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Is Ford’s AWD mega-hatch as special as we first thought? And can the Focus RS beat stiff competition from the Volkswagen Golf R and Mercedes-AMG A45?

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Here it is at last – the Ford Focus RS. We have been a passenger on trackdriven it on the Continent and in the UK, and now it is at our test track ready for a thorough Autocar workout.

The new RS has been a long time coming. It’s curious to think, given how much attention is given to it, that this hot hatch is only just on its third generation, despite the first one arriving back in 2002.

The Mk1 Focus RS was introduced in 2002, it is amazing to think that this RS is only the third generation

Unlike some sports cars or hot hatches, there isn’t a central driving theme to the Focus RS, no familiar DNA that will tell you – as it might in an everyday Ford – that, ah, yes, this is the new Focus RS.

If there is an underlying theme, it has taken a third car to realise it: after all, once could be a fluke, twice could be coincidence, but it takes three things to ascertain a trend.

The Mk1 RS was pulled off the standard Focus line for finishing – at great cost – where it received wider bodywork and a trick Quaife limited-slip differential of shocking brutality. The Mk2 RS of 2009 was created to roll down the line like any other Ford Focus. The trickery, again, was focused on getting its power to the road.

Again there was a limited-slip diff, but with 301bhp to deal with, it was never going to be enough on its own and there was no chance of fitting anything other than front drive and MacPherson struts. So in went a Quaife diff and RevoKnuckle front suspension, a torque-steer-reducing addition that helped to deploy power to the road without destroying its driver’s forearms.

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And, once again, it’s the drivetrain and suspension that are recipients of the trickery this time around.

The theme is this: the RS Focus has never shied from trying something new in order to get tyre-monstering power, for a car of its size, to the road. This time, four-wheel drive gets the nod.

But unlike rival systems, it’s not just front-led, pushing power rearwards when you need it. Nope. Ford Performance has promised something special. And special it will need to be to fend off the vast list of competitors including the Volkswagen Golf R, BMW M2, Mercedes-AMG A45, Audi TT RS and Audi RS3

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DESIGN & STYLING

Ford Focus RS 2019 road test review - hero side

Specialised engines, drivelines, suspension and steering set-ups, and certain structural reinforcements, are the standard fare of the modern hot hatch, and the new Focus RS has them all.

But it also has something that sets it apart even from rivals costing tens of thousands of pounds more: a redesigned shell.

Suspension is all-independent, with the rear subframe adapted from that supplied for Volvo's compact models

Knowing the RS would be the first fast Focus with all-wheel drive, Ford found room in the budget not only to adopt and modify the rear subframe it once supplied to Volvo for its all-wheel-drive C30s and S40s, but also to engineer in extra torsional body stiffness.

So the steel running between the rear suspension turrets has been thickened, and if you could lift the boot carpet you’d see the ‘lion’s feet’ reinforcements that have been added; you won’t find those on any other model on this platform.

The other key component in the RS’s make-up is the active rear differential, which isn’t a differential at all but a gearset with a pair of independently controlled clutches deployed at key points.

So while the front-mounted power take-off unit can send up to 70 percent of torque to the rear at any time, the rear drive module can then send up to 100 percent of that torque to either of the rear wheels – or, in effect, ‘lock up’ 50/50. The car’s gearing is also set to slightly overspeed the rear wheels relative to the fronts at all times.

Suspension springs are 33 percent firmer than those of a Focus ST up front and 38 percent at the rear. Tenneco adaptive dampers are standard, allowing Ford to increase the damper rate by 40 percent in Sport and Track modes. Power steering is electromechanical and at a fixed rate with two turns lock to lock.

A hot hatch’s engine is typically where this section would start, but it says much about the depth of Ford’s investment in the RS’s hardware that a turbocharged 2.3-litre engine developed from that of the Ford Mustang, redeveloped by Cosworth and making 345bhp and 325lb ft (the latter lifted by an overboost function) doesn’t get a mention until the end.

