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Ford Focus RS

It's been a long time coming but the new Focus RS is finally here. Ollie Stallwood drives a very important hot hatch.

By Oli S / Friday, March 6, 2009

Before you ask, no it’s not four-wheel drive, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Perhaps surprisingly there has previously been 22 Fords to carry the evocative letters ‘RS’, and this, the new front-wheel drive Focus RS, is number 23. It has a lot to live up to then, not least to trump the flawed gem that was the original Focus RS.

The previous generation car was loved and loathed in seemingly equal measures, the former being reflected in the staggeringly strong residuals it still enjoys. But one of the main bugbears was torque steer, which was as bad as the article you happened to be reading at the time.

It was once said that Saab’s engineers had decided the maximum a front-wheel drive car could handle is 220bhp, and the new Focus RS has 300bhp, a figure almost unimaginable a few years ago. According to Jost Capito, Ford’s director of global performance vehicles, an all-wheel drive prototype of the new Focus RS was built, as the idea was very much an option in the early stages of development.

In fact the development hack used the system from the Kuga SUV and while they proved to be capable Capito decided the ‘edginess’ that RS customers had come to expect of these products was missing. Power to all wheels would also affect weight, fuel efficiency, emissions and the overall sharpness of this beefed-up hot hatch, he concluded, and thus the decision was made to stick to front-drive.

With 324lb ft to deal with it seems those two 19” rims are going to have a lot to take on, so the decision is a brave one. Luckily Ford has a trick up, or rather at the end of its sleeve – and it’s called RevoKnuckle. The system was originally developed for big torque turbodiesels but the RS is the first road car to put it to use.

It basically works by moving the point of axis at the front wheels away from the MacPherson suspension strut and reduces the steering offset. It operates in conjunction with the Quaife Automatic Torque Biasing limited-slip differential and the whole thing is designed to eliminate torque steer and promises to transform the way we look at front-drive cars.

 Not to make life easy for itself Ford decided to launch the cars in Nice, southern France, and in particular on the roads that snake around the foothills of the Alps, with savage camber changes, bumps, ruts, snow, ice, mud, sheer drops, and the odd 200 sheep that are driven up the road with little warning. In particular this area is home to the Route Napoleon, perhaps one of the greatest driving roads on the planet, and a stern test for any car.

This is Monte Carlo tarmac rally country and this backdrop fits beautifully with the Focus RSs sitting in the winter sun. The Frozen White models in particular look nothing short of a WRC car with the decals removed, purposeful, low and significantly wider than the ST. It appears far more exotic than its £25K price tag would suggest and harks back to a time when performance variants were defiantly different to their everyday cousins.

The wheel arches have been extended to accommodate the wider track and huge alloys and instead of welding in new sections like on the old Focus RS, Ford has fitted whole new rear sections, which it says will improve quality. The huge exhausts may be a little OTT for some and there may be one fake vent too many but overall the look triggers that schoolboy wow factor in whatever part of the brain it resides.

The most popular colour (40% of orders) so far is Ultimate Green – a reference to the colour on the BP-sponsored WRC car - and while it makes the RS look even more outlandish the White wins by a nose, because of its competition connotations. Performance Blue is so far attracting 30% of customers, as is Frozen White.

Inside it can be as garish as you like, depending on whether you spec the seats in green or blue. Alternatively you could go for black leather and Alcantara versions of the gorgeous, thin-backed Recaros, which work well with the white. The dash confirms that the EU really needs to start looking into a ban of fake carbon fibre, but that aside it is business as usual if you are upgrading from an ST.

On paper another familiar feature is the engine, which is a 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder similar to that in the ST, although it has had a number of upgrades to boost power from 222bhp to 300bhp. There is a revised intake, a larger K16 turbo, revised pistons, a bespoke camshaft profile, and a completely new exhaust system. The suspension has also been tweaked, with redesigned bushes, dampers, anti-roll bars and a 40mm wider track.

