I am nearly seven months into life with the 2016 Ford Focus RS. I’ve waited a very long time for a performance hatchback of this caliber to be offered in North America. 350 hp — think about that number for a moment. The Porsche 911 Turbo launched in the U.S. with only 234 hp. Ford tops that output by 116-hp with only four cylinders. I pulled the trigger on the Focus RS the moment my dealer’s ordering system went live. The local Ford store knows me well, mostly due to weekly pestering for updates on the status of my incoming car. Delays came and went but I stayed the course, securing one of the first production Focus RS models to arrive on our shores, in early June 2016. As I sit here digging deep into my thoughts and notes for this final review of day-to-day living with the all-wheel drive Focus, I’m torn. There are certainly moments of brilliance with the Focus RS, but it’s a conflicted automobile and I’m not sure the positives outweigh the negatives.
When all the stars align, the Focus RS is a truly amazing package of parts. Take a smooth and challenging highway on-ramp, confirm ‘Sport’ is the selected drive mode, tap the stability control button once to loosen its rein and the Ford displays a level of grip and poise that few cars duplicate. It’s also entertaining in the wet, in ‘Drift’ mode. You can hold the tail out on the slippery pavement, with fabulous pops and bangs from the exhaust on overrun. Try that in other hot hatchbacks. The RS is like a crazed, sugar-buzzed child out way past their bedtime. When the inevitable sucrose-crash arrives, reality rears its ugly head.
This reality is daily life with the hardcore hatch. A big issue is the U.S-spec Recaro seats. As noted in earlier updates, they simply don’t fit me. A homemade seat cushion to improve lower lumbar support helps and they did break-in slightly, but the bulky perches are simply too aggressive, too constricting, and don’t offer enough adjustment. Plus, they rub and squeak against the center armrest. Add in lackluster interior detailing and quality including an improved (versus MyFord Touch) but still flawed SYNC 3 infotainment system and it’s not a place I enjoy spending any significant length of time. Certain aspects of the touchscreen system are clunky and features like fuel prices — and, at times, live traffic — don’t work. The dealer says it’s a known issue and Ford is working on a fix. The Focus just doesn’t have an interior experience that’s up to snuff for a $40,000 automobile.
Then we come to the chassis. Again, it’s amazing in the right circumstances but that comes at the expense of a harsh and taxing ride on Michigan’s aging roads. Journeys on certain sections of freeway make you feel like you’re riding a pogo stick. And that’s on the softer setting. I only tried the stiffer suspension setting for about 10 seconds — enough to tell me that it’s only for ultra-smooth racetracks. The RS can also be badly effected by ruts and other tarmac imperfections. Heavy throttle applications at higher speeds on twisting back roads brings along substantial torque steer-like characteristics. It’s almost as if the rear wheels aren’t getting enough torque and the front wheels are simply overpowered. My old front-wheel drive Focus ST had a similar quirk.
Then, just when you’ve had enough of the Focus RS and you consider cashing in your chips and heading home, you catch a glance at the five-door hatch and remember that it looks fantastic. I’m not usually a big fan of black wheels but the optional matte, 19-inch forged alloys combined with the other contrasting exterior details against the Frozen White bodywork work together brilliantly. The turbocharged engine is another highlight. Well, outside of the 19-mpg appetite for premium unleaded and the small fuel tank. The powerplant offers bags of power with very impressive throttle response, especially for a boosted engine. It also sounds quite good as long as you select the louder exhaust via the sportier drive modes. One simple change I made was unplugging the artificial noise generator. As is becoming all too common with modern automobiles, the Focus RS plays fake engine sounds through the audio system. A quick Internet search revealed you can simply unplug one connector in the cargo area to fix that nonsense. The RS is now a touch too quiet and could use more intake sound in day-to-day driving but at least it’s now pure, and far less boomy inside the cabin.
After Michigan was gifted a load of white stuff shortly before Christmas, I finally got a chance to play with the all-wheel drive Focus in the snow. The factory $1995, 18-inch winter wheel and tire package along with a set of Rokblokz rally mud flaps handled winter duty. Michelin’s Pilot Alpin PA4 performance winter tires offer impressive grip in the cold weather, only giving up some ultimate deep snow and ice grip compared to more aggressive “studless” winter tires like the French company’s X-Ice Xi3 or the Nokian Hakkapelliita R2. They’re a good choice for the Focus RS, maintaining decent steering feel and overall grip in all conditions.
My overall impressions regarding snow performance of the RS are mixed. It’s fun and fast in slippery conditions, rocketing away from stop lights and rotating nicely with the handbrake but the overall feel is somewhat contrived once you fully disable the stability control and start driving the Ford like a lunatic. The trick, torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system is quick to induce oversteer but then, at times, tries to correct that oversteer in an unnatural and inconsistent way. It’s as if the twin rear wet clutches aren’t always juggling the torque front to back — or left to right, at the rear axle — in a flowing, smooth nature. Drift mode — for track use only, per the instrument cluster warning — is far more intuitive during fully-committed snow hooliganism but, overall, the RS’s drivetrain lacks the straight-forward winter fluidity of more conventional all-wheel drive systems in, say, an xDrive-equipped BMW 3-Series or a Subaru WRX.
I now have a choice to make — should it stay or should it go. This indecision’s bugging me. I certainly enjoy aspects of the Focus RS and I’m so happy Ford finally sells the long-running model in America but I’m not sure I want to live with it long-term. It’s just too infrequent that I’m in a situation where the RS truly rewards, which makes it difficult for me to forgive the shortcomings.
I know a Volkswagen Golf R would be a better car for me day-to-day but I also feel like I’d get bored with the more mature German offering. Ultimately, I guess I’m looking for a Focus RS “Komfort”, to take a page from the old Porsche 959 playbook. What I’d really love is a Golf “RS.” The VW already has an excellent interior — well, outside of the fun-sapping electric parking brake. It just needs some extroverted personality injected into its somewhat staid character. Fiddle with the all-wheel drive system so it’s more tail happy, bump the horsepower, add the conventional parking brake from the U.S-spec Golf GTI and I think I’m sold. Well, the Golf R also needs authentic engine sounds instead of artificial aural blare via the stereo system.
Or maybe I’ll just go back to my rear-wheel drive routes. I very much miss the purity, simplicity and price of my old Scion FR-S. Going upmarket and picking up a BMW M2 is another option I’ve considered. I’ll stick it out with the Focus RS for now and make a final decision come spring. If and when the Ford moves onto the next owner, I’ll never forget that one specific on-ramp where the RS truly highlights the turbocharged hatchback’s moments of brilliance.
2016 Ford Focus RS Specifications
|PRICE:||$36,605 (Base), $42,075 (as tested)|
|ENGINE:||2.3L turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4/350 hp @ 6000 rpm, 350 lb-ft @ 3,200 rpm|
|LAYOUT:||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD hatchback|
|EPA MILEAGE:||19/25 mpg city/highway|
|L x W x H:||172.8 x 71.8 x 58.0 in|
|0-60 MPH:||4.7 sec|
|TOP SPEED:||165 mph|