It’s a knockout, which is usually a good thing.
“What is the point of a sleeping pill,” she asked, “if it just knocks you out?”
Seems silly, except my grandmother didn’t want a good night’s sleep, she wanted to get a little silly. Instead she got a Lunesta—and eight hours of perfect sleep before a blaring TV, next to a bottle of wine she didn’t even have time to open. She was livid, having been robbed of a fun night thanks to a drug that skipped the journey and jumped straight to the destination.
Before you judge, remember that you don’t drink alcohol for the purpose of obtaining a hangover. And no one buys a fast car to get to work earlier. They’re for fun—though these days, finding a fast car that’s also fun is as tough as finding the Quaalude that Grandma really wanted. Just like modern drugs that put you to sleep almost instantly, today’s cars fly around the Nrburgring faster than ever. Too often, the driver is only marginally involved in the process.
This target-fixated fun-thievery has become an epidemic, but Ford has a pill for it. It’s called the Focus RS, and though it’s been legal in Europe for years, it’s just now coming to the North America. The RS team decided the new RS needed to send power to its rear wheels to go faster than its front-drive predecessors but wasn’t willing to kill the fun in the process.
For this reason, the new Focus RS doesn’t use Haldex-type all-wheel drive like most transverse-engine cars, including chief rival Volkswagen Golf R. That system is a prescription for corner-exit speed, but it comes with the serious side effect of power-on understeer. Ford’s performance division experimented with a Focus RS with a Haldex-type system but had an adverse reaction.
Instead, they turned to supplier GKN’s Twinster arrangement, which uses a permanently rotating driveshaft. The rear diff decides how much power, if any, goes to the rear wheels, and with two independent clutchpacks, it can send everything it receives to one side, the other, or anything in between. This means real torque-vectoring at the rear axle, and to show it off, the Focus RS has a Drift mode. Following the smoky press shots Ford released months ago, it was the first thing we wanted to try. Confirmed: You can do big, smoky donuts in the Ford Focus RS.
Is Drift mode important? Is it even relevant? Was it worth the engineering effort by Michelin to create a bespoke Pilot Super Sport tire that can withstand this perverse use of rubber? You tell me: Was your last trip to Vegas worth it?
Speaking of STIs, that Subaru, with the aforementioned Volkswagen Golf R, are the $36,605 USD Focus RS‘ direct competitors. Motivation for the good fight (and the donuts) comes from a revised version of the Mustang’s direct-injected, 2.3-liter four-cylinder with a larger, twin-scroll turbocharger; upgraded cylinder head and liners; and the biggest intercooler Ford could fit in the car. It’s force-fed 23 psi of air and spits out a big 350 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque, sent to a six-speed manual transmission. If you’d prefer an automatic, you’re out of luck. Also, we recommend you try huffing chloroform instead of sipping that glass of wine.
Braking is accomplished via fixed, four-piston Brembos up front and single-piston sliders at the rear, each of which can be actuated individually to help turn the car. Crucial parts of the chassis have been reinforced, but the suspension is upgraded Focus stuff, with stiffer springs (+33% in front, +38% in the rear) and electronically adjustable shocks. In standard mode, they help give the RS a taut but surprisingly civilized ride. In Sport mode, the shocks act like they’re filled with TNT, causing the car to buck, bounce, and heave over bumps you can’t even see. This mode is solely for smooth racetracks; anyone using it on the road is a certifiable masochist.
The RS has four drive modes, starting with Normal. Sport adds more rear bias to the AWD system, boosts the throttle curve, reduces steering assistance, opens the exhaust, and instructs the computer to send multiple explosions down the tailpipe every time you lift your foot off the gas. Track mode adds suspension misery and relaxes the stability control. Finally, Drift mode sends as much power as possible to the rear and instructs the stability control to help you hold a slide.
Frustratingly, there is no custom mode where you can select the settings you like, though the RS does, mercifully, allow you to override suspension and ESP settings in any mode. Launch control locks the rear clutches, limits the engine to 5,000 rpm, and helps build boost before you dump the clutch. We recommend trying this at your dealership. It’s a violent way to start a relationship with your salesman, but you can ask him to time the run for you. If he says no, know that Ford claims 0-62 mph takes 4.7 seconds and that we’ll be testing a U.S.-spec RS as soon as we can.
