The beauty of a niche vehicle is that it’s been designed for a very specific buyer who understands what it is and why it’s made. Try telling people you’re driving a $50,000 Ford Focus and you’ll understand what I mean. It’s certainly not for everybody, but such an animal does exist. And it’s a beast.
The Focus RS is a treat that has, until now, been forbidden fruit in North America, terrorizing European roads since 2002. Devised to dominate the rally circuit, the Focus RS represents the ultimate performance version of the car, competing for the contents of customers’ wallets against the likes of the Subaru WRX STI and Volkswagen Golf R. It’s a small field of competitors and quite a varied one at that. And this one is, without a doubt, the most raucous of the bunch.
The first Canada-bound RS is a beauty, with an aggressive front treatment that includes massive openings to cool the engine and front brakes.
Nineteen-inch wheels are wrapped around substantial four-piston Brembo front brakes with 350-millimetre rotors, and the rear view is made more aggressive thanks to separated dual exhaust, an air diffuser, and a functional rear wing atop the hatch that is designed to reduce lift at speed.
And there will be speed: Motive force is provided by the most potent version yet of Ford’s 2.3-litre EcoBoost engine. That’s right: 350 horses and 350 lb-ft of twist from a four-banger, thanks to direct fuel injection and a twin-scroll turbocharger that includes a larger intercooler to produce about 10 per cent more power than the Mustang with the same engine.
Lest the front tires become shredded trying to convert that power into forward motion, the RS uses a trick all-wheel drive system that defines the car’s handling. Various environmental and driver-input sensors inform a control unit up to 100 times per second; using that information, the system can direct up to 70 per cent of the engine’s power to the rear wheels.
But here’s the trick: Clutch packs on each side of the rear drive unit can take that power and move all of it to one side or the other.
That permits the outside rear wheel in a corner to spin faster than the others, eliminating understeer and allowing the car to negotiate corners on the driver’s intended path at higher speeds. And that, folks, is the idea behind torque vectoring.
There are four driver-selectable modes — normal, sport, track and drift — that provide a tailored experience. From normal to track modes, things get progressively sportier: Torque distribution, suspension damping, stability control settings, engine response and exhaust note transform from relatively innocuous to downright obnoxious. In a good way, of course.
And then there’s drift mode. Obviously intended for track use only, this mode maximizes rearward power distribution to encourage the Focus’s rear end to step out of line. It is a responsible system, though, in that the stability control is calibrated to allow just enough tail-out shenanigans to let the driver feel like a hero, but the safety net is still there if things get too far out of hand.
A six-speed manual gearbox is the only transmission offered, as it should be. Want an automatic? Sorry. Move along, now.
So the RS has the hardware — and the technology — to make it a serious performer. How, then, does it all come together?
As it turns out, the car is quite tractable while navigating the daily grind. Clutch, shifter and throttle work together in harmony. When the drive mode is set to either normal or sport, the exhaust note is quietly intimidating.
Switch it to track and that’s when your arrival is more convincingly announced. There’s nothing wrong with a little “pop, pop” after lifting off the throttle. Sport quickly became my driving mode of choice.
It’s also a hoot in spirited driving, something that became abundantly clear the moment I exited my first corner in the car. The effect of torque vectoring is palpable, even in everyday driving.
You don’t need to be on a track to enjoy this car, but it certainly helps.
The interior trimmings and dash layout are standard Focus fare. That’s a good thing, for the most part: Ford’s Sync 3 provides the touch-screen user interface and steering wheel controls are intuitive and well thought out. On the downside, material quality and panel fit (not, by the way, why people buy these cars) are strictly econo-grade.
The RS does get some upgrades inside, not the least of which are the front buckets supplied by Recaro. Fixed side bolsters and adjustable lumbar are there in full force, and the material is a grippy Miko-Dinamica synthetic suede. Want to stay put in the corners? This is your ride.
There are other RS-specific touches inside: A flat-bottom steering wheel replaces the standard one, and it has blue stitching to match that found on the seats. As in the Focus ST, gauges for oil temperature and pressure, as well as boost pressure, sit atop the dash for quick reference.
This most potent of Foci fares well against its two main competitors, so long as those considering it know what they’re giving up. It is the most expensive of the bunch, but also the most powerful. The VW Golf R represents the civilized approach to hot hatch performance, while the Subaru STI sedan treads somewhere in the middle. Each has its strengths; only its driver can decide which one is most fitting.