro seats, there are only four airbags (no side), which may be of concern to some buyers.
It’s not that we dislike the interior as everything is where it’s suppose to be and nothing screams out poor ergonomics, but it's more that the hard plastics and the overwhelming use of dark colours inside make you realise the majority of your $50,990 purchase went into the mechanics, not the interior.
That’s okay then, because when there is an RS badge on the back of a Ford, it’s not to indicate luxury.
With a 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the little Ford develops an impressive 257kW of power and 470Nm of torque on overboost (15 seconds). Officially, the torque figure is 440Nm as it needs to be measured indefinitely and not for a specific period of time, but let us know when you find a straight long enough to sustain 15 seconds of flat out acceleration. It will go from 0-100km/h in 4.7 seconds.
The RS sends its power to all four wheels, though with an inherent bias to the rear (up to 70 percent to the rear). It’s also only available with a six-speed manual, which may disappoint some, but Ford argues that it helped keep the development and engineering cost down and also the additional weight of something like a dual-clutch transmission upfront would create understeer at the limit.
This is the same engine as the Ecoboost Mustang, but with a higher rated turbocharger and, to be frank, an infinitely better exhaust note than the four-banger Pony.
So much so that one of the biggest highlights of driving a Focus RS is the noise. In standard mode it’s not all that loud and you can certainly keep your neighbours happy, but engage sport mode and all of a sudden it begins to crackle and pop and every gear change feels like an epic battle through a rally course.
We are not in love with the manual transmission; the clutch is unevenly weighted, heavy on the way down and very quick to spring back up. You can get used to it, but it can really do with just a standard heavy or light clutch and not something in the middle. Furthermore, the gearshifts themselves are longer than they ought to be, a short shifter will do wonders to change the car’s character.
All that aside though, it’s when you’re behind the wheel of the RS and find yourself presented with a twisty section of road that you realise why Ford has created the best hot hatch in its segment.
The problem with most AWD hot hatches is understeer. They tend to be pretty good, up until they are not. The RS, though, seems to have some strange characteristics where understeer is only present when you’ve really royally screwed it up, such as attempting to turn into a corner way too fast (something we deliberately tried many times on a race track just to force understeer).
On the open road, and particularly when optioned up with the (we think mandatory) performance wheel pack that wraps the 19-inch alloys in Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s, the RS is so bloody grippy that it begins to hurt your spine.
Push it hard into a corner followed by another and it just hangs on, even at speeds that would make you say a little prayer beforehand. Compared to say, the now defunct Mitsubishi EVO X, the Focus RS is far more competent in managing its torque distribution and therefore doesn’t pass its weight transfer from side to side inside the cabin as much (further helped by the adjustable suspension).
Against an STI, it’s a totally different car – where the Subaru is inherently understeery the RS is the complete opposite, baiting you to push harder then giving you a quick wake up call with predictable oversteer.
Perhaps the most fun one can have with an RS is to simply give it a tiny bit of extra acceleration coming hard out of a corner. The rear end loves to play and the car is so well poised and balanced that you can get thoroughly addicted to the game.
As you may have heard… the car also has a Drift mode. This is for when your tyres are at the end of their life and you’ve found yourself on a racetrack or skidpan and want to have some fun. Clearly, any negative attention around this issue is completely rubbish as any modern car can do the same thing just by turning off ESC. In fact, Ford has made doing what many already do much safer by creating a mode that allows the car to drift without spinning. You can read more about our thoughts on Drift mode here.
In terms of living with the Focus RS as a daily, there is certainly some merit to its ability. Sure, the ride is hard – and becomes rock hard when you engage sport suspension – but if you don’t frequent too many speed bumps or poorly surfaced roads, it’s really not that bad and certainly better than any EVO has ever been. In this regard though, one can make a case for the Volkswagen Golf R as the more everyday-friendly choice, which is probably true, but the ageing Golf hasn’t got what it takes to beat the RS dynamically, so it’s a battle of finding a happy medium.
For us, the Ford Focus RS is the best choice in its segment. It evokes an emotional sensation that a car in its price range has no right to do. It has the dynamic and performance credentials that put it alongside hot hatches close to twice its price, so if you can live with its plasticky interior, all you have to do now is join the extremely long queue to get your hands on one.
For us this is a 9.5/10 car, however due to lack of side airbags it gets rated down to a 9.