Inside the cabin, about a third of the engine sound you hear is noise played through the stereo speakers. It sounds good—an inoffensive, muffled moo—but the music coming from the exhaust pipes is deep, aggressive, and awesome. In other words, the engine sounds nothing like it does in the Mustang. This is a good thing. At engine speeds over 2,000 rpm, lag is insignificant enough that it never gets on your nerves, and the open-filter air cleaner up front lets delicious turbo noises out from the engine compartment. The cabin itself is very quiet, and the Recaro seats (at least the base European-spec ones we sampled) are superbly comfortable.
At 2.0 turns lock to lock, the steering is very fast, but it’s also entirely devoid of feel. Unless you count torque steer, which seems to show up at strange times when the electric power steering gets a half-beat behind in canceling the lateral forces on the front wheels. The cable-actuated shifter is precise enough that you’ll never miss a shift, but it has long, ropy throws, and like other Focuses, the engine hangs onto revs during shifts to “help” you shift more smoothly into the next gear. I wish it could be switched off, as it just makes the whole experience inconsistent.
But the dominant impression is that the AWD system delivers speed, not stupidity. The RS is very fast—but in that modern-car deceiving way. It’s shocking how civilized 350 hp feels in what is effectively a factory-tuned economy car. A 155-hp Mazda Miata is much slower but feels more on the ragged edge. The RS delivers plenty of speed but not quite the visceral, tail-out, you’d-better-be-on-your-game thrill that lunatics like me find so intoxicating.
Then again, any disappointment there might just be a matter of high expectations set high by the presence of that Drift mode. Drift mode, it turns out, is a singular tool—a spectacularly awesome gimmick, mind you—for doing parking-lot donuts, not a handling philosophy that permeates the RS. Out on the road, this is a car that’s refined, composed, and very fast. But also fairly sober.
That means it’s less fun than the ST—a car that’s admittedly an outlier. In a world where most cars have no personality whatsoever, the ST has enough of one to have a personality disorder. It could probably use a dose of Prozac, but then the Focus ST wouldn’t be the same wheel-spinning, torque-steering, snap-oversteering psychopath we love so much.
After a few hours in the RS, I was prepared to compare the RS to Lunesta, in the destination-taking-priority-over-the-journey way. But then we made it to the racetrack. Here, the RS goes all Ambien on you—that drug that sometimes knocks you out but sometimes leaves you awake and very silly indeed.
Pull out on track on a fresh, cold set of the optional Michelin Pilot Cup 2 tires, and any accidental comparisons to a sedative are immediately vaporized. Steering response is instantaneous, and the RS flings itself sideways into each corner, maintaining the slide with power on the way out. As the tires heat up, the RS becomes more neutral, but the Ford remains an absolute laugh-out-loud riot on the track.
The brakes are unfadeable, and we experienced none of the engine overheating problems that plague the Focus ST on track. Basically, the only demerit is significant body roll that you notice when the RS snaps back at the end of a drift. Yep, a drift—the RS is that rare front-drive-based car that can actually hold its own on a racetrack. It’s not quite as throttle-adjustable as a Mitsubishi Evo or a Subaru WRX STI, but it’s very fast, capable, and predictable.
Torque-vectoring or not, the RS’ front tires are doing most of the work. They get hot more quickly than the rears, inducing understeer and revealing the limitations of this particular torque-vectoring system: it can only fix the understeer when you’re on power. Alas, that requires a simple workaround—enter the corner slowly so you can get back on the gas sooner to let the rear end turn the car. And then the smile returns.
Requiring a workaround means that you, the driver, are actively involved in the process of driving this hot hatchback. Sure, much of the RS’ handling is guided by a computer, but it’s not a simulation; it’s an interactive game with you as an integral part. This is a car with hardware and software that want to dance with you, not eliminate you, even if they do occasionally step on your toes.
So though the RS doesn’t quite match the ST’s smiles-on-the-road factor, it’s a perma-grin machine on track, and that’s something special indeed. As long as you’re not popping pills or drinking alcohol before getting in, we wouldn’t judge you for indulging in either of these Ford-branded hallucinogens.