I hate flying, but today was the first time in a long time when I didn’t picture myself plunging 30,000 feet to my death (although I’m the type of person who thinks that I might just be the only survivor - I guess that shows a lot about my character). The reason for my death-defying nonchalance was the prospect of driving what should be the most impressive car of 2016. The all-new, third-generation Ford Focus RS has been on everyone’s radar for months now, and a flight to Valencia promised a few hours of tyre-slaying RS bum time (and also a bucket of Spain’s finest jamón ibérico). Ken Block was also waiting eagerly to be interviewed by me, but you’ll have to wait until later in the week to see that video. For now, though, I’d landed, I was still alive, and the keys to a 345bhp Focus were in my hands.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of how fun and deeply impressive this thing is, I’d first like to tell you about the magic dust (as Ford likes to call it) that’s been dumped by the skip load over the Focus RS.
Starting with its heart, the RS features the same aluminium block 2.3-litre, four-cylinder Ecoboost engine as the new Mustang, albeit with a 10 per cent boost in power to 345bhp and 325b ft torque. This is thanks to a new twin-scroll turbo with a larger compressor and bigger intercooler. There’s also a freer flowing exhaust (with big tailpipes you can fit your fist into - yes, I tried) and a less restrictive air intake. Despite a kerb weight of 1599kg, the Focus RS will hit 62mph from a standstill in 4.7 seconds and won’t stop choo-chooing until it reaches 165mph.
The next thing you need to know about is the Focus RS’s AWD system and torque vectoring…
As you can see from the illustration, the RS’s AWD system does a lot of clever stuff to make wannabe hoonigans like you and I feel and look like we really know how to handle a car. For starters, there’s the way in which the car can transfer up to 70 per cent of its power to the rear axle, which makes it dance and thrust hard out of tight bends like a cornered rabbit. On top of this, 100 per cent of available torque at the rear can be sent to one wheel, which acts like a firm hand to help guide you through a corner. It’s thanks to these systems (as well as specially-designed, 235/35 R19 Michelin tyres) that the Focus RS has around 1g of lateral grip, meaning you’ll be melting the tyres long before you lose traction.
Also in the bag of magic dust are massive brakes (350mm at the front and 302mm at the rear) behind 19-inch rims, four selectable driving modes (including the industry first Drift mode), launch control, quick steering, loads of induction and exhaust noise and stiff spring rates (increased by 33 per cent front and 38 per cent rear over the Focus ST).
Now that you’ve been properly introduced, I think it’s time that I describe exactly what the 2016 Ford Focus RS is like to drive on the road and on the track.
The way things work on launches is that you buddy up with another car journo and share the driving. We landed in Valencia airport and were immediately handed the keys to a car. Because I wanted to film my reaction of driving the car for the very first time after the first coffee stop en route to the hotel, I let my co-driver, John, take the first stint. After 40 or so miles, I knew that the RS was rapid, but not until I got behind the wheel did I realise how much of a weapon it really was.
As John waited in the cafe next to an open fire, this was it. I was alone in the RS, and behind of me was an amazing stretch of winding road that we’d covered quite quickly 30 minutes previously. I gingerly turned the car around in the narrow street of a nondescript Spanish village where coffee and jamón were still being consumed by 20 of my peers, and worked the car slowly into second and third gear. Even at 30mph and low revs, I could tell that the RS had the potential to cover the road that now lay ahead of me far more quickly than we had done. Visibility was perfect and I could see zero other cars in both directions.
The last houses of the quiet village were now behind me, and my heart rate shot up as I prepared myself for the onslaught of power. With that, I punched the gearbox into second, floored the throttle and looked ahead. The induction and exhaust noise filled the valley, and in an instant I was on the 6800rpm redline. Into third now, and the first corner was approaching fast, which required a firm stab of the brakes and a gear change down to half my speed. The 350mm and 302mm ventilated front and rear discs did the job more effectively than expected, so I made a mental note to leave braking later for the next corner. As I turned the steering wheel to the right (the steering rack is very fast with only two turns lock to lock), the car’s nose leaned in heavily. I hammered the accelerator hard and felt the rear-end push me through the corner. Dynamically, this thing inspires confidence in its driver.
