Typically, the BMW’s Servotronic steering I like but don’t quite love. It feels to me like most M division electrically powered racks: reproducing the amenable heft of realism with none of the texture. It remains distant from a Porsche Cayman’s animated feedback, but it does prove wonderfully accurate when translating the tender inputs required here.
Elsewhere, the car flexes marvellously on its trick chassis to feel benignly planted yet simultaneously invigorating, even as you thrust all 369lb ft onto the road. This pleasing harmony – of platform and power – has been missing from M cars of late, and it’s particularly gratifying to find it on such overt display in this, the cheapest variant. For all the brooding potency of a rear-drive car supplying peak twist from a notch over idle, the engine doesn’t override the wonderfully unforced nimbleness being meted out by the stubby undercarriage.
It is that pure-bred virtuosity the RS can’t live up to. Settle it onto the same road and it feels not unlike you’d imagine a portly, heavily braced Focus with an ample footprint would: taut before becoming gristly. Of course, it doesn’t want you to play nice. Ford didn’t go to all the trouble of re-engineering the back axle to take 70% of the torque for you to enjoy it at 70% of effort. Like all steroidal hatchbacks, it wants to see the whites of your eyes – and, having a sharp right turn at Rhayader, it gets its chance.
For most of the year, the Elan Valley, being a natural repository for reservoirs, is wetter than an adolescent’s love letter. For our visit, it looked like a roll of film had tumbled from a projector screening Dances With Wolves. The only things in the vicinity resembling clouds were sheep and the only people were sandwich-munching, seldom-seen pensioners. Otherwise, the road – a skinny sinew of pimpled asphalt blithely knitted to the undergrowth – was ours alone. And it was instantly grist to the RS’s mill.
To drive the Focus fast, in these conditions, is to experience infatuation with an all-wheel drive system. Not admiration. Not unshakable faith. But heartfelt ardour. That strength of feeling should not be mistaken for perfection; there are flaws – some easily highlighted by the M2. In Sport (arguably its best B-road mode), the car doesn’t always settle promptly enough, and in Track – a good 40% stiffer – it tends towards outright meanness. I settled for Track, though, mostly because, with Elan spreadeagled across the windscreen, I was too tangled up in the chassis to notice.
The fact that the Focus needs to be driven extremely briskly is no surprise. The Golf R does, too; similarly the A45 and RS3. The difference is that the RS doesn’t just go faster – it gets tremendously better. The harder you try, the more limber its shuffling of the power seems to get, the twin clutch packs working furiously (but apparently totally organically) to hurl its respective rear three-quarter into the next corner. And although its body control mightn’t be staggering, its neutrality – and eventual, dependable tail-end bias – certainly is. It is by this virtue (a mechanical/electrical certainty that you steadily start to bet your life on) that each corner becomes a thing of relish – squeaking, squealing, tongue-out, rubber-striped relish.