It’s never made sense to us why Ford’s performance pocket rocket was available in Europe but never made available stateside. Did Ford think Americans lack a rally acumen or love for small capacity, hot hatch culture? Thankfully, there’s no need to dwell on the past, as Ford has introduced the new Focus RS - tweaked by Ken Block and now sold for thirty-something USD.
So What’s This Thing All About?
To start, don’t view the Focus RS in the same light as the Ford Focus your cat-collecting neighbor drives - this is an entirely different beast. The RS logo embossed, stitched, and stuck on dozens of surfaces throughout is there to remind you of such. It’s not about groceries and sensibility - that notion goes out the window once you see it has a “drift” setting - it’s all about performance driving, gravel, navigators, and history.
The Focus RS is Ford’s stab at the rally, hot hatch category that dominates spirited driving in Europe and is gaining popularity here in America (thanks to the Rally Cross race series, affordable power, and the sideways ways of Ken Block, Travis Pastrana, Tanner Faust, and the late, great Dave Mirra). Rally is about racing stages on public and private roads, where the driver must rely on a navigator to let them know what’s around the next bend. Rally happens in some of the most grueling conditions through which a path can be cut, be it snow, mountains, or monsoons. Racetracks be damned! While the RS wears a blue Ford badge, this four-wheel drive hatch was engineered primarily in Europe, so you know hugging tight corners is in its DNA. It’s tough, compact, and putting the power down to all four wheels.
Hiding Under The Hood.
While its race-inspired, the Focus RS doesn’t pack a massive American block. True to rally tradition, the RS instead houses a four-cylinder EcoBoost engine – similar to that in the EcoBoost Mustang. But for the RS, Ford chemists turned the engine 90-degrees and added a twin scroll turbocharger to the top to produce a reputable 350 horsepower experience. In an era where every manufacturer is doing all they can to erase the lag produced by forced induction, the RS goes about its work with tremendous honesty, giving you very little at the bottom of the rev range, and once the turbos properly spool up and produce their pressure, the spiky little hatch slingshots ahead with ferocity. While some see turbo lag as an automotive artifact of primitive proportions, we appreciate the genuine profile of its power delivery which makes it a blast to drive. Mashing the pedal and going full hoon mode delivers very little pizazz. Rather, the driver is asked to coax the car, keep the revs up, let off less, and balance the boost to keep events moving quickly in the power band. A driver with their eyes looking down the road and a bit of finesse across the pedals will be rewarded with a heavily sport-minded drive, even on public roads. This car isn’t just entertaining at high speeds, it shows a lot of punch at lower speeds too if you can keep the turbos spooling properly.
Once on the move, a very trick rear axle comes into its own. Separate clutches for each real wheel allow various amounts of torque to be directed to each. Up to 70 percent of overall torque can be delivered to the rear and of that, 100 percent of the power can be directed to either the port or starboard sides.
The Focus RS comes with trunk loads. Sticky Michelin tires all around provide a tremendous amount of grab, making the RS the ultimate Bear Mountain hunter. Speaking of those faster mountain corners, unlike many cars that would start to run a bit wide in the sweepers, the Focus RS again relies on that clever aft to keep things in check. The rear wheels drive slightly faster to help the front find the line - click from normal to “Sport” setting and this will happen a bit more. Click once more to “Track” and you can overcome the front wheels with the rear, putting yourself in an over-steer moment. Not stopping there, get your Forza on by clicking over to the “Drift” setting to tear the rubber off the rear wheels. It’s a neat party trick, but a party trick at most.
If you were to look at the RS in the dark, you would undoubtedly see the familiar little shape of an everyday Focus. But turn up the lumens and something more muscular appears - its haunches have biceps, its in-takes up front are at full gape, and its wing out back is borderline Icarus. And that azure, Kona Blue as it’s officially called, is a sparkly Smurf. Sporty, fun, and you’ll never misplace it in the parking lot.
Overall, the Focus RS is a blast. Bring the revs up, get into the boost and suddenly you’re skipping over tarmac on the edge of adhesion, fastened in by computer trickery that keeps traction in line. Cornering is sublime in the RS. Just when you thought you might have run out of turn in at a certain speed, the RS will dip its nose and scramble for a bit more traction up front to get the car turned and turned with confidence. By trailing off the gas just a bit rather than going for the brakes, one can put the weight forward and grab more asphalt while at the same time enjoying a single 38 special overrun “pop” reminiscent of 80’s Group B rally videos. The five-speed gearbox is familiar, heavy, and purposeful. Throttle response delivers a rubber band effect, stretching far when you’re properly spooling and a bit numb when you’re off the forced induction game. Visibility is superior to most sports cars and everyday drivability is acceptable, that is if you’re willing to compromise a few clicks of comfort for a hardscrabble sport ride when conditions call for it.
Ford has been building its European-bound RS cars for decades now and sport-minded Americans have been lobbying for a US version for just as long. Finally, we’ve received one and most accounts agree, it's the best one yet.