Some cars require years of dogged marketing to establish themselves, but the Ford Focus RS Mk1 did so in little more than 12 months and 4501 copies. Today, 18 years after it was launched in 2002, it is regarded as a modern classic.
Don’t think, however, that is code for unaffordable. Prices for the best may be nudging £25,000 (and there’s a mint one with 3000 miles going for £33,000) but, as we discovered, you can still find tidy ones with good histories for less than £9000.
The RS Mk1 has an impressive specification, major highlights being a supremely flexible turbocharged 2.0-litre engine producing 212bhp at a heady 5500rpm but 229lb ft at 3500rpm, a front-mounted Quaife differential for secure, front-wheel-drive cornering and a close-ratio five-speed gearbox. Other notable features include a faster steering rack than the standard Focus, lowered and stiffened suspension, lightweight alloys, a wider track and a bodykit. Open the door and that’s a Sparco-spangled interior you’re looking at, right down to the aluminium pedals. The centre console features an aluminium plate bearing the car’s build number, and don’t waste your time looking for an RS in any colour other than Imperial Blue, because it doesn’t exist.
Specialists we spoke to were full of praise for the reliability of the RS’s engine and gearbox. Back in the day, owners were split on the matter of the Quaife diff – or Quaife Torque Biasing Differential, to give it its proper name – which, at least on early models, allows the steering wheel to writhe alarmingly in the hands. Even just pulling out of a junction with a touch more throttle than usual is enough to set it off, but the upside is a level of traction in corners that is frankly remarkable. The turbo feels boosty in the way old-gen blowers do, but it and the diff are key to creating that sense of rawness that makes the RS so appealing. The point is that unless you know this is how a healthy one should feel, you might think there’s something wrong with the example you’re testing.
When you get back from your test drive and your heart rate slows, you should park the smile, get on your hands and knees and check the sills for rust. It’s caused by water trapped between the well-anchored sill covers and the body and it can be a devil to spot. Check for body repairs, too. The RS is a grippy device but the back end can suddenly become unstuck as the limits of adhesion approach. Use a magnet to check for filler.