Ford Focus RS (2016) First Drive

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The Mustang may make a bold statement, but if you are looking for the ultimate performance Ford, all you need is a pair of letters. The hottest Focus has drifted its way onto our shores and we were there to drive it. 

RS is a very special badge in Ford circles and it’s used sparingly on the Blue Oval's vehicles. RS models are exceptionally desirable, fast and, most importantly, personify everyman appeal. While many people dream about exotic machinery, an RS-badged Ford has traditionally been regarded a working class hero. South Africa has seen its share of RS Cosworth derivatives through the years, and more recently, the second-gen Focus RS.

The aforementioned RS was a real hit – virtually every unit produced during a limited production got snapped up immediately and South Africa received only a handful, anyway. Matching outrageous performance (from a big turbo’d 5-cylinder motor) with a striking green paint finish, that front-wheel drive hooligan hatch did exactly what it said on the tin. It was a joy to drive and neighbours of owners had to endure numerous turbo whistles and exhaust backfires.

Fast forward to 2016 and one of the year's most-anticipated performance machines has finally landed. The third-generation RS is a wild-looking machine, especially in the Nitrous Blue launch colour. You can also get a white paint scheme as well as Stealth Grey, Shadow Black, and Magnetic Dark Grey.

The blue looks sensational, especially with the no-cost optional blue Brembo callipers. There’s no mistaking the RS for lesser Focus models. The big wing, the cannon barrels doubling as exhausts ends and numerous wings and vents are all giveaways. The 19-inch alloy wheels are available in two colours; silver and gunmetal grey.

Engine and powerplant

The iconic 2.5-litre 5-cylinder of the previous car is gone and in its place is a new 2.3-litre 4-cylinder turbopetrol unit. Anoraks will point out that it’s the same motor as found in the Mustang Ecoboost, but while this is fundamentally true, there are some modifications to the unit found in the Focus RS that give it a tad more power. The exhaust system, for example, has been substantially reworked and at full tilt the RS' engine sounds deliciously meaty.

 

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As for the numbers, you’re looking at 257 kW and 440 Nm. Zero to 100 kph is dispatched in a claimed 4.7 seconds and if the road is long enough, it’ll top out at 266 kph. Power reaches all four wheels through a 6-speed manual gearbox and there’s launch control available (although we didn’t get to try it out on the launch). Ford claims the RS will consume 7.7 L/100 km.

Specification

Ford South Africa was eager to point out that the Focus RS comes well equipped in terms of standard features. Being the top-of-the-range model and costing almost R700 000, you’d expect that it would come with all the bells and whistles. You get bi-Xenon HID headlamps with adaptive front lighting, Recaro sports seats (RS Recaro shell seats are available as an option), SYNC 2 connectivity, an 8-inch touchscreen, flat-bottomed multifunction steering wheel, Sony 9-speaker audio, two USB ports, auto headlamps, auto wipers and a trip computer.

Safety is well catered for too and there are 6 airbags, traction control, stability control, hill assist and there are ISOFIX mounts in the rear for child seats.

The drive

The launch consisted of numerous activities that were set up so that the media could get to know the new Focus RS a little better. Our first taste consisted of a short drive on a public road. The roads around the launch venue were not in good nick and the RS' sporty suspension took a beating. There are adaptive dampers, which are activated via a button on a stalk, but even in their softest setting, drivers are in for a firm ride on bad roads. However, on the smoother sections (in Normal mode), the ride quality was pliant enough for daily commuting.

Once back on the closed roads of the launch venue, we could put the Focus RS to the test on a tight handling track that felt like it belonged in one of those Ken Block Gymkhana videos. Oh, here's a fun fact: Ken Block was hired by Ford to consult on the development of the new RS! 

There was an interesting strategy to build us up to the RS... First we drove the other performance vehicles in Ford’s arsenal, starting from the Fiesta ST (which was an absolute joy on the tight circuit) to the Mustang 5.0 V8 (it sadly felt cumbersome in such a confined performance environment), then climbed into the Focus RS.

