The Ford Focus RS Mk3 is one of the most exciting driver’s cars of recent times – it received a full five-star rating in these pages when we road tested it back in 2016.
But two years after the four-wheel-drive mega-hatch arrived offering sports car performance for just £32,765, a number of owners are reporting reliability issues.
A plume of white smoke on start-up is the telltale sign that something is amiss under the Focus RS’s bonnet, as are reports that low-mileage cars have needed new engines and that a parts supply issue is keeping some cars off the road for weeks. Online owners’ forums are rife with suggestions that about 15,000 cars around the world could be affected, yet no official recall has been issued by Ford.
Refreshed saloon is much more convincing inside, but range-topping 2.5-litre...
So what exactly is going on with the Focus RS? With no official explanation of the issue from Ford, owners and independent specialists have had to come up with their own diagnosis. It seems to relate to the unique 2.3-litre Ecoboost four-cylinder engine used in the RS. Although the unit is built alongside the Mustang’s four-pot motor at Ford’s Valencia engine plant in Spain, the 345bhp RS powerplant uses an aluminium head and block and features bespoke coolant passages.
The differing designs require unique head gaskets; fitting the wrong one can block certain passages, preventing the coolant from doing its job. This is what many experts now believe has happened to cause issues for some RS owners.
“Fitting the wrong gasket prevents the coolant from circulating properly, leading to overheating that can cause distortion of the head,” explained one specialist Ford garage, which asked to remain anonymous. “This prevents the gasket from sealing properly and can allow coolant to leak into cylinders two and three.”
Two things result from the burning of this fluid: rapid coolant consumption and, more noticeably, white smoke from the exhaust during cold running. But as the engine heats up, the head and block can seal again temporarily.
“Once the car is up to temperature, there are no issues at all,” said Focus RS owner Mark Briggs. “I had my car on the rolling road before and during the issue, and the [bhp and lb ft] lines were identical. The car ran fine when hot.” Briggs, who has documented his Focus RS ownership online via his YouTube channel (MarkCup70), experienced the problem with his car after 8000 miles. He counts himself lucky because Ford put a new engine in his car, rather than just replacing the gasket, as he was among the first to report the issue.
“I think it was because Ford hadn’t officially decided on a fix at that stage, so it was quicker to just replace my engine at that time,” he told Autocar. Ford has since confirmed a field service action for the RS, offering owners of cars built between August 2015 (when RS assembly started at Ford’s Saarlouis factory in Germany) and July 2017 “a free inspection and repair, regardless of warranty or mileage status, for concerns of white exhaust smoke and/ or coolant consumption stemming from an issue with cylinder head gaskets”.
Many owners, commenting on specialist online forums, claim they have yet to receive a letter offering this service. Hilary Cotton is one such owner and he also has a rather different concern: his low-mileage Focus RS has shown no issues whatsoever.
“I know my car has the wrong gasket, but it runs absolutely fine,” he said. “I’ve only put just over 400 miles on it in a year, so my concern is whether my car will develop the issue before the end of the service action period.”
Cotton was told by Ford that the cut-off point for the work is 31 January 2023. If he maintains his current rate of progress, his car will only be at about 2400 miles by then. As someone who openly admits to not driving his car as hard as other enthusiasts, this leaves him worried that he won’t put the engine through the heat soak stress required to distort the block, but the problem might arise in years to come.
“I’ve written to Ford to ask for something in writing to confirm that they’ll do the work even without [signs of] an issue,” he said. “My dealer said it will, but I’m disappointed that I’ve not yet received a response from Ford.”
Another owner, Shaun Lovesey, said that when his Focus RS was taken in with an issue, it was off the road for 11 weeks due to a parts supply issue. He’s not alone: several other owners claiming similar delays have contacted Autocar, some suggesting Ford issued its service action before ensuring there was a sufficient supply of parts for the dealer network to carry out the work.
“The dealers are not holding stock of the gasket kit, meaning that some cars that fail the pressure test have been sent away and owners are told to come back when stock arrives,” said Briggs. “I absolutely adore the Focus RS and I don’t hate Ford for the problem, but that just shows it hasn’t handled the issue at all well.”
Ford told Autocar that its dealers are receiving more bookings than its “current parts supply and workshop capacity”, but it said that it is “seeking to increase” this.
“The majority of RS owners are advocates of the RS brand, and rightly want their vehicles inspected as soon as possible,” Ford said. “The dealer network is committed to conduct these inspections in the shortest possible time frame.”
What to do if you own one:
How do I know if my Ford Focus RS is affected?
Visit Ford’s technical website (etis.ford.com) and enter the car’s registration to see if it is eligible for service action.
How does Ford test my engine?
The cooling system is pressurised to 20psi for five hours. If more than 4psi is lost, the head is deemed to be distorted and eligible for change. If it does not, only the head gasket is changed.
How long does the work take?
Ford estimates that the test and head gasket change takes 9.2 hours. Fitting a new head will take 10.3 hours.