Review: 2016 Ford Focus RS
– Montreal, Quebec
In case you haven't been paying attention, Ford and Volkswagen have been waging a private war for hot hatch supremacy over the course of the past several years, a conflict that has borne nothing but delicious turbocharged fruit for high performance fans. The latest salvo in this battle of the blow-off valves is the 2016 Ford Focus RS, by far the fiercest edition of the Blue Oval's well-respected compact car to have been unleashed on Canadian roads for buyers now.
Walk step-by-step through the VW and Ford hatchback line-ups, and you'll find the Focus and the Volkswagen Golf head-to-head at almost every turn, ranging from the entry-level versions of each (among the most pleasant-to-drive affordable compacts at their respective price points), to the Focus ST versus GTI slap-fest that began in 2011, and now the battle-royale between the Focus RS and the Golf R. It's almost as though an alternate universe has opened up in the automotive market where two companies have elected to produce quicker, more luxurious, and more expensive versions of the same car, ad infinitum, at the same time as every other performance hatch builder (namely, Subaru and Mazda) have quietly walked away from the game.
Ford's hot hatch entries have always been aimed at power junkies.
While the end goal might have been the same - transform an affordable small-car platform into a fire-breathing thrill-ride - the Focus and its Golf-derived rivals have yet to take the same path to get there. Ford's entries have always been aimed at power junkies willing to tolerate a stiff chassis, versus Volkswagen's game plan of balancing engine output, handling prowess, and driver comfort.
This remains true with the 2016 Ford Focus RS. Ostensibly cast from the same mould as the Golf R (the only other turbocharged all-wheel drive hatchback available with a manual transmission in Canada), philosophically, it's a very different car. Unlike the Volkswagen, which makes paeans to daily use the centrepiece of its value proposition, the Focus RS is clearly intended to find a home with buyers who will head to the race track every single weekend so as to take maximum advantage of its many mechanical charms.
Ford has graced the 2016 Focus RS with a 2.3-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that churns out a segment-busting 350 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque. That's head-and-shoulders above the Golf R's 292 hp, and it also handily clears the 305 hp available from the Subaru WRX STI sedan, which has long been the traditional rally-inspired compact car of choice for Canadian gearheads.
Launch control gets you to 100 km/h in just 4.6 seconds.
Ford has matched this prodigious output with an advanced all-wheel drive system that offers the ability to shuttle 100-percent of engine torque to the left or right rear axles, using a clutch system to improve cornering capability. Under hard acceleration, it's possible to send as much as 70-percent of the turbocharged mill's production to the rear of the car and take advantage of basic physics. A 6-speed manual transmission is the only gearbox offered with the Focus RS, and launch control gets you to 100 km/h in just 4.6 seconds. Really, from any speed, in almost any gear, this is a very quick car.
The car also comes with an adjustable suspension system that ranges from bouncy to rock hard, as well as three driving modes: Sport, Track, and Drift. The first two back off the electronic nannies, can stiffen the suspension by as much as 40-percent (Track), direct the AWD system to more aggressively proportion power, and open up a valve in the exhaust system to provide a 'rat-ta-tat-tat' staccato on throttle lift that's similar to the five-cylinder RS models of years past in the Euro market. If so desired, the suspension settings can also be tweaked separately via a rocker switch on the car's turn signal stalk.
Drift mode is the perfect winter setting for spinning through a roundabout or grazing a snow bank tail-first.
The Ford Focus RS' Drift mode has been endlessly hyped as the car's 'Hoonigan' button, and by softening the shocks and forcing more grunt to the back of the car it does indeed make it easier to slip the bonds of traction and kick the rear end out around a corner (or a skid pad, should you know, have access to a skid pad). We couldn't bring ourselves to roast the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires that come with the Focus RS for more than a few seconds - it just felt like a waste of beautiful, grippy rubber - but in the winter, this is the perfect setting for spinning through a roundabout or gracing a snow bank tail-first.
A track session behind the wheel of the Focus RS only confirmed the car's mission statement. Selecting Track mode unbridles the car from the concerns of keeping up appearances with local law enforcement and allows it to fully inhabit its role as a corner carver par excellence. This Ford hot hatch is a very forgiving car to drive quickly, papering over your mistakes with all-wheel drive tenacity that claws away from an apex no matter how out of shape you might have been on entry. Despite mismatched pedal heights that make it difficult to heel-toe, the six-speed shifter is precise enough for the task at hand, and the car's sizable Brembo brakes (350 mm up front, with 4-piston calipers) exhibited no fade. Ford claims 30 minute sessions on the track are possible before safety systems may kick in to protect the rear of the AWD system of the car from overheating, with sensors keeping track of lifetime fluid temperatures and reducing the hooning window accordingly until the next oil change.
On the street, the Ford Focus RS is very much a track car. Even in Normal driving mode the vehicle judders and thumps over expansion joints and heaves in the pavement, a sharp contrast to the softer Golf R which caters more caringly to your posterior. The RS is a very lively car at all times, and one that demands you pay attention to ruts in the road and potential pot holes, or else suffer the consequences.
Canadian buyers are facing a serious case of sticker shock with this latest high-tech marvel.
Interior-wise it's a similar story, as Ford has done little other than add Recaro seats and leather to the basic Focus equation, keeping in place an abundance of plastic that is also at odds with the Golf R's cushier confines. Sync 3, the latest infotainment system from Ford, is standard with the car, and while it's easier to use than the previous iteration, we're not overly impressed with the vehicle's infotainment system.
As much as the Ford Focus RS represents a quantum leap forward in terms of pure performance for compact hatchbacks, Canadian buyers are facing a serious case of sticker shock with this latest high-tech marvel. Unlike the U.S. market, the Canadian Ford Focus RS is offered in one fully-loaded edition, which means you get all the infotainment options, sunroof, and other extra gear standard... even comes with a factory set of winter wheels and tires. All that gear boosts the starting price of the RS to an eye-watering $47,969 - that's $20,000 more than the Ford Focus ST, and a startling $10,000 more than entry-level versions of the Volkswagen Golf R or Subaru WRX STI.
That's a big leap for anyone who could do without what few luxurious items the Focus RS has to offer and just wants to head to the track and have some fun with a base-model car. It's also a hard sell to compact performance fans tempted by the more affordable offerings by VW and Subaru stalwarts. With pricing that introduces a whole new realm of premium cross-shopping opportunities (such as the Audi S3 and the Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG, it's clear that Ford doesn't intend the RS to be a high-volume seller. The dedicated few who want the fastest Focus will of course accept no substitute - and will likely end up forking over the extra dollars with smiles on their faces as soon as they pull out of the dealer lot.
Volkswagen Golf R
Subaru WRX STI
Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG
Photos: Benjamin Hunting