First UK drive review: Ford Focus RS 2016
Our suspicion that the RS is the daddy of all hot hatches has turned into a certainty. We don’t do star ratings, but if we did, this would get six.
Although the Focus RS’s announcement at the beginning of last year feels like a lifetime ago, the new fast Ford has finally made it to the UK.
We were impressed when we first drove it back in January, but can the pitted highways and rigorously enforced speed limits of Britain trip up what we suspect is the best hot hatch of them all?
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The first piece of good news is that the transition from left- to right-hand drive has made absolutely no difference to the performance.
Under the bonnet is the 2.3-litre EcoBoost petrol engine that you can get in a Mustang, and it produces a substantial 345bhp. That’s about 40 more than the Honda Civic Type R and about 50 more than the VW Golf R, so it’s no surprise to find that the RS out-performs both its key rivals.
With a 4.7-second 0-62mph time, the RS is quick enough to embarrass cars bearing Porsche badges, and it’s something you’re instantly aware of the moment you slip into the body-hugging Recaro bucket seats.
Although the RS is designed to be civilised, there’s always the feel of a road-going racer thanks to the swaths of Alcantara trim and the dark headlining. It never feels to oppressive or drab, thanks in part to the uplifting blue contrast stitching and the 8in touchscreen infotainment unit, but it certainly sends out a message that it means business.
Give the red starter button a prod and that message is hammered home even more vigorously as the big, turbocharged engine fires into life. Surprisingly, it seems to have a raucous, bassy note that’s missing from the 2.3-litre Mustang, but that could either be down to the comparative lack of isolation and refinement in this stripped-down hyper-hatch or, more simply, our ears.
Either way, the noise is fitting; a lively, buzzy backdrop to the car’s seriously impressive performance. The clutch feels substantial and just a touch heavy, but that just means there’s more feel and more control. Oh, and if you think that’s not for you, then you’ll just have to get a Golf R DSG, because Ford is only offering the RS with a six-speed manual ‘box.
But what a ‘box it is. By now we’re all familiar with Ford’s incredible record with gearboxes – they’ve been universally accepted as one of the best in the business for fifty years or so – and this is another of the American company’s masterpieces.
Changes are slick and precise, and the slightly shortened throw gives you so much satisfaction from each and every shift. The Type R’s gearbox is decent, but this is in a whole new league.
On the road
The handling is much the same, although it must be said that the RS had a bit of a head start on its rivals by being based on the best-handling family hatch around. Normally we’d be dead set against an electro-mechanical power steering system in a hot hatch for which handling is everything, but it has been well executed in the RS.
Those graduating from standard family hatches like the Peugeot 308 or even a VW Golf might be put off by the fact that the steering matches the heaviness of the clutch, but bear with it, because the extra feel and precision is well worth the workout you’ll get when navigating the Sainsbury’s car park.
Of course, the handling is aided by the stunning amount of traction you’ll get from the big, sticky tyres (what do you expect at almost £1,000 a set?), the clever electronic four-wheel-drive system and the stiff chassis, but whatever the cause, the effect is the best-handling hyper-hatch on the market.
When you throw it into a corner fully expecting the front wheels to give up the ghost and the nose to wash out in a deluge of disappointing understeer, the Focus corners as if it’s on rails.
If there is a bias, it’s actually slightly towards oversteer. Ford has designed its four-wheel-drive hatch to drive like a rear-wheel-drive car, so the back will step out of line even when the now-legendary drift mode is firmly switched off. It’s alarming when it first happens, but you learn to expect it and then it just becomes part of the RS’s lively character.
So far, then, so good, but now it’s crunch time: is the RS comfortable enough for Britain’s highways and byways? It’s an important question, because the Type R’s big downfall is the way it clatters and bumps over our pitted country roads, but it’s one the RS pulls through.
For a car in this class, it’s absolutely brilliant. We won’t pretend it isn’t firm – at the end of a journey you know the exact magnitude of every lump and bump – but it’s far from harsh and it’s certainly no worse than the Focus ST, which is the RS’s slightly less hardcore sister. And anyway, this is a driver’s car, so the purists in the hot seat probably won’t mind an informative ride.
In short, then, the RS is brilliant, but it gets even better when the question of value comes to play.
The basic car costs £31,000, and for that you get 19in alloys, bi-xenon lights, launch control, Recaro seats, part-leather upholstery, the Focus’ 8in touchscreen infotainment system, a heated windscreen and keyless start.
Ford predicts, though, that the majority of customers will specify around £4,000 of optional extras, ranging from the Nitrous Blue paint seen here to satellite navigation and the Luxury Pack, which provides power-fold mirrors, rear parking sensors, cruise control, privacy glass and keyless entry.
For those looking to lease, the average price is around £460 per month for personal customers and £385 a month for businesses.*
Our suspicion that the RS is the daddy of all hot hatches has turned into a certainty. It’s mind-bendingly fast, stunning to drive, well equipped, relatively practical and comfortable enough to be used every day. We don’t do star ratings, but if we did, this would get six.
*Average lease prices calculated using ContractHireAndLeasing.com data and correct at time of writing.