As more corners came and went, I quickly realised that I could be braver still though the bends. But this being a public road, I decided to keep well within my limitations. That said, my arrival at the coffee stop where John was waiting revealed smoking brakes and Michelin tyres that had marbled slightly.
On day two of the Focus RS launch, we headed to a race a track where we’d be free to burn rubber and take liberties - all in the name of science, you understand. After a quick safety briefing, we were split into groups of eight people. My morning would start by trying out the car’s launch control system, which is accessed with a few button taps on the steering wheel - this process takes around 10 seconds, so isn’t best suited to every red light.
Launch control engaged, all that’s left to do is floor the throttle pedal, which limits the Ecoboost engine’s revs to 5500rpm. Once the 2.3-litre unit is bouncing off its launch control rev limit, just dump the clutch and let her rip. The acceleration really is impressive, with 62mph coming up in just 4.7 seconds.
Next up for me was trying out the car’s Drift mode. As you can see above, the system is pretty fool proof so long as you’re brave on the throttle and fairly gentle with the steering. Now I’m no drifter, but I got the hang of going sideways straight away. The system works by modifying the torque distribution to help you achieve controlled oversteer drifts. The damper and steering settings are set to normal, which has the effect of providing enhanced control through smoother load transfers and lighter steering inputs. After a few donuts and a cabin full of smoke, it was time to get the tyres changed and have a coffee.
Shortly after, we were walked into the pit lane. In front of us waited five RSs with the optional Recaro shell bucket seats and wider Michelin tyres designed especially for track use. Strapped in and nervous about pushing myself and the car up to and beyond our limits, I engaged Track mode with the push of a button to the left of the six-speed gearbox. Track mode puts the dampers, steering, ESC, AWD system, engine and exhaust into Sport to give a firmer and sharper drive.
In my convoy of five cars and a pace car for a first sighting lap, we got to know the track. Circuit de la Comunitat Valenciana Ricardo Tormo is mainly used for motorbike racing, so features long, progressive corners and a couple of hairpin bends that would test the RS’s front-end grip. With the first lap completed, the pace car peeled off to one side, and each of us on track knocked the gearbox into third to unleash fury. The first left-hand bend was a progressive 65mph corner which revealed masses of grip. Up ahead was a tight left hander that required a downshift into second. It’s at this point that I had to recalibrate my brain to floor the accelerator and let the torque vectoring do the majority of the work. As the front tyres cried out for grip, the rear instantly got a push from the rear-drive unit to help push it through.
The following two corners were tighter still so required ruthless usage of the brakes. Soon enough, and after five improving laps, I was carrying more and more speed through the bends and learning to make the most of the apices. The Focus RS kept on smashing forward, with me as its driver perfectly tuned in. Only when I lost concentration did I wash way wide, almost pushing the car into the gravel trap.
On the sixth lap, I engaged Drift mode. Gingerly taking the first corner at 50mph, I headed to the second left-hander in second gear. This time around, my hard stab of the accelerator pedal forced the rear to kick out. With some ham-fisted counter steer I was smoking tyres, but elegant it was not. Drift mode demands practice on a circuit like this, and before long, I had the system figured out and was made to feel like I really knew what I was doing. In fact, it was the car that flattered the hell out of my driving, but I’m totally fine with that.
My time with the 2016 Ford Focus RS was exceptional. I knew that I’d be impressed by the car, but I never thought in a million years that a car that costs £29,995 could be this damn good.
The Focus RS really is an amazing piece of kit. It’s an enthusiast’s car built by true petrolheads for petrolheads. The noise, the feel, the excitement…it’s all been created for us, and to those people who have already put deposits down on this thing, I just know that you’ll love the Focus RS experience as much as I enjoyed driving, drifting, launching and looking at it.