- Unappealing cabin
- A tad chavvy
It has been called king of the hot hatchbacks, but is the Focus RS really that good? Ben Griffin took it around Silverstone and then borrowed it twice before finally making up his mind.
Cars, like people, can be difficult to fathom. Some arrive in your life as if they had always been there, others make you wish they weren't. Sometimes a snap judgement can be accurate, but it is entirely possible to get it completely wrong even after years of a relationship.
For me, the Ford Focus RS has been my character enigma. If the early reviews were to be believed, we were looking at the Messiah of motoring yet my initial drive at Silverstone left me a bit lost for words ─ and not in the good way.
The hype and reality were so at odds with each other I was starting to worry the Focus RS was the New Year's Eve of four-wheelers.
Some cars require more time to get to know, I told myself, so I got it in for a week of country roads, Ikea trips and getting stuck in traffic. Second time around, I was able appreciate just how much performance you get for your money, but we had still yet to reach first-name terms.
With a trip to Goodwood Revival looming, I asked Ford for one last loan and a few days later a Nitrous Blue example showed up at my door. This was the last chance to get to know Ford's budget beast and, having driven the 2017 Honda Civic Type R, the challenge was greater than ever.
So is the Focus RS worth buying and has it grown on me enough to stick it on the list of classic hot hatchbacks? Did it just need more time to shine? It was time for me to find out, once and for all.
Ford Focus RS review: What are we looking at?
Attaching the RS badge is never a task taken lightly by Ford, which is why it has ended up with 345bhp generated by the 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder Ecoboost also used in the Ford Mustang (well, not the proper V8 one).
It is based on the current third-gen Focus, which will be replaced in the not too distant future. Unlike its front-wheel drive predecessors, it comes with all-wheel drive and, like its predecessors, it has boy racer-friendly styling. Big spoiler, aggressive front bumper, boost gauge ─ the usual stuff.
Ford Performance has also given it much bigger brakes to help keep you from short escapades off the road and into a tree, active dampers to keep it planted and seats that do a better job of keeping you in place.
Then, of course, you have Drift Mode, which lets it go sideways more easily but really it's just a button for ensuring the Focus RS holds its value. Because in ten years time there will be so few of them in one piece.
Apart from that, it's business as usual so you still have a reasonable boot, rear seats, cup holders for that much-needed morning caffeine fix and child seat mounts. Hatchbacks are tough to beat as all-rounders and the Focus RS is no different.
Ford Focus RS review: How does it handle?
For what is quite an ungainly car in terms of shape and size, the Focus RS comes across as sharp and eager. The fast steering and low levels of body roll make it very capable of lively direction changes – much to the misery of your passengers.
On a track, the weight of the Focus makes itself known, but on a road it takes really stupid entry speeds to make the all-wheel drive system give up and leave you to deal with the extra weight. It really is very capable and surprisingly easy to drive fast.
Its ability to send up to 70 per cent of power to the rear wheels and up to 100 per cent of that power to either rear wheel keeps the traction levels high and that means it can keep up with a lot of more expensive machinery, even with a relative newbie at the wheel.
The six-speed manual is a bit limp and has a very long throw between gears, but it does allow for fast changes regardless and it never gets in the way of the fun. Plus, in a car like this, I would take a half-decent manual over an uninvolving automatic.
Going sideways in the Focus RS is amusing, but it feels most alive and most at home when you thrash it in the Sport and Track modes, which firm everything up and make the acceleration more immediate, and keep the understeer and oversteer at bay.
Braking is another plus as the bite point makes scrubbing off lots of speed quickly easy and intuitive, but at the same time you can actually brake smoothly in less exciting driving conditions and come to a halt without giving everyone whiplash.
"The hype and reality were so at odds with each other I was beginning to worry the Focus RS was the New Year's Eve of four-wheelers."Even in the softest setting, the suspension is firm and likes to inform you of every road imperfection beneath its wheels. With that said, you do get used to it and it does a much better job of smoothing things out as you pick up speed.
Where the Focus RS falls down is with the Recaro bucket seats, which really do keep you from falling out of the window at speed but sit just that bit too high up. It kills the sensation of speed and makes you feel unnecessarily detached from the car.
Torque restriction is also noticeable in 1st and 2nd gear, but then 3rd kicks hard enough to forgive, especially as the overboost function provides 347lb/ft of torque at peak. In any case, you really never need to worry about overtaking when 0-62mph takes 4.7 seconds – even with a whiff of turbo lag.
You could also pick fault with the somewhat contrived exhaust noise, which pops with almost every high-rev lift-off in Sport mode and is never that savoury, but then at least it is loud enough to be heard in the spacious cabin.
One last thing to note is a touch of tramlining on really bad roads, but loosely gripping the wheel and relaxing your arms makes this less of an issue. It can also be a problem at motorway speeds, making long drives more tiring than they need to be.
