First Drive: Ford Focus RS

So, just how much fun is the new Ford Focus RS, exactly?

Can we scientifically quantify it? Perhaps by comparison to other things that are fun? Is it more fun, say, than watching funny cat videos on YouTube? Oh yes, definitely. More fun than watching all episodes of The Thick Of It back to back? Yup, more fun than that. More fun that someone, say, lobbing a custard pie into Donald Trump’s face (not that we condone such actions)? Even more fun than that…

Apologies for those who like to skip to the last paragraph to see the conclusion, but I’ll get it out of the way with here – the Focus RS has just stepped neatly to the top of the current hot hatch podium, nudging aside the likes of the Honda Civic Type R and VW Golf R as it does so. It’s by far the most turbocharged fun you can have on four wheels when you’re still lugging back seats and a boot around with you, and it’s not even that expensive. £29,995 gets you started…

So, how has Ford managed this? Well, it’s taken the 2.3-litre EcoBoost turbo petrol engine from the Mustang (where it lurks in lazy 313hp form) and stuck some tape over the wastegate to boost power to 350hp. Actually, they’ve done rather more than that – there’s a new head, new valves, new pistons and cylinder liners, a new turbo and more and the result is that massive power figure and a very healthy 440Nm of torque (with 470Nm on overboost, available at least 90 per cent of the time, says Ford).

With that much oomph, the old Focus RS front-wheel-drive layout would have just led to clouds of tyre smoke and little or no forward progress, so Ford has returned, for the first time since the old wild-boy Escort RS Cosworth, to four-wheel-drive. There’s a GKN-supplied rear-wheel-drive unit which is relatively simple (it takes engine grunt from a power take off at the front, and dishes it out to the rear wheels via clutches and a tricky diff) but overlaid on top of that is a fiendish electronic control system that Ford’s RS team spent two full years tweaking and refining.

You can tweak and refine it yourself, selecting from four driving modes. Normal (popping to the shops, dropping the kids of at school, motorway cruising); Sport (sharper throttle, noisier exhaust with proper rally car pops and bangs, weightier steering), Track (what it says on the tin – stiffer suspension, even sharper throttle, dialled-back ESC and more) and Drift.

Ah, Drift. You see this is where the Focus RS really comes alive. Hit Drift and the suspension actually softens (at the behest of Internet Lunatic and now Ford test driver Ken Block) and the 4WD system sends all the grunt to the outside rear wheel in a corner. That kicks the RS into a lurid tail-slide, but instead of this ending in an expensive visit to the gravel or the armco, the system then works its magic with diffs, clutches, brakes, ESC and throttle to help you hold and prolong the drift, making you look like an utter hero and unleashing unstoppable fits of the giggles.

On the road, you’d worry that all these electronic gubbins might make the Focus RS feel like sterile cruise missile, in the mould of the Audi S3. Not a bit of it – it actually feels more rear-drive than four-wheel-drive, and on a twisting, climbing, descending, turning mountain road north of Valencia, it felt positively analogue – alive and responsive, great steering feel and astonishing balance and poise. Even the ride isn’t too hard. Best of all, it doesn’t feel like the car is taking over. In spite of all the clever electronics, it feels as if you’re doing the work and the car is helping out when you need it to. It’s beyond mega.

What else is good? The overrun pops, bangs and farts in sports mode are addictive, the optional shell-back Recaro buckets are comfy and supportive, the bodykit is relatively subtle but suitably muscular and the overall quality of build seems good.

Bad points? The cabin looks and feels too cheap and plain (bucket seats apart) than is really acceptable for a car costing the thick end of £30k, the boot is smaller than standard (260-litres, thanks to all the 4WD plumbing underneath) and if you’re enjoying it to the full, you’ll be lucky to see more than 20mpg. And the 175g/km Co2 figure doesn’t look too clever either.

All of which can be quietly filed in a drawer marker ‘Who Cares?’ The Focus RS is not just fun, and not just fast. It’s a landmark car – Ford practical but Porsche fast, a car that feels like an old-school drift king yet is actually cutting edge in its technology and cleverness. A car that, if you have the money and the stomach for the running costs, you simply must buy. Switch off the cat videos on YouTube. You won’t regret it.

Model Tested: Ford Focus RS
Price: £29,995
Engine: 2.3-litre turbo petrol
Top speed: 165 mph
0-62 mph: 4.7 seconds
Power: 350 PS (345 bhp)
Torque: 470 Nm (347 ft-lb)
Official fuel economy: 36.7 mpg
Road Test economy: N/A
CO2 Emissions: 175 g/km
VED Band: H / £205 per year
Car insurance group: 40A
Kerb weight: 1,547 kg
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Sam Baines

Sam is an automotive writer with experience of virtually every make, model and specification of car in the UK. If it's got wheels, Sam's got it covered.

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