INTERIOR

Ford Focus RS 2019 road test review - dashboard

As with all hot hatches, the RS’s interior is a tweak of the standard model’s.

Which means that while it’s inferior to the plush cabins of the facelifted Audi RS3, Volkswagen Golf R and Mercedes-AMG A 45, it’s better kitted out and more modern than, say, the defunct Renault Mégane RS 275 or the Subaru WRX STi.

Having the damper switch located at the end of column stalk is a bit unorthodox, but is conveniently placed

The regular Ford Focus underpinnings – and the five doors that come with it – guarantee a respectable level of practicality. The encumbrance of an all-wheel drive system underneath hasn’t reduced the car’s ability to carry adults, although the boot volume is slightly reduced by the more sophisticated rear axle.

The RS gets a new, nicely proportioned flat-bottomed steering wheel, alloy pedals, slightly different instrument graphics and a lot of blue stitching. It also wears the same bank of gauges atop the dash as the third-generation ST.

The most notable additions are the front seats, either in the shape of the standard, part-leather sports seats or (as with our test car) the optional Signature RS Recaro ‘shell’ versions. These are fairly splendid, although they commit a familiar Focus sin by not descending nearly low enough towards the floor. Given the amount of criticism levelled at the previous generation for not offering a likeable driving position, the mistake’s repetition irks somewhat.

Ford’s Sync 3 system is included on the RS, so you get the 8.0in touchscreen, sat nav DAB, Bluetooth and voice control as standard, along with smartphone integration and a fresh interface, with Ford reporting that this infotainment software is 10 times faster than its predecessor. There is also the addition of ten high performance Sony speakers including the subwoofer and a rear view camera - previously additional options.

As for the other standard equipment on the Focus RS, there is launch control, a Brembo-designed braking system, automatic headlights and wipers, dual-zone climate control, heated front windscreen and the ability to adjust the dampers between two settings.

Ford’s navigation is hardly peerless (there’s a colossal amount of very small buttons to push for a start), but the Sync home screen looks a bit forlorn without it included. Generally speaking, it all works fine, and the decision to keep the Drive Mode button a physical characteristic of the centre console is a prudent one. 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Ford Focus RS 2019 road test review - engine

It’s impossible to come to a car such as the Focus RS without big expectations, both subjective and objective. Only considerably more expensive and more powerful cars, such as Mercedes-AMG A 45, the facelifted Audi RS3 and even the TT RS, prevent your enthusiasm from running away with itself, and then only by the narrowest of margins.

We’ll deal with the subjective impressions first: how fast does the new RS really feel? Given its head, you’d say about as quick as an £80,000 sports car until you hit fourth gear. As strong as an RS3, probably the most heroically endowed hot hatchback of all time? Not quite. But it’s stronger than the Ford’s like-for-like competition by price, and unmistakably so.

The RS’s throttle-on stability and adjustability are incredible through the slower, tighter corners

Truth is, the RS’s engine isn’t one to keep you awake at night. It isn’t the car’s greatest asset and it doesn’t possess the kind of firepower needed to take on Quattro GmbH and AMG on level terms. But it’s got more than enough power, response and aural presence to hold its own.

For such a hard-working four-cylinder unit, the power delivery is pleasingly flexible and balanced – not at all dominated by turbo boost and surging mid-range torque, but crisp-feeling under your foot and willing to rev out. And to listen to, there’s an offbeat thrum to the engine’s exhaust note that you don’t expect from a four-pot unit, bringing a certain richness to the driving experience.

Ford tuning specialists Mountune has already created two upgrade packs ready to be fitted to the RS, and fully approved by Ford Performance. The ‘phase one’ kit includes a set of 19in Oz Racing wheels, upgraded parts for the air intake system and an optional Quaife gear-based differential – to replace the clutch system fitted to the RS as standard.