Overall though, the Focus RS comes across as exciting and brimming with potential. Find a road that is quiet and rich with corners and you will always have a blast. Unless, of course, you get too cocky in Drift Mode...
The Focus RS is effective and exciting in equal measure.
Not as predictable or instantaneous as its rivals.
Ford Focus RS vs BMW M140i vs VW Golf R vs Honda Civic Type R
In terms of its speedy rivals, a VW Golf R offers a substantially more muted drive, but the all-wheel drive system feels more predictable and it is the more practical of the two. The interior is also better, if quality and styling matters to you.
The M140i, meanwhile, has less feedback through the steering than the Focus RS but is substantially faster and its rear-wheel drive nature makes it more playful. Honestly, the pace of that new Baukasten engine is ballistic.
Then there is the new Honda Civic Type R, which is a tad softer in its most recent form but still manages to come across as sharper than all other hot hatches. It feels like a touring car where the Ford has more of a blunt rally approach, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Just different.
Everyone likes to bang on about which is best, especially in the dark void that is the YouTube comments section, but if you want a fast hatchback go drive them all because they are distinctly different and very capable in differing ways.
More expensive these days, but still a lot of performance for the money.
Could do with a better seating position in the case of the optional bucket seats.
Ford Focus RS review: What about practicality?
Like the standard Ford Focus, the RS has a decent but by no means class-leading boot. But the shape of it means ample head room in the front and back, plus rear leg room is reasonable and you get lots of storage spaces.
We also appreciate the centrally-located cup holder system, which allows you to move the plastic support around so you can fit bigger drinks in or, as I did, prop up your smartphone with Waze running.
Sync 3 is a step up on Sync 2, even if it looks a tad dated already, and more than capable of letting you connect a phone via Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, and navigate from A to B reasonably effectively.
Living with the Ford Focus RS is actually easy. In fact, the only off-putting bit from the interior's perspective is how it looks. Besides a bit of blue stitching, sportier seats and some tacky gauges on the dash, it is remarkably dull to look at and, unlike the new Fiesta, way too button-heavy.
Hatchback practicality remain intact in RS guise.
There are more practical hatchbacks out there if you care.
Ford Focus RS review: Running costs and UK price?
Ford claims the RS can do up to 36.7mpg combined, but in reality we saw 30mpg at best and that was taking it nice and steady on a straight B-road with cruise control engaged and the wind behind you. The moment you push hard, the 2.3-litre drinks fuel well into the teens.
CO2 comes in at 175g/km so that means a first-year VED rate of £800 and then £140 after that. There would also be an extra £310-a-year for five years if you manage to push the total over £40,000, but that would be difficult ─ if not impossible.
You used to be able to buy the Focus RS for around £30,000, but now it comes in at £32,265. That it still cheap for the level of pace you get, but then an M140i can be had for around £26,000 and that is even faster, not to mention a little classier to look at.
Our test car had a few extras that made it £35,570, including the aforementioned Nitrous Blue (£745) and Luxury pack comprised powerfold door mirrors, rear parking sensors, Ford KeyFree system, cruise control with speed limiter and privacy glass (£1,000).
It also had the Recaro folding seats (£1,145), active city stop (£200), heated steering wheel (£115) and painted brake calipers (£100). All useful extras, although you could paint the calipers yourself for less.
These days, you can spend £3,530 extra on the Focus RS Edition, which adds a Quaife limited-slip differential that will make it better on a track (but less drifty), Recaro seats as standard and a few aesthetic revisions. Probably worth a punt given the high level of equipment.
As for making the Focus RS even faster, there is a Mountune kit that provides a noticeable power hike. Best of all, it is actually supported by Ford's warranty.
Not actually too bad on fuel if you really try to take it steady...
...But you almost certainly never will.
Ford Focus RS review: Should I buy on, then?
The Ford Focus RS is an incredibly playful car that really is a lot of car for the money; its ability to hurtle round corners and accelerate between them rivalled by very few cars at this price point.
What Ford has done, then, is make the hatchback equivalent of the Nissan GT-R, which is why it routinely gets compared with considerably pricier metal – yet you could use it every day if you wanted to.
The biggest drawback is that it does have a poor interior, certainly more so than its rivals and a result of using the aging Focus platform, and there is more than a hint of boy racer that will put off some buyers, but both issues can be forgiven over time.
The Focus RS narrowly misses out on being my hot hatchback of choice (and I mean narrowly), but you would be mad to avoid its loutish tendencies. Put in the effort, as I did, and you will find a car that only ever wants to please.
- 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbo Ecoboost
- 347lb/ft (470Nm)
- 0-62mph in 4.7 seconds (top speed 165mph)
- 175g/km of CO2
- 36.7mpg (combined)
- From £32,265 (£35,570 tested)