Test Drive: 2016 Ford Focus RS - A Focus on Speed

Ford will be pleased to learn my wife despised every minute she spent behind the wheel of their new super-duper Focus. “That car has no redeeming qualities,” she blurted on entering the house. “The ride is horrible, it’s noisy, the clutch feels like it’s out of a tractor, the steering is stiff and I can’t move in those seats. And that colour!”

“That’s illegal, right?”

At this point she was lashing out like a cornered cat. Nonetheless, here’s living proof that this highly… er, focused Focus will not be mistaken for anything other than what it is – the ultimate expression of hot hatch-ness, rocketing into our lives with 350 hp, Brembo brakes, a six-speed manual transmission and a brainy all-wheel-drive system that gives what was once a front-drive family hatch a pretty awesome rear-drive demeanour.

“What’s that car for, anyway?” she asked.
“Well, it’s for guys who want to go really fast and possibly sideways.”
“That’s illegal, right?”
“Pretty much.”

And so starts the conundrum. I’ve read the gushing reviews and seen all the sexy shots of the 2016 Focus RS (are they all blue?) crossed up on a Spanish race track, drifting around a bend with the front wheels pointing the wrong way and white whiffs of vapourized Michelin Pilots decorating the rear. Oh yeah baby. Gimme some of that.

Problem is, I will have no track time in this protected press car, and I will not be putting it in the famous Drift mode and pirouetting around shopping carts in Loblaws parking lot à la Ken Block. The best I can do is head to my trusty back-road warren and see what happens within the (relative) confines of legality.

Up front we have Ford’s 2.3L EcoBoost turbo four lifted out of the Mustang, turned sideways and boosted from 315 to 350 horsepower. There’s also 350 lb-ft of torque at 3,200 rpm. The AWD system was co-developed with British engineering firm GKN, and its Torque Vectoring Rear Drive Module features a pair of clutch packs that distribute torque from side to side – up to 100 percent of available torque can be sent to either rear wheel. It will lock the rear axle solid for launch control, or decouple the axle altogether for extended highway cruising. Nonetheless, the Focus RS operates mostly as a rear-drive car, unlike the Golf R with its (albeit very quick) Haldex slip 'n' grip system that can send only fifty percent of the torque aft.

Developed in Cologne, Germany, the 2016 Focus RS was designed to sustain thirty minutes of hot-lapping without any deterioration to its performance parameters. Judging by the effectiveness of these four-piston Brembo brakes, I’m not doubting Ford’s claim. 

Sound and (less) fury: 2015 Ford Focus ST vs 2015 Volkswagen GTI

The RS gets electronically controlled variable dampers, with Sport setting being 40 percent stiffer than Normal – which is still pretty pitchy on our less-than-perfect roads. Compared to the front-drive Focus ST, the RS has a quicker steering rack with more heft along with extra structural stiffening.

And all the boy-racer body bits are purely functional. The gaping front air intakes feed the intercooler and brake cooling ducts, and the prominent rear spoiler, front spoiler and rear diffuser contribute to the hatch’s zero lift at elevated velocities. 

My tester sports the only available Canadian RS option – the fabulous $995 Nitrous Blue Quad-Coat paint. Unlike the Americans, our Focus RS comes with all the goodies which include Sync 3 with navigation, Recaro seats, 235/35R19 Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 gumballs, a set of winter wheels and tires and a car cover. List price is $47,969.

The Recaro seats hug my somewhat slim frame with the intense, foreboding firmness of a mother-in-law on your wedding day. Those large of physique might not find comfort here. Looking around the cabin, it’s all generic Focus except for some lashes of blue stitching and a trio of small gauges perched atop the dash (oil temp, turbo boost, oil pressure). 

Yes, the clutch is a bit firm but it has a quick and smooth take-up. The electric steering is also naturally weighted, and firms up further in Sport mode. Once underway, it becomes evident Ford spent a lot of effort tuning the exhaust sound. And we give thanks, as this 2.3L EcoBoost engine in the Mustang exhibits all the aural charisma of a quietly lovesick yak. In Normal mode the RS’s exhaust exits through the passenger side pipe, but in Sport, Track or Drift the driver’s side opens up, sending forth a meaningful growl along with a volley of backfires on overrun.

Power from the 2.3L EcoBoost comes on strong above 4,000 rpm, and it pulls with vigour to its 6,500 rpm redline. Maybe not as fast as I expected, probably because of all the hype. It feels pretty much in line with a Subaru STI, although less peaky.

But the handling. Track Mode is the one you want for spirited driving. On public roads the Focus RS cannot be fazed, ferociously blasting through complex corners with a shrug. The super sticky Michelin Pilot Cup 2 tires (slicks with a faint acknowledgment of a tread pattern) will not relinquish their grip for love nor money as the RS lasers forward.

Indeed, this hatch is an absolute riot when you lean into it. The stubby shifter sends each command home with clean precision, and the more you press the better the car feels. On-ramps will be your playground.

There is a button at the end of the signal stalk that selects or deselects the stiffer suspension setting regardless of which drive mode you are in. Default for Track and Drift modes is stiff, but a tap of the button brings the more compliant setting if you’re presented with rough road conditions. Conversely, the underpinning can be stiffened on Normal mode if so desired. Yeah, they’ve thought of just about everything.

So how does the 2016 Focus RS function away from the racetrack playground for which it was engineered? Will it cut the mustard as a daily driver? For those who want the baddest hatch extant, the Focus RS will be no hardship. Civility-wise, it rides the middle ground between the Subaru STI and the Volkswagen Golf R, and it still brags all the practically of a five-door hatchback.

Just make sure you can fit in those fabulously snug Recaros before signing on the bottom line. The “standard” chairs that come with the base US Focus RS are not on our menu. 

Warranty:
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 5 years/100,000 km roadside assistance

Competitors:
Audi RS3 (2018)
Mercedes-Benz GLA 45 AMG
Subaru WRX STI wagon
Volkswagen Golf R

2016 Ford Focus RS
articles_PricingType 2016 Ford Focus RS
Base Price 47,969
Optional Equipment Nitrous Blue Quad-Coat paint $995
A/C Tax 100
Destination Fee 1600
Price as Tested 50,664
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.6
9 Exterior Styling
9 Performance
7 Interior
6 Comfort
7 Fuel Economy