What goes around, eh? In 1992, to satisfy the homologation rules of the World Rally Championship, Ford dropped a turbocharged Cosworth YB motor into the humble Escort and fitted a four-wheel drivetrain that sent two-thirds of its power to the rear axle.
The car, much like the earlier Audi Ur-Quattro, Peugeot 205 T16 and Renault 5 Turbo, was supposed to herald a world rally title (it didn’t), but because the Frank Stephenson-penned rear spoiler was so big and the performance so improbable – 217bhp was just the beginning of the engine’s potential – the car caught the imagination like an Atlantic swell hitting Nazare in November.
In the same year, Volkswagen took the squashed-up V of its new six-cylinder VR engine and wedged it into the otherwise unremarkable Mk3 Golf, creating the forerunner to the current Golf R. A year later, the gone-but-not-forgotten Max Power began publication – destined to eventually become the biggest male-orientated magazine in the UK. The combination – cost-effectiveness, profitability, cultural interest – contributed to the creation, development and proliferation of the genre now known (somewhat wonkily) as the mega-hatch.
The new all-wheel-drive 345bhp Ford Focus RS, then, is at the end of a long-established line. But although there are a number of current equivalents, it is assuredly the breed’s new talisman. That’s because Ford, tickled pink by its association with Ken Block and the viral-quality coverage therein, has awakened first to the marketing possibilities afforded by a dynamic mode titled Drift. Previously, sustained oversteer in hot hatches has been limited to the lift-off sort. Subtle efforts made by Audi and Mercedes-AMG to make the four-wheel-drive RS3 and A45 more rearminded have not ultimately delivered. The Focus RS pledge, though, is cast iron and certified by its GKN Twinster drivetrain. Sideways silliness at the touch of a button. Gymkhana on the driveway.
Forget comparisons with other hatchbacks, then. Half a dozen good ones there may very well be, but the moment our Matt Prior graded the Focus’s handling ability superior to the sublime Golf R’s, all bets were off. Now we’re talking best affordable, throttle-adjustable real-world driver’s car, period. Step proudly forward, then, challenger number one, BMW, and its own perfectly wonderful way of doing things. Munich doesn’t need lessons from the internet or its marketing department about the value of opposite lock.
It has been perfecting it since the world was young. More latterly, it has been reminded about the advantages of doing this on a scale a little less grand than the M3, M4 or M5. The limited-edition 1M was the trigger, it being a golf-ball-proportioned thigh muscle of naked hype that made its larger (although very closely related) cousins look needlessly puffy – and pricey, too.
Despite its newborn – and highly anticipated – status, the M2 has a perfectly traditional two-door coupé way of doing things. Its power goes directly to the rear wheels, passing through only a six-speed manual gearbox and an active limited-slip diff on the way. Its weight distribution is 52/48%, front to back. The front wheels just steer. Throw in the latest incarnation of BMW’s turbocharged 3.0-litre straight six, developing 365bhp, and the conclusion to this tussle looks potentially as foregone as 530d versus Vignale.
But hang on. If the prejudice specs are on, whip ’em straight off. The RS’s 2.3-litre four-pot is only 20bhp back. Factor in overboost and there’s an equally slight difference in peak torque. The BMW is officially only 19kg lighter than the Ford. For the difference in price between them, you could buy a Fiesta Zetec. Also, notice how I craftily inserted the phrase ‘real-world’ into the previous passage? Thing is, we’re not going to Bedford or Blyton or Bruntingthorpe where there’s nothing to run into but the end of your talent.
We’re going to the Elan Valley in Wales, where the roads are little wider than the walls of your bathroom. That’s because, first and foremost, on a track the size of a runway, the M2 will almost certainly mince the RS – for reasons that I’ll come to. But secondly, we’re not going because most people don’t much, either. This is road driving, Jim – very much as we all know it.