The ‘performance upgrade kit’, also known as FPM375 sees the RS’s output increase to 370bhp allowing it to reach 62mph from standstill in 4.5sec. The kit includes a re-flashed ECU, high performance air filter, bespoke crossover duct and upgraded air re-circualtion valve, which makes the Focus's throttle crisper and the engine more rabid over 3000 rpm.

American performance brand Hennessey also has given the Focus RS a going over, increasing the power by 60bhp and peak twist by 101lb ft taking the overall RS figures to 405bhp and 425lb ft of torque. The parts can be shipped to the UK and will set owners back £2258 for the privilege.

For those who want the best aftermarket parts cherry-picked for the Focus RS, Euro Car Parts has created a kit costing £2017 and consists of H&R springs, anti-roll bars and wheel spacers, a choice of K&N air filters and a choice of Scorpion and Milltek exhaust systems to help the Ford breath better. Crucially however, none of these parts are covered under Ford's warranty.

Moving on, then. The RS’s objective performance will have been affected somewhat by Ford’s decision to stick with a six-speed manual gearbox. One of the reasons why a Mercedes-AMG A45 will launch harder than this car is because its seven-speed dual-clutch auto allows it to be shorter-geared in the lower speed ranges.

Ford’s alternative philosophy is to compromise off-the-line acceleration slightly but enhance your sense of involvement in the launch process through a perfectly weighted clutch pedal and a short, punchy manual gearlever – both of which are a joy to use.

On a rainy day in April, fitted with optional Michelin Cup 2 tyres that don’t work as well in the wet as the car’s standard rubber, we produced an average 5.3sec 0-60mph time from the car; on that basis, expect it to be well capable of sub-five-second runs in the dry.

And much more important, in contrast to many of the Focus RS’s two-pedal rivals, which practically launch themselves, we can’t remember the last time a fast hatchback felt this exciting to figure. 

RIDE & HANDLING

Ford Focus RS 2019 road test review - on the road front

Before we get a little light-headed, it’s worth stating what the RS isn’t. In the field of usable, fast, indulgent hot hatchbacks, headed by the Volkswagen Golf R, it is an also-ran.

The weighty, camber-addled steering is a little too arduous at low speeds for the casual user, and its stiffened ride, while respectably compliant given the level of intent, is nevertheless too firm and percussive to be thought of as genuinely comfortable.

My main concern was for the RS’s B-road ride — but it’s actually no more yobbish than that of a Fiesta ST

It is also not, perhaps more surprisingly, an entirely natural or appealing track tool, its substantial weight, power and (very clever) stability control all contributing to what we’d assume is a reasonably voracious appetite for brake components and tyres.

The space it slots into somewhere in between, however, is terrific. Road-focused, immersive, ostensibly barmy and tremendously engaging, the Focus delivers a chassis dynamic cut from the same rear-drive-biased cloth as the Nissan GT-R and Audi R8, yet it manages to be arguably more accessible and entertaining than either.

High praise indeed, but the RS earns it repeatedly, sauntering into every constant-radius turn with the transparent aim of moving progressively from being dependably front-driven to bullishly neutral to gratifyingly tail-happy.

The throttle-induced exploits of its back end are not the limit of the RS’s talent, but they are what sets it dramatically apart from the current crop of stability-biased rivals.

Ford’s objective (both in marketing and chassis tuning) is clearly to convey the sensation of driving a Group B rally car – or at least how one imagines it might feel, having watched endless videos on YouTube. Using the leeway offered by tailored driving modes and a bubble of ESP-related safety, the RS comes brilliantly close to achieving this aim.

Its secret is less in the all-wheel drive system than it is in the assertiveness of the rear axle’s torque split. The pre-emptive build-up of drive on the outside wheel propels the car into corners and then briefly beyond the limit of traction when you encourage it to do so.

In Sport and Track modes, this happens about as intuitively as it’s possible to imagine, with the stability control working neatly enough in tandem with efforts to correct the slide at the steering wheel.

