The VW Golf GTI was the first mass-market hot-hatchback, bringing high-performance driving to the family motorist. It was a remarkable car, not least because it demanded nothing of its owner other than fuel and regular servicing.
A key part of its appeal was the Bosch fuel injection, which ensured that it started first time every time and didn’t fluff or hesitate as it warmed up; you could jump in and drive it like a hooligan from the off. I was smitten, and drove four back-to-back.
Audi then upped the stakes with its four-wheel-drive Quattro. Boasting 200bhp, it dominated world rallying and again defined what we came to expect from a high-performance car that could carry four people.
This has, essentially, been the status quo for the past 30 years. Yes, power has risen (as has weight, sadly) but engineers have merely fiddled with the formula rather than going to the effort of rewriting it. Until now.
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Changing the status quo
The Ford Focus RS was always going to be good because few manufacturers have a richer motorsport heritage than the blue oval and fast ‘halo’ cars are its specialty.
Win on Sunday, sell on Monday was the mantra and for a very good reason: Enthusiasts could buy the performance-oriented RS model, while the family driver can buy something a little lower down the model range, basking in the reflected glory.
Performance alone is passé these days; with almost everyone selling a family car with 250+bhp, going fast has never been so accessible or so cheap, but many seem to have forgotten that what we want from our sports cars is fun, rather than performance alone, and power is just one of the elements in the brew.
So while Ford can boast all the right performance figures – and hitting 60 miles-an-hour in well under five seconds is serious performance – the Focus RS wins because it is fun. Enormous fun.
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Clean and fresh
The interior is generic Focus in the main, which is OK because this is a cheap car and I’d always rather the manufacturer spent the money on the mechanical stuff.
I tried a car with the optional Recaro shell seats (£1,145) and while they grip you well, they were a shade higher than the standard seats, which I didn’t like. I’m well over six foot though, so shorter drivers might not have the same problem.
Other than that minor gripe, the interior is clean, fresh and easily as good as it needs to be.
As for the exterior, Ford claims that nothing is there for show and that every single change has been driven by performance. So you get a huge rear spoiler, a lovely rear diffuser, twin tail pipes, and the largest front air intake the engineers could squeeze in. The effect is dramatic but not as embarrassing as the Honda Civic Type-R.
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The EcoBoost engine has an attractive growl to it, but it doesn’t match the Honda for sheer aural stimulation, although that’s the only metric in which it doesn’t dominate not just the Civic, but also every other car in the class.
Three-hundred-and-forty-five bhp is a huge amount from a 2.3-litre engine but it is as tractable and as easy to drive to the supermarket as a Fiesta but the performance is instantly available when you need it: Mid-range acceleration, say from 30mph to 60mph in fourth gear, which is a typical overtaking manoeuvre, takes just five seconds.
For that you can thank a big, fat wad of torque, 325lb ft to be precise, although 347lb ft is available for up to 15 seconds on overboost – and if 15 seconds isn’t long enough for you, all you need to do is to ease off for a fraction of a second and another 15 seconds starts immediately.
The only downside to such effortless performance is that you really do need to keep a close eye on the speedometer, as it is easy to find yourself going very quickly indeed with few sensory clues to warn you.
The steering is sublime, with the ‘springy’ Ford-feel that turns the electronic power steering system from the numb pain-in-the-butt that others offer into something that is a joy to use.
The brakes are, of course, hugely powerful and easy to modulate and are designed to cope with 30-minutes of solid track use without fading.
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There are four driving modes: Normal; Sport; Track; and Drift.
Normal is well suited to everyday driving, while Sport tweaks the all-wheel-drive and engine settings, firms up the steering, and makes the exhaust pleasingly raucous. Track does all that plus firms up the dampers and reduces the Electronic Stability Control settings. Drift mode allows you to drift the car in the same way as you could a rear-wheel-drive car.
The four-wheel-drive system is the star of the show, ensuring amazing traction under almost any conditions by transferring power from the front wheels to the back as necessary to ensure that you always have the best possible traction available – and don’t slide off into a hedge when you do something silly with the throttle. That’s a given, and is something that Audi’s engineers figured out over 30 years ago but Ford has done something even cleverer though, something more aggressive, something more fun.
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Battling understeer with the throttle
You see, pretty much every four-wheel-drive car in the world battles understeer when you try and corner at speed, meaning the front of the car wants to push straight on rather than turn into the bend as the driver wants it to. Engineers dial this in as a passive safety measure as understeer is easier to control than oversteer where the rear of the car steps out and tries to overtake the front.
Going into a bend too fast is what causes understeer and so all you can do is slow down and try to kill it that way. This is safe but not much fun, so a lot of car manufacturers concluded that braking an inside rear wheel would help kill understeer by pulling the car into a bend a bit more smartly. It’s simple and clever and it works.
Ford came to a different conclusion. It decided to add power to the outside rear wheel during the mid-bend phase, actively pushing the Focus RS around the bend rather than passively pulling it in.
On paper, the effect should be the same, but on the road and track the difference is huge. I have been highly critical in the past of overly aggressive Electronic Stability Control (ESC) systems that brake a wheel and dial down the engine’s power during spirited driving as the effect feels artificial and overly controlling. The Nissan GT-R, for example, is hugely fast but utterly horrid to drive at nine-tenths on a track (although better drivers than I say it gets better at ten-tenths) because it is constantly shuffling the power around to drive down the lap time, which is effective but does remove a lot of the fun. And it still understeers.
The Focus RS costs half as much as a GT-R but is at least twice the fun because you can kill understeer with the throttle. Yes, if you apply more power when the car is understeering then you can drive that outside rear wheel to push you around the bend in the most carefully measured and easy-to-control mild oversteer I’ve ever experienced. Of course, the effect is minimal on the road but on the track the effect is mind-bogglingly good fun, making a hero of even the most ham-fisted driver.
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A performance bargain
Of the various options available, I’d highly recommend the forged alloy wheels (£595), which shave almost a kilogram of unsprung weight from each corner. Allied to the 4.3kg weight reduction (again, from each corner in unsprung weight) that comes from the lightweight Brembo braking system, the result is a massive weight-saving that helps steering, ride comfort and performance.
The Ford Focus RS does what no other car has done so far (although the McLaren 12C came close), which is to make a digital car that is better than the analogue alternative. My Honda NSX is a beautifully engineered supercar from the early 1990s and is entirely analogue in its engineering. This means that I am the one in charge, and it just faithfully does what I tell it to do. That the Focus RS is even nicer to drive is something that came as a shock to me.
Anyone in the market for a mid-price hot hatchback can buy a Focus RS in the certain knowledge that there is no better car on sale today for under £50,000 – that you only need to spend a shade over £30,000 makes it the greatest performance bargain of a generation. Ford has taken 3,500 orders already and is only building 350 a month, so you can expect a bit of a wait if you decide to take the plunge and order one.
If you do, I salute you. I’m just off to check for loose change down the back of the sofa…
For more car reviews and tips, browse our motoring articles.
Best-in-class – The Ford Focus RS redefines what a hot-hatch does. There is simply nothing to touch it.
The best of the rest – The Honda Civic Type-R is blisteringly fast and wonderful to drive. Sadly, it looks like it was drawn by a hormonal teenager.
Left-field alternative – Audi’s RS3 is even faster than the Focus RS and better built. It isn’t as clever though, and feels dull when you want to have fun.
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