Ford spent a lot of time building hype before it launched the Focus RS, not that it really needed to. The promise of a new RS is always enough to get the motoring press all giddy with excitement, let alone one with drift mode and a rabid turbocharged engine. Surely no car could actually live up to that much hype – could it? After a week behind the wheel, we finally have the answer.
Before we get into the Focus RS, it's worth taking a quick walk down memory lane. The two letters "RS" don't mean much in most cases, but painting them bright blue and putting them on the back of a small Ford is a surefire way to get any petrol head fired up. Fans of the old days of rallying – think Group B – will remember the RS200 Evolution, and car thieves from the mid-1980s will look fondly back on the Sierra RS500 Cosworth. Sure, the rear wing was stupid and the mechanicals didn't initially stand up to the rigors of touring car racing, but it still has a cult following.
The last Focus RS was a five-cylinder monster, putting power to the front wheels through a fiendishly complex RevoKnuckle suspension system. The Mk1 Focus RS blew its rivals away with a (then) whopping 212 hp (158 kW) from its turbocharged four-cylinder, too. The latest car comes from a line of legendary hot hatches. Maintaining pedigree like that is a seriously tough job, but the Ford reckons the latest, hottest Focus is up to the task.
On paper, the latest Focus RS has all the right moves to meet lofty expectations. Ford has raided the Mustang parts bin and slotted the turbocharged EcoBoost four-cylinder into the smaller, lighter Focus engine bay. But where the entry-level pony car gets just 310 hp (233 kW) and 432 Nm, it pumps out a much healthier 350 hp (261 kW) of power and 475 Nm of torque here. Boost jumps from 18 psi to 23.1 psi, and the Mustang turbo has been swapped for a low-inertia, twin-scroll unit with a bigger compressor wheel.
To make sure it can deal with the extra power, the engine gets a bigger intercooler and low-restriction intake manifold. Ford has also fitted cylinder liners of high-tensile cast iron and an uprated head gasket as well, just in case. Plenty of owners will want to track the RS, and those who stick purely to the road aren't likely to be gentle – so the engine internals are toughened accordingly. You also get a bit more noise in the Focus, along with an armada of pops and cracks when you lift off the gas in Sport Mode. Much of the noise isn't really, well, real – Ford augments the engine note through the speakers – but fake noise is better than no noise.
Forget about the engine for a second, though, because this is one of those cars defined by the way it handles. Power is put to the road through a GKN four-wheel drive system with borderline supernatural capabilities. It can send up to 70 percent of the engine's torque to the rear wheels, and then 100 percent of that torque to an individual wheel. That's proper torque vectoring, tuned to cut down on understeer.
Spoiler alert: it works. In fact it works really, really well. You can sling the car into corners at almost any speed and it just hangs on, without even a suggestion of understeer from the Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires unless you go looking for it. The motoring journalist cliche police in our office forbid me from saying it handles like a go kart, or even thinking of using corners on rails, but both of those phrases could apply here if you wanted them to.
And it gets better, because the gas pedal is a gateway to the most addictive drug in the motoring world: accessible oversteer. Although the much-lauded Drift Mode has stolen the headline, even flicking the car into Sport Mode is enough to encourage a bit of misbehavior. It isn't a rolling smoke machine, but you can coax a quarter-turn of opposite lock on the way out of tight corners and then shoot off down the next straight in a flurry of rabid turbo noise. The same kind of fun used to be the preserve of the Subaru WRX STI and Mitsubishi Evolution, but the STI has gone soft and the Evolution badge may never be seen again. Rally madness, thy name is now RS.
We've read reports that suggest the RS is a bit too tied down for its own good, but most of those reviews were conducted on cars with the optional, super sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber fitted. We'd wager that extra traction makes it harder to properly explore the car's chassis balance and that really is a shame, because there's so much fun to be had at the legal limit on the standard wheels.
We've mentioned Drift Mode a few times now, and you're probably curious about what it actually does. It doesn't turn you into Ken Block, that's for sure, but the system does turn the RS into a little donut machine if you have enough time and space. Gravel carparks are probably the best places to try it out if you absolutely must, but there's more fun to be had elsewhere in this car, and your tires will appreciate your self control.
Launch Control is a much better way to enjoy the four-wheel drive goodness buried within the Focus. The recipe? Flick through the right menus, dip the clutch and bury the throttle. Ensure all hands and feet are inside the vehicle, secure any loose coffee cups and step off the clutch like a light switch. Hang on tight, and remember to change gear. It's brutal.
Speaking of brutal, the ride isn't what you'd call compliant in the RS. It's fairly choppy in regular, non-sport tune, never properly settling down, even on what appears to be perfectly smooth tarmac. Pressing a button on the end of the indicator stalk engages Sport Mode, and makes it feel like there's sand in the shock absorbers. We left the button alone on the road, although it would likely come into its own on the track. Hopefully we'll have the chance to find out, so stay tuned. But enough talk about driving on the edge – hot hatches need to work on the commute as well.
How does the hottest Ford hatchback handle the daily grind? Unsurprisingly, it does a great job. The clutch is light, the engine is torquey and the steering isn't too heavy. Add in the spacious rear seats and decent 260 liter (9.2 cu.ft) boot, and the Focus RS is well equipped to handle the school run. We'd just warn the kids to prepare for a bumpy ride, because the choppy suspension can get tiring.
Ford is charging $52,000 for the Focus RS in Australia (US$37,000 in the USA), making it significantly more expensive than your average Golf GTI or Focus ST. The interior isn't necessarily worth that money, but you aren't paying for soft touch plastics here. You can tell Ford has poured its development dollars into delivering a manic drive worthy of the RS badge, and all those dollars have absolutely paid off.