As they say in the classics, create the hype but don’t believe it. Is the 2016 Ford Focus RS worthy of all the fuss or is it potentially a victim of its own success?
I’m going to throw a word at you. Hype.
It’s a catch-all term for excitement, chatter, anticipation… and pressure. We see it for music and film, and we see it for cars.
When it was first shown to the world’s media earlier this year, the 2016 Ford Focus RS already had a buzz about it. And why not? You’ve got a potent all-wheel drive, turbocharged, rally-bred hatchback from a company that knows a thing or two about potent, all-wheel drive, turbocharged, rally-bred hatchbacks.
The initial reports turned that buzz into a hum, and the hum into a noise. Reviews raved about the smurf-blue road-weapon. Alborz drove it at launch internationally, and back here in Australia and wouldn't stop talking about it. This was to be the greatest hot-hatch ever conceived. Brilliantly quick, agile and affordable while being rewarding and most of all, fun to drive.
Opinions were formed and arguments waged over a car that precious few had even seen, and almost no-one had driven.
There was no concern of what it would be like under specific local conditions, no one worried about day-to-day liveability. The RS was a hot new album from an experienced act. We didn’t ask questions, we just wanted it.
Hype can be a good thing though.
Those pre-order books have helped Ford continue the transition from local manufacturer to full-volume importer. First Ranger, then Mustang and now Focus RS; the Blue Oval is on a bit of a product roll, and we’re glad to see it.
But the down side of hype is the immense responsibility of the creation to live up to it.
Looking at you, Phantom Menace…
The Focus RS was proclaimed a world-beater. The second-coming of the mighty Sierra Cosworth. And quite frankly, that’s a lot of weight on the little guy’s shoulders,
Removed from the billiard-table smooth racetracks and perfectly chosen European roads of its launch environment, would the RS still cut it on our pitted, coarse and uneven tarmac? Were there still thrills to be had while living with our strict road rules and zero tolerance for zapping about on a winding mountain pass at speeds that may occasionally creep above the posted limit?
In a word, yes. But it isn’t quite the perfect beast we were expecting.
Don’t get me wrong, the Ford Focus RS is a cool car. A really cool car.
It looks great, even in the subtle Magnetic grey metallic ($450 option), although I’d personally go with the hero Nitrous Blue paint
That catfish maw, exposed intercooler and high-mount rear wing assembly all scream performance, but I can’t help but think it needs to be just a little bit more edgy.
Throw some vents in the bonnet, bigger flares – or even better, boxed – arches, and perhaps go back to the giant boot spoiler with vertical stabilizer like on the Sierra and Escort Cosworth models. Okay, maybe that is too far, but my point is that for the world’s most awesome, hardcore hot-hatch, it could look a little more awesome and hardcore.
Conveniently though, a hotter RS500 version of the Focus looks to be on the cards for the not-too-distant future.
While talking about how it looks too, don’t open the bonnet to impress your friends. The plastic engine cover is horrible and the sticker proclaiming the RS-ness of the car looks too low market for even Alibaba to touch.
Again, perhaps some polished piping or crackle paint here to remind people that the engine is one of the key reasons they want this car.
Normally associated with economy claims, the 2.3-litre four-cylinder ‘Ecoboost’ turbo engine is a real powerhouse. There’s 257kW available from 6000rpm and an (Apollo) 440 Nm of torque between 1600 and 5000rpm.
It’s the same as you’ll find in the four-cylinder Mustang, only here it works.
There’s a great rush of acceleration as you come on boost. Rev it out to above 5000rpm and you’ll be treated to a double-crack explosion from the exhaust on up-shift. Get back on the gas for another go, and the aggressive four-cylinder exhaust note takes centre stage.
The growl, the pops, the bangs – it all works. The little RS sounds fantastic.
It's a fast car pretty much everywhere. You row through the gears quickly, but settling in third gives you that great balance of response and drivability. And I will say it again, it's fun!
You pay for the laughs though, as Ford claim an ambitious 8.1L/100km for a combined cycle, but we saw well over 15L for our week with the car. I’d imagine a wholly urban week would be even higher (against Ford’s urban-only claim of 10.8L/100km).
But let's not get too carried away too quickly. Wind the clock back to when you first hop in the car, and you’ll find a major issue.
The tight, Recaro racing bucket seat, with its high and hard side bolster, isn’t height adjustable. For a sport-oriented car, a one-size-fits-all seat height isn’t ideal, particularly when that height is high.
I prefer to sit low in a car, and it is very frustrating that the RS wont let me do this. I would struggle to fit in the car with a helmet on, making it difficult to campaign in club track events – part of the reason you would likely buy the RS to begin with.
Once you are in though, the RS does feel reasonably sporty.
The clutch is very stiffly sprung, making it an effort to depress and all too eager to spring back again. I’m grown up enough to admit I managed to stall the RS, twice, when first jumping into it. You do get used to the movement though, and when on the hop it tends to work just fine.
You can select a sports dampening setting for the suspension, which is wholly too firm for the majority of Australian roads. It’s like running a car with coil-overs, giving super sensitive response, but very little in the way of ‘give’ over undulations.
