STI killer. Golf R destroyer. The newest Ford Focus RS—the first to come to America—carries a Herculean weight on its shoulders. The RS is a latecomer to a tough and select field, and it needs to show it’s not just as good as but better than the greats if it’s going to carve its desired niche.
Fortunately, the 2016 Ford Focus RS is fast, even if not freakishly so. The car is balanced, controllable, and surprisingly communicative, leaving behind its understeering front-wheel-drive roots for neutral-to-tail-out, all-wheel-drive maturity. The RS’ uncomfortably cutesy Twinster all-wheel-drive system uses power from the open front differential to spin a thin driveshaft and the rear differential, which are engaged constantly and can handle up to 70 percent of the engine’s torque. Two electro-hydraulically operated clutch packs decide how to best send power to the rear wheels, each independent of the other, allowing for full torque vectoring.
Our first minutes behind the wheel take place on the hilly roads outside of Valencia, Spain. The engine barks and pops through shifts; torque delivery is a bit peaky, and turbo lag is present for a second or two in first gear before holding steam through 6,200 rpm. Keeping the accelerator to the floor, the Focus RS gathers speed, though perhaps not as quickly as its 350-horsepower rating or its 4.4-second 0-60 mph time might suggest. Acceleration is unfussy, the rear wheels kicking in to eliminate front-wheel spin, but as speed rises, the front end finds undulations in the pavement and torque steer yanks the car back and forth across the lane.
Even on manicured Spanish byways, it’s clear the adjustable suspension’s Sport mode is best reserved for the track, as the softer base tune yields more grip and more predictability from the chassis and steering. Not that the steering is particularly communicative in any of the drive modes or suspension settings. In fact, it’s numb, giving very little feedback about the building or falling grip levels. There’s a strong centering force, helpful to combat the occasional bout of torque steer, and weight increases in a seemingly natural manner, but the overall feel is devoid of the nuance of a truer sports car.
We find a vacant roundabout and start driving spiritedly in tight circles. The 2016 Ford Focus RS is very neutral in Normal drive mode, defaulting to understeer at the limit, and Sport mode allows the Twinster all-wheel-drive system to shuffle more power rearward to help maintain the line. Track mode permits even more slide but not as much as Drift mode, which feels much more markedly rear-biased but doesn’t let us go full-on, Ken Block sideways like we expected. Hooliganism ceases just in time to avoid undue attention from authorities, and we exit the roundabout.
The next day, we head out of Valencia to Circuit Ricardo Tormo, a billiard-smooth MotoGP track with wide curbing, ample runoff, and 14 turns over its 2.5-miles. With the car in Track mode, the suspension in Sport mode, and stability control turned off, rolling on cold tires and a slightly dewy track, the RS at first surprises with sudden and wild oversteer. It slides wide and is only just catchable with power and copious countersteer. The typically sticky Michelin Sport Cup 2 tires, specific to the Focus RS, come on the car if you specify the optional forged wheels. (This car had standard Michelin Super Sports.) After a lap and a half, however, the tires come up to temperature, and the Ford’s neutral attitude returns.
The Focus RS stands on its nose under hard braking, showing a surprising degree of dive, which transforms into a fair amount of body roll as we ease off the brakes and roll toward an apex. The RS delivers its power smoothly, angling the tail out ever so slightly, making it easy to unwind the wheel and aim for the next corner. Rinse and repeat for the next dozen turns, and the RS seems unflappable, ready and willing to do whatever the driver commands. If there’s a weakness, it’s the four-piston Brembo brakes, which bite well but do nothing to hide the 3,500-plus-pound curb weight.
Later in the afternoon, Ford takes us to a dedicated launch control and drift test circuit. After navigating a Byzantine set of instrument-panel menus to arm launch control, and with the clutch engaged and first gear selected the whole time—you won’t do this in seconds at a stoplight—we dump the clutch and keep the throttle pinned as we upshift through gears, letting the flat-shift system do its work. It’s slick and effective but doesn’t feel markedly quicker than the stop sign launches done the day prior with no assistance from the computer. More repeatable? Sure. Faster? Maybe, maybe not.
On the drift circuit, a coned circle with about a 50-foot radius, we flick the steering wheel, smash the gas, and wait for the back end to come around, but the RS is remarkably unwilling to pitch out its rear. It does, but very slowly; there’s no rear-wheel-drive immediacy to the slide. After a series of failed attempts, we finally achieve what Drift mode does its best to deliver, which is a smooth, constant slide that smokes the outside rear wheel and requires almost no steering correction to maintain. But even as we hold it for three full passes around the circle, the drift feels synthetic, simulated, and gimmicky. It works, but feels like it will work only in this one circumstance. Forget stringing together balletic corners, going from lock to lock, like a digitized Ken Block; Drift mode is a one-trick pony, but it’s a hell of a ride just the same.
Although we’re less enamored of the car’s hooning abilities than we expected we would be, its abilities impress us all the same, especially when it comes to driving well and quickly. This is a polished, capable, and rewarding package that’s still incredibly fun. Next to a Volkswagen Golf R, the Focus RS is a touch more boy racer. Beside a Subaru WRX STI, it is a tad bit more business casual. Ford’s new hot hatch does not trump the Golf R or dethrone the STI. But it does provide a very satisfying alternative, one that should provide its owners no shortage of fun and bragging rights, both on the street and at the occasional track day.
2016 Ford Focus RS Specifications
- On Sale: Spring
- Price: $36,605 (base)
- Engine: 2.3L turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4/350 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 350 lb-ft @ 2,000-4,500 rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed manual
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD hatchback
- EPA Mileage: 21/29 mpg (city/hwy) (est)
- L x W x H: 172.8 x 71.8 x 58.0 in
- Wheelbase: 104.3 in
- Weight: 3,525 lb (est)
- 0-60 mph: 4.4 sec
- Top Speed: 165 mph