To further level the playing field – or, at the very least, admit the differences a near-£15k premium gets you – let’s acknowledge a few things you’re probably already taking for granted. Firstly, by gum, doesn’t the M2 look fantastic? I’m growing fonder of the RS’s appearance by the day – I expect it looks very pleasant and actually quite subtle in a colour less overtly sparkly than the Disneyprincess-shoe shade Ford covered our test car in – but the BMW is next-level alluring.
Appropriate and predictably so, you might say, for a coupé, but it was no sure thing; the 2 Series on which it’s based has always been underwheeled, overly slim and just a teensy bit off in its proportions. The M2, due mostly to its 48mm wider rear track, rights that and is as virtuously suited to its standard 19in alloy wheels as a Greek statue is to holding a discus.
It is also (shock, horror!) nicer inside. More important than that, the BMW’s driving position lives up to its coupé billing. Despite the hatchback in its bloodline, there’s still the sense of your legs sliding into the footwell like you're climbing into a cockpit. The RS is a van in comparison, unassisted by the ridiculously vaunted position of the fixed mounts of its optional bucket seats. The M2’s pedals are offset and closely set, its dials are front and centre in the cluster and its steering wheel is obligingly round. The Focus can claim none of these things.
Moreover, and perhaps more surprising, from the off, the BMW is easier-going to drive. It manages to feel this way because the RS’s steering is very quick (just two turns lock to lock) but also as sturdy to turn as the wheel on a watertight door. The way it tracks about the place suggests there’s a fair bit of negative camber dialled in, and it doesn’t significantly lighten up in any of its four drive settings. Nor does the ride reach a state you could accurately call comfortable.
Along with some reinforcing work in the bodyshell, the car’s springs are around a third stiffer than those on the ST – and it shows. Tenneco dual-rate dampers don’t save the Focus from a tight-bodied vertical bob at meandering speeds. The M2’s own firmness, despite lacking adaptive dampers, is supple by comparison, its more sophisticated multi-link rear suspension proving far better at detuning high-frequency bumps in the road.
Admittedly, the BMW doesn’t have it all its own way. Westbound on the M4, the road noise from its 10in-wide back wheels is fairly colossal, and I still don’t find the engagement or throw or auto blip of BMW’s do-it-yourself gearbox that satisfying. It’s preferable to the cost-option M DCT, maybe, but it leaves a discordant aftertaste on the palm, which the RS counters with the kind of direct-aim lubricated chunkiness that might just satisfy half a million burly-armed downshifts.
The Ford engine to which it’s connected feels commensurately tough and responsive. Its transformation from pale shadow (aboard the Mustang) to snarling peachiness is remarkable, really, rendered by a revised twin-scroll turbocharger, unique airbox and – touchingly – a Cosworth-engineered cylinder head, all of which help it to rev harder and faster, at higher boost pressure.
But its mostly linear, whiney, redline crackle-pop is no match for the M2’s bigger-capacity, all-aluminium straight six. Were it not for the tell-tale whistle or the split-second of mush embedded in its throttle response, you’d have trouble detecting the single blower. Certainly not at high crank speeds, where the motor increases its work rate with pulse-quickening effect, apparently brooking almost no strain at the mechanical effort of reaching its 7000rpm limit. It doesn’t replicate the industrial strength shove of the M3 or M4, but its hard-edged sonorousness speaks to a specialness – and a level of pace – that ultimately passes the Focus RS by.
The BMW transfers that theme effortlessly onto the fast A-roads that carry traffic up and away from Brecon toward Wales’s sparsely populated midriff. Its capabilities here would hardly surprise anyone who has spent time on the Bundesstrasse road network that connect Germany’s smaller towns and cities. The express-minded A470 plays uncanny Celtic doppelgänger to the kind of long corners and crisp surfaces that an M car gets tuned up on, meaning that the M2 settles into a medium-fast, nimble-footed groove much more memorably than the Focus manages.
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.