The car is quite stiff without this activated, and offers just that little bit more compliance for day-to-day running, that you need not use the sports setting for anything bar track day activities.
Turn in is very light, but still sharp, and the grip from those optional 19-inch wheels and Michelin Pilot Cup Sport 2 tyres ($2500) is phenomenal. They warm up fast and stay sticky for a long time, allowing you to push harder and faster than you thought possible.
Until confidence overcomes you that is, and you push too hard. At this point the grip vanishes like some magician’s trick and the Focus goes from slot car to hovercraft. The drop in grip tends to be short, you instinctively correct quickly by reducing throttle input or steering angle and you’re back like glue – but it’s enough to get the heart rate up and remind you that the little Ford isn’t foolproof.
Fair to note too that if you run out of grip, it’s likely you are moving pretty quick. There’s no progressive slip that works as a warning, barely even a squeal. You’ve got it and then you don’t.
It’s not dangerous or specifically scary to drive, you just have to be on your game. It is, in short, not a relaxing car to drive.
The tyres themselves aren’t exactly long for this world if you indulge in this sort of behaviour regularly either. A soft compound means a short life; and at over $500 a corner, it's not a very cost-effective life. Changing for some cheaper and less-grippy rubber kind of ruins the point too.
Then there’s the much publicised Drift mode. To be clear, it would be more accurate to call this ‘donut mode’ as given an empty, paved arena, the RS will rip smoky (expensive), helical loops with ease.
Try and Ken Block your way up a mountain pass, and you’ll probably tank-slap your way straight onto YouTube.
Those sticky Michelins don’t really want to slide, and initiating some power-oversteer even on cold or wet surfaces isn’t the simplest thing to do. I've heard... something, something, controlled environment.
It’s not some mysterious hoon-preset, just a clever way of delivering power to the outside rear wheel thanks to the RS’s trick AWD system. It will try and kick the rear end around and with still some torque split to the front wheels, the car can pull you through a bend at a pretty heroic angle.
Even in the less tabloidy ‘Sport’ mode, the RS makes spilt second decisions on where to send power thanks to a torque vectoring system and the result is a very decisive handling car. The rear-bias nature of the driveline allows you to push harder on corner exit without having the car push to understeer.
That is a lot of thinking going on under the skin for a $50,000 hatchback.
Regarding the drive mode button too, the activation needs a little bit too much of a considered push to change modes. It feels slow to display the menu on the info screen in front of the driver.
That screen though is another great feature of the Focus in general, and not just the RS. There is so much driving data displayed that you are sure to never need all of it. A favourite feature is the miniature car icon that shows when your lights are on, even to the point of adding the front and single, central rear foglight to the image.
One area where the Focus RS has drawn most criticism is the cabin. Not for its features and ergonomics, but for the ‘I’m in a basic rental Focus’ feeling it gives you.
And yes, materials aren’t of a premium nature. The top of the dash panel was particularly shiny and reflective when driving through some bright sun, hampering forward vision. Some nice Alcantara trim would help with this, and do a good job to lift overall ambiance in the process.
The triple gauge pod on top of the dash looks like a sticker on a Hot Wheels toy, and does nothing to reinforce the performance nature of the RS.
There are good elements though. The adjustable sliders in the cup holders are very handy, and Ford’s SYNC 2 infotainment software is well featured, albeit a tad cumbersome to use. Some selection areas are quite small and hard to tap while on the move.
For mine, the interior isn’t why people buy this car. Yes it would be nice to see more effort made to lift the feel of the cabin, but it is hardly a show stopper.
The back seats are fine, the boot is fine (350-litres), it's easy to park, you can fit a bike in the back and there are even ISOFIX points. Aside from the hooligan nature, it's a very sensible car.
So is all the hype justified? Kind of.
You can buy a lot of cars for $50-grand, but very few have the ability, cool factor and sheer charisma of the 2016 Ford Focus RS. There’s not really anything else on the affordable side of $100,000 with the same cult appeal either.
The thing is, you need to be ‘that person’ who wants the RS for it to really shine, as there are more than a few flaws.
A younger, less responsible James (if such a thing is possible), would have leapt at a chance to own a car like this. The Focus is usable, fun and more than just a little bit stupid; that younger James didn’t care about interior materials, fuel economy or ride comfort. He’d have slouched just to fit in the seat with a helmet on and never even worried about how the infotainment worked. He was a fun guy, that James, and incidentally bought the next best thing at the time – a Mitsubishi Evo.
But not everyone is a younger me. The seat height is a problem as you can’t adjust it. The appetite for fuel and tyres are a problem if you are running the RS every day, and don’t even try to use the sports suspension setting around town unless you have your chiro on speed-dial.
For the right buyer the Ford Focus RS is a great little car.
It delivers on much of its hype but has the potential to be even better. Think The Force Awakens but with a slightly more realistic transition of Rey from scavenger to Jedi (there’s always time for a Star Wars reference).
It is the best value hot hatch on the market, it is fun and it is capable. It’s not all things to all people, but if you’re that person who is acutely aware of how hard these things are to find for sale at the moment, I’d wager it is going to be all things to you.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser and David Zalstein.