Fast Fords in Australia used to be about badges featuring letter pairings like XR or GT, but these days it’s all about ST and RS – and without a Falcon in sight, of course.
We love the Fiesta ST, though it’s the third-generation Ford Focus RS that since mid-2016 has caught even greater attention with keen drivers – as well as some sensationalist news outlets focused on its sideways-prompting Drift Mode.
The headline feature for a new Ford Focus RS Limited Edition version of the hot hatch has no controversial aspect: a Quaife mechanical, helical-gear limited-slip differential designed to make the Focus even quicker through corners.
Perhaps the only debatable point is that the Focus RS’s price rises from $50,990 to $56,990 (though the ‘regular’ RS will be available while stocks last).
Fortunately, you’re not just paying six-grand for a diff. The LE, as you might call it, also makes standard the previously optional ($3500) Performance Wheel Package: forged-alloy 19-inch rims that save 3.8kg of unsprung mass, and an even stickier, lower-profile set of Michelins – Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres rather than the ‘regular’ RS’s Pilot Super Sports.
In addition to the racier-looking wheels, visual changes include privacy glass, and the roof spoiler, side mirror caps and roof finished in Absolute Black. With inspiration from the Model T’s colour palette, the Limited Edition is available in any exterior colour you like as long as it’s Nitrous Blue.
Inside, the Recaro buckets inject an application of Nitrous Blue leather for a two-tone effect.
There is also a safety bonus: the Limited Edition gains autonomous emergency braking.
Ford Australia has 500 RS LEs to import, so the model won’t be quite as limited in supply as the batch of 315 second-generation Focus RS models diverted (gratefully) from Ireland to Australian in 2010.
Ford says the diff and tyre additions bring an advantage on the track rather than the road, so wisely we were brought to Sydney Motorsport Park. Conveniently, Ford also had a standard RS available for a back-to-back comparison, as well as a Focus ST and a Focus Sport.
We decided to kick off in the $26,490 Sport because, well, it’s always better to work your way up rather than down.
The Sport’s 132kW/240Nm 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo is game and the inherent excellence of the Focus' chassis is obvious, though we’re merely approaching it as a warm-up car because the amount of body roll, shortage of performance, and especially the limited grip from the 215/50R17 tyres inevitably reduce its track credentials.
Not so the $38,990 ST, our next rung on the Focus performance ladder. The first key difference to the Sport is grip. Despite conditions that had changed from drizzle to downpour, the Focus ST’s Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 2 rubber stuck to the now-saturated tarmac with greater conviction.
Then there are the ST’s snug Recaro seats up front, which are welcome for a Focus that still leans away noticeably from the corner you’re turning into, if not to the extent of the Sport.
This doesn’t inhibit the ST’s poise through corners, though, and this time there’s more meaningful power and torque (184kW/345Nm) from a 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder to exploit the Focus’ dynamics.
Time to get to the business end of the range, though.
The standard Ford Focus RS last year established itself as CarAdvice’s favourite hot hatch. The Honda Civic Type R has arrived since, of course, and we’ll get to a twin test in the near future.
This was also this writer’s first taste of the RS on a track, and it proved to be even more revelational here than on the road – with the greater freedom to explore the fast Focus’ all-wheel-drive system that is so much more obviously rear-biased than the Mercedes-AMG A45’s setup.
But is the Limited Edition better? Ford Australia brought along data-logging equipment so we could answer that both from a scientific perspective and a seat-of-the-pants feel. So, with a fast lap recorded for the standard Focus RS, time to switch into the Limited Edition.
With four Nitrous Blue standard and LE RS models at the track, the black forged-alloy wheels and the Nitrous Blue Recaro seats are the best visual guides to ensure we don’t get into the wrong one. The driver’s seat is still set too high, of course – an ergonomic quibble carried over from the last-generation RS.
You quickly forget about this minor annoyance as you take to the track, and you wind up the 2.3-litre turbocharged four and admire all the aspects we’ve come to appreciate from this generation of RS.
Its Mustang-derived EcoBoost 2.3-litre is terrific, with a warbling exhaust – that almost imitates the old RS’s (Volvo-sourced) 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo without quite matching its intense character – and a huge wave of torque once you’ve paddled past some minor lag.
The six-speed manual – still the only transmission available – won’t win a Best Stick-Shift of the Year award, but if it lacks crispness and is longer in throw than ideal, it slots from gate to gate with plenty of accuracy and involvement.
The brakes – still Brembos up front – are a fast-driving dream, delivering consistent response and feel all the way from the top to the bottom of the brake pedal’s travel.
Then you throw the RS into corners, and revel in quick and communicative steering that loads up naturally and remains liberated from torque steer as you exit under power.
So, what about that torque-biasing diff (provided by the same UK-based Quaife behind the previous, front-drive RS’s LSD)?
The difference was highlighted more in the wet than the dry, where the diff could be felt pulling the front end straighter – with less fidgeting of the front axle – to the point where the RS felt less like a rear-drive BMW 140i and more like an all-wheel-drive A45.
Shrink the electronic safety net by engaging Track Mode, and you can still easily provoke a slide in the RS Limited by giving the steering wheel an exaggerated angle of attack and booting the throttle while in second gear – savouring the progressive breakaway. It just seemed a bit easier to maintain through a corner with the non-Quaifed RS.
This characteristic was highlighted more emphatically on the skidpan as we engaged in some Drift Mode shenanigans, with the Limited discovering front grip just when we wanted to keep the rear wheels overpowered.
And while the Limited saves about 3kg over the standard RS, the Focus is still a heavy hatch with a 1521kg kerb weight. It helps explain why it may trounce a Civic Type R off the line (4.7 v 5.8 seconds in the 0-100km/h claims) yet doesn’t feel as lively through the gears.
Back to the track, though, would the telemetry at least show that while the Limited has partially reduced some of the RS’s playfulness, its improved sense of traction out of corners brings speed benefits?
It would indeed. Consistent with each of the seven corners of the shortened SMP track, the RS Limited Edition’s graph spikes indicated higher exit speeds – and a lap time virtually a second quicker.
It’s just difficult to know exactly how much of that saved second was down to the tricky diff or the slightly stickier Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres – which generate heat impressively quickly, even in the wet, and are essentially a road-legal track tyre with a partial-semi-slick tread pattern.
If only Ford had brought along a standard RS with the optional ($2500) Performance Wheel Package.
You would expect more time to be saved across a lap of the full Sydney Motorsport Park circuit, though only those track-day-loving RS owners who asked Ford for such extras can answer whether that’s worth the extra $6000 outlay.
We’d be more inclined to stick with the standard RS, which will still be available as long as stocks last.
Either way, though, the Ford Focus RS remains a hatch that mixes five-door, family-friendly practicality with flamboyant driving dynamics.
Confirmation of its continued reign as hot-hatch king will just have to wait for a rendezvous with a certain Honda.