Engage Track mode, which sharpens everything up and the safety net traction control is less intrusive. The sound from the engine sharpens up and while there’s some artificial noise piped through the speakers, the induction roar, turbo flutter and exhaust backfires from this performance motor are delightful.

The Focus RS with its manual gearbox and all-wheel-drive setup is a real handling machine, and the best part of the package is its ease of use. It’s effortless to drive quickly and feels rewarding to pilot. The steering is pin-sharp and the shift action is pleasant. The seats are race-spec and you feel nicely cocooned in them.

The driving position is good, but the seats are not height adjustable. Fortunately, you can get reasonably comfortable by adjusting the steering column's rake and reach. The pedal feel will please driving purists and the car responds zealously to precision inputs. The Brembo anchors are some of the best in the business and stopping power is exceptional.

And then, to top it all off, there’s drift mode…

Watch former Stig Ben Collins explain the driving modes


Drift Mode

We’ve devoted an entire section of this First Drive to the RS' Drift mode because of the sheer lunacy of the function. While manufacturers are purposely engineering cars to be neutral, fair and tame, Ford’s RS division has gone in the opposite direction and imbued the Focus RS with something very special. Push the Drive Mode button and see the selection move from Normal to Sport to Track to Drift. This mode tells the car to send all the grunt to the rear wheels and the car becomes a tail-happy drift machine.

With what’s technically negligible drift experience under this author’s belt, it took just 5 minutes of instruction on the skid pan to achieve big slides. Some more practice and soon the Focus RS was behaving like a purpose-built slide machine with some big angle drifts around the entire circular skid pan. It’s unbelievably easy to control and it takes just a quick Scandinavian flick to start the drift, then driving through the passenger windows takes over. Drift mode is definitely not for the public road system and the quest to find more skidpans and circuits where one can drive the Focus RS safely sideways has begun.

To think that a team of engineers (and the subsequent managers who approved this) have purposely tweaked a car’s powertrain to provide some rear-wheel drive fun is incredible. It’s probably one of the last driver-fun-focused features to come from a car manufacturer in an age where self-driving autonomy is heading for mainstream adoption. Long live the fun!

Verdict

 

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We were eagerly anticipating the Focus RS and, after a day’s worth of driving, we believe it lives up to the hype. While the Drift mode is subjectively an indulgent (but nevertheless entertaining) gimmick, the newcomer delivers performance that will please enthusiasts. Underneath that blue paint and outlandish body kit is a Ford Focus, so it can still do the commute and comfortably seat 4 people. The derivative is built in Germany, while its 2.3-litre engine is assembled in Spain. Build quality is good and the car feels solid inside and out.

It goes head to head with the Audi RS3 and Mercedes-AMG A45, and while those German contenders boast more power, more prestige and higher price tags, they feel a trifle too serious and single-mindedly executive. They’re a pair of management-types in business attire, whereas the Focus RS is a spirited football fan who gets reprimanded for spontaneous anti-social behaviour. Uncouth? Yes. Fast? Definitely. The RS badge has an illustrious and passionate heritage, and if this launch was anything to go by, the new RS is certainly worthy. 

Ford Focus RS price in South Africa

The Ford Focus RS has a recommended retail price of R699 900. The options are scarce as the car is fully inclusive, but for R1890 you can get the Recaro shell seats, a power sunroof will set you back R6870, metallic paint costs R750 while RS blue Brembo brake callipers and gunmetal alloy wheels are both no-cost options. Ford South Africa is bringing 300 units and based on one day's drive, the car is worth every cent. 

The vehicle comes with a 4-year/120 000 km warranty,  5-year/unlimited kilometre corrosion warranty, 3 years’ worth of roadside assistance and there’s a 5-year/100 000 km service plan with intervals every 20 000 km.

Looking for a Focus RS? 

There are still previous-generation Focus RS units floating around and still represent a great buy. Find them HERE.

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