Push the starter button and the RS settles into a faint burble at idle and apart from a fairly large turning circle the RS is happy trundling around the urban sprawl. This fits nicely with Ford’s brief of making the car ‘practical, affordable and usable every day’ and thanks to plenty of low down torque it never seems to fight you at low speeds.

The only reminder that you are in something special is the vice-like grip of the seats and the faintly nuggety ride which rather than being annoying lends the impression that you are a works driver trundling between stages. Heading out of town takes you onto the route to Grasse, which is the kind of road that would make the commute to work the best part of the day.

 There are sweeping fast bends, blind hairpins, negative and positive camber and today, barely any traffic. Nothing really prepares you for the noise when you first flatten the throttle, it doesn’t so much build as come in like a stereo has been switched on with the volume cranked up.

The cabin is instantly filled with an orchestral mix of a number of different sounds, all playing a different tune. First there’s the raging five-cylinder howl which sounds as ballistic as an Audi Quattro rally car, then you notice the gasping induction roar, while the tailpipes bellow behind you.

Lift off and you get a pop from the exhaust that is just audible over the way-too-addictive fluttering sound of the wastegate, which frankly should be illegal. 0-60mph is a claimed 5.9 seconds but the RS feels faster, but like any car that sounds this incredible it doesn’t really matter if it isn’t, the impression is there.

The RS’s ability to thump you back into the seat every time you press the throttle is no doubt accentuated by the fact that the whopping maximum torque of 324lb ft refuses to budge from a plateau between 2500 and 4500rpm, giving you instant grunt almost all the time. Keep the RS in third, or even fourth, and it will despatch the straights as if they are simply an inconvenient interruption between corners.

You never feel more than a slight twitch in the steering as the car deploys its tarmac-splitting torque into the road, and when you reach the first bend it becomes clear why the car wants to get to the next apex as quickly as possible.

Throw it into a turn and you realise understeer is not a word the RS understands. The front tucks in supernaturally and yanks the car around the bend as if the door handle is attached to a piece of rope. At silly speeds the car is not even being stretched and frankly ridiculous entry speeds coupled to full power way too early cannot throw it off line.

What is particularly impressive is how the RS squats mid-corner, seemingly rotating around a point in between the front seats, totally balanced. No matter how hard and recklessly you go on the brakes, which work admirably to slow down the chunky 1467kg Focus, and at what point, the car doesn’t become unsettled.

As the speed rises the RS is sucked on to the road and in few cars, at these speeds, will you feel as confident and in control. These twisting ribbons of tarmac feel tailor-made for the RS, but point it down the flatter, faster, and unquestionably higher, parts of the Route Napoleon and it feels equally at home. The speed it carries on any of these roads is jaw-dropping.

The gearbox is perhaps the weakest point to the experience, but this is hardly a worry. It has a shorter throw than the ST but it doesn’t have the direct clunk of an Impreza STI and doesn’t feel quite as special as the rest of the car. The steering, as mentioned before, is virtually untroubled by the waves of torque and power being channelled through the bespoke 235/35/R19 Continental tyres.

It feels nicely weighted and thanks to a quicker rack (2.3 turns lock-to-lock) you can flick the car from left to right without excess arm-twiddling. There is a razor-sharp accuracy to all your steering inputs too, the car placing itself exactly where you want it in a bend.

Choose your desired trajectory, point the Focus at it, and squeeze the accelerator as soon as the nose is hooked up. It’s mesmerizing and on these roads, which conjure up images of Ferraris and Lamborghini Muiras at full chat, you never wish you were in something else.

Everything in the RS works so well together and the car feels in total harmony with itself, refusing to throw up any surprises. If you need further proof that the RS is quick it is worth mentioning that it has proved faster than any other Blue Oval-badged car ever built around the firm’s Route Seven handling circuit at Lommel, and that includes the 205mph GT. On tarmac it has the same roll stiffness as the ’06 WRC car too.

The burning question is this: should it have been four-wheel drive? After witnessing the car’s astonishing grip, turn-in, sure-footedness and overwhelming fun-factor it is difficult to see what power to two more wheels would bring. In fact I’ll go one further and say that there is a real danger all-wheel drive would actually spoil a perfect mix.

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