Despite doing many things better and more naturally, the M2, for all its dynamic finesse, didn’t provoke quite the same strength of feeling in the valley. The balance still felt unfettered and obviously less reliant on technology, but I found myself guiltily missing the determination and assuredness of the RS’s powered front axle and the spontaneity of the quicker steering. There’s also something a touch more syrupy about the M2’s wheel control, especially when compared with the latest M3 Competition Pack I drove recently, which seemingly had its alloy wheels fastened to the arches with plumbers’ putty.
The real chagrin, though, is that unlike the Focus, which chimes in electronically mostly to enhance the fun, the M2’s safety net – especially in seriously twisty sections – seems left with little option but to pipe up solely as party pooper. In Comfort and Sport mode, it doesn’t permit slip at all, which, for a rear diff capable of locking up at any variation up to 100%, seems a waste. Sport Plus activates the M Dynamic mode, and the more open the corner, the more open-minded it is to letting you exploit the power – but, nevertheless, where the Focus’s stability control wants to cushion your fall into its remit (and usher you gently out again), BMW’s algorithm tends to lurk unpredictably and wantonly part-way through a modest slide.
You could choose to switch it out completely, and time previously spent on track with the M2 has confirmed the ultimately docile way it deals with a provoked loss of traction, making it supremely ‘driftable’ in a way the Focus could never hope to be. But those inordinately fat back tyres are mightily adhesive up to that point, and the speed of the initial breakaway is magnified by the shortness of the wheelbase, meaning that without the space to comfortably catch it – such as in the meagre square footage of a spindly B-road – the M2 can initially seem a handful. In the same circumstance, stuffed with everyday uncertainty, blind corners and apparently deaf livestock, the Ford’s more pragmatic brand of rear bias is far more accessible – and more fun because of it.
Where does that leave us? Perhaps inevitably, uncomfortably straddling the fence between two ferociously brilliant cars. The M2 righteously earns its early accolades. It is a marvellous thing: compact, thrusting, deft and true – probably more so than anything else currently branded M. It’s a great ownership prospect, exceeding the RS in scope and most abilities, and lumping in a more debonair level of desirability, too. It’s also something of a bargain, considering.
But here’s the thing: I still can’t afford one. I could, however, stretch to the much cheaper Focus – and I like knowing that. I like knowing there’s something that good – by which I mean fast, usable, practical and exciting – within conceivable reach of a more modest budget. It is precisely the democratisation of power, handling, character and approachability that any hatch called mega should be all about. And you know what? Having driven them both, and with only local B-roads to fill up my Sunday afternoons, I wouldn’t think twice or envy the M2 buyer one bit. I like knowing that most of all.
Ford Focus RS
Rating 5/5; Price £30,000; 0-62mph 4.7sec; Top speed 165mph; Economy 36.7mpg (combined); CO2 emissions 175g/km; Kerb weight 1599kg; Engine layout 4 cyls, 2261cc, turbo, petrol; Installation Front, transverse, 4WD; Power 345bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 325lb ft at 2000-4500rpm; Power to weight 215bhp per tonne; Specific output 152bhp per litre; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Front suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; Rear suspension Control blade, coil springs, anti-roll bar; Brakes 350mm ventilated discs (f), 302mm discs (r); Wheels 8Jx19in; Tyres 235/35 R19
Rating 4.5/5; Price £44,070; 0-62mph 4.5sec; Top speed 155mph; Economy 33.2mpg (combined); CO2 emissions 199g/km; Kerb weight 1570kg; Engine layout 6 cyls, 2979cc, turbo, petrol; Installation Front, longitudinal, RWD; Power 365bhp at 6500rpm; Torque 369lb ft at 1450-4750rpm; Power to weight 232bhp per tonne; Specific output 122bhp per litre; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Front suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar; Rear suspension Five-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar; Brakes 380mm ventilated discs (f), 370mm discs (r); Wheels 9Jx19in (f), 10Jx19in (r); Tyres 245/35 R19 (f), 265/35 R19 (r)