The already infamous Drift mode has its place, too, although given the bung required to get it started and the ESP’s reluctance to develop a suitably prodigious slip angle, the name is slightly misleading.

In any mode, it’s possible to overwhelm the front tyres on the way into a corner. Turn in too fast and you’ll get mild understeer, but even then there’s the option of working through it, which can’t be said of many rivals. Lift, or brake gently, and the front comes into line. Then, after a brief pause while everything works itself up, lots of power will unstick the rear. The BMW M140i is the only other hot hatch to do that.

In any mode — Drift or not — what then follows is a brief spell of sidewaysness while the 4WD system apportions power to the front and drags itself out. It’s more WRC or GT-R drift than Ken Block or RWD drift, and all the modes do likewise, just with gradually more slip and less electronic interference. It’s ferocious and rapid, not full-on dramatic and smokey.

The RS’s foibles, though, have a habit of disappearing to the distant peripheries of the experience; this is a formidable and magnificently fun car to drive fast, easily deserving of full marks.

To unearth the secrets of the Focus RS, you really need to be on a circuit. Sadly, the day we set aside to do it started out wet and got even wetter, but that still gives half an idea, at more sensible speeds, of what the RS is capable of.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Ford Focus RS 2019 road test review - hero front

In case you missed the hint, £31,000 is very reasonable for the sort of trick product Ford has delivered. When Audi re-engineered the A1 to take the S-badged car’s driven rear axle, it raised the price of the car by a fifth; here, the jump from top-spec Focus ST is far more reasonable, despite the RS being hugely more capable.

The cars most buyers would cite as rivals – Mercedes-AMG A45, Audi RS3 – are, at best, £10k more expensive, while the Volkswagen Golf R, which is the closest rival in many respects, starts at £31,125.

Exceptional demand should keep Focus RS values higher than rivals’ through to fourth year of ownership

Mechanically, there are no options that make a notable difference to the price of the RS. But we would suggest opting for the sportiest seats and uprated stereo/nav in the interest of bolstering the resale value; otherwise, fill your boots.

The Golf R does possibly make more sense in associated running costs. In our hands, the 2.3-litre Ecoboost proved to be, at times, colossally thirsty. We recorded an overall average (based on the trip computer) of just 19.1mpg, with a touring result of 27.4mpg.

The VW, tested in much the same way, managed 28.7mpg and 33.7mpg respectively.

Under less strenuous and slightly more scientific True MPG examination, the Ford Focus held up better, recording a much more respectable 29.7mpg, but we’d be inclined to suggest that you put that figure at the far end of your expectations.

The RS’s CO2 emissions, at 175g/km, are decent enough, considering the power output and the fact that the car is handicapped by manual gear ratios.

VERDICT

Ford Focus RS 2019 road test review - action

The Focus RS theme is finally established. The RS isn’t an easy car to live with – it’s too thirsty, its seats are too high and the opportunities to exploit its handling are not ever-present. But if the modern interpretation of RS has finally established itself as anything, it’s occasional, high-end pleasure.

To find something that corners with the same ability, breathtaking confidence and mind-bending mechanical trickery, you have to look at a car like the Nissan GT-R.

The most fun you can currently have in a hot hatchback, on road or track

Ford, which specialises in democratising hot hatch fun (take a bow, Fiesta ST), has democratised specialness and uniqueness; it has created a hot hatch that you might buy just for weekend use, as you perhaps would a high-end sports or supercar, yet it’s one that costs only £30,000 brand new.

No other hot hatch can quite do that. Yes, a Honda Civic Type R is raucous and raw and a BMW M140i slithery and entertaining, as is BMW the M2.

Want a great everyday hot hatch? The Volkswagen Golf R is your choice. But the Focus, when in its element, is in another league, and to hell with the compromises.

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Ford Focus RS 2015-2018 First drives