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We test Ford's arresting Focus RS

2010-10-27 14:27

BADGE OF HONOUR: The RS nameplate comes with an unenviable weight of expectation. Can the second-generation Focus carry it with honour?

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Ford
Engine 2.5l five-sylinder turbo
Power 224kW
Torque 440Nm
Transmission Six-speed manual
Zero To Hundred 5.9 sec
Top Speed 263km/h
Fuel Tank 62l
Fuel Consumption 12.4l/100km
Tyres 235/35 ZR19
Front Suspension Struts with offset coils
Rear Suspension Multi-link control blades
Service Plan 5 year/90 000km
Warranty 4 year/120 000km
Price R479 000 - all sold out

Lance Branquinho

Ford's Focus RS has since its introduction back in 2006 been very much the proletariat's performance car hero.

Its unparalleled value in the hot hatch market has enabled Ford to stay true to its (excuse the pun) blue-collar customer profile.

As the Focus ST’s popularity has grown globally, especially in South Africa, a legion of aftermarket tuning kits has become available - boosting Ford’s journeyman performance car to beyond 200kW.

The baddest hot hatch badge – makes a comeback

Despite the presence of terrifyingly quick aftermarket ST's the idea of a bespoke, fully validated factory RS version of the series ST has remained a prospect to thrill the Blue Oval's faithful.

Ford's original Focus RS was a mere two-litre car. The idea of a new RS based on the current ST, which in production trim already beats the previous RS's engine outputs, held Ford fans in keen anticipation.

When Ford launched its second-generation Focus RS in 2009 South Africa was cruelly left out of the global marketing equation. Embittered local Ford fans railed against the short-sightedness of this decision and finally the product planning staff at the Ford plant in Silverton, Pretoria, relented and allocatd 60 Focus RS units for local distribution.

Of course the RS moniker is a bit of misnomer with regards to the new car. The first-generation Focus RS's engine, for example, was not too far removed in terms of configuration from Ford's WRC car of the early 2000's. The second-generation Focus RS is strictly front-wheel drive and as such has little or no relation to Ford’s current WRC rally contenders so it can trace its heritage to the RS badge’s ‘Rally Sport’ roots.

Does this make it a cynical marketing excercise?

Subtle as a kick in the head

Take one look at it and cast all those East Rand Cortina XR6 inferences aside. The second-generation Focus RS may look madder than any performance Ford family car in history yet it carries its boy-racer styling trinkets with aplomb.

First, it is tremendously Green, now isn’t it? Shrek Green in fact - according to most of my friends. I preferred to classify it as an Incredible Hulk hue, for that is quintessentially what the Focus RS is in terms of Ford performance hatchback folklore.

It is nearly unfathomable that the Focus RS is the styling handiwork of Ford’s Belgian design bureau. For a country where fried chips are garnished with mayonnaise, one would hardly expect a design as extreme as the Focus RS.

Whereas most performance cars are being toned down aesthetically by manufacturers keen to garner an environmentally friendly, and ecologically sensitive, public image the sole eco-friendly aspect of the new RS is its green paint.

The Shrek-like paint job is an ode to the Le Mans green of the Escort RS1600s of the 1970's.

Aesthetically Focus RS's front and rear quarter panels have been changed to incorporate the wider wheel arches and wider track, complemented by deeper side rocker mouldings.

RS-badged vents sit behind the front wheel arches and two bonnet louvres should thrill the Benoni faithful by providing a check on engine-bay temperatures. The car also has a deep front air-intake framed by a large, mesh lower grille, ensuring maximum mirror presence.

Below the third-door, a deeper rear bumper incorporates an enlarged venturi tunnel to its lower edge, detailed in turn by small vents at each corner of the bumper. Two chromed tailpipes sit each side of the black diffuser.

The styling package is rounded off with a black RS rear spoiler atop the Focus RS’s roofline.

As elaborate as the exterior styling upgrades are, the RS’s cabin ’s enhancements (those Recaro front seats) are barely noticeable – disappointing for such as special car.

POWER HOUSE: Five-cylinder engine gains an even more distinct beat (and appreciably more performance) in RS trim.

ST on steroids

As I casually mentioned, the Focus ST – courtesy of its forced induction nature – has become one of the most tuned Fords yet sold locally in South Africa. It's very much a contemporary Cortina (or Sierra) XR6 in this regard.

Relaxing the engine’s electronic control module, binning the catalytic converter and replumbing the exhaust system easily peaks power beyond 200kW. Focus RS’s 224kW and 440Nm therefore won’t appear huge impressive to members of the various ST clubs across the country.

Churning new (stronger) internals, appropriately reprofiled camshafts and boost serviced to twice the ST’s pressure threshold (0.7 versus 1.4 bar) the meant engineering the RS’s engine to be powerful yet durable. This gives it the edge in terms of driveability and life expectancy over similarly powerful ST aftermarket conversions.

Much of the ST’s easy -driving nature remains on call in the RS. Its effortless clutch and easy-going six-speed manual transmission make RS a seamless daily driver.

Power delivery is very linear thanks to Ford’s impeccable tuning of the K16 Borg Warner turbo. Some aftermarket ST boost conversions may offer more impressive power yet suffer tremendous lag before abruptly hitting a peak.

All things considered, Focus RS is as fast a hot hatch as anybody could ever sanely require. It runs a top speed just beyond 260km/h and on a high-friction surface you'll see 0-100km/h in six seconds dead. The accompanying five-cylinder turbocharged acoustics gain an octave or two of added inflection in RS trim too.

In any of its six gears the RS is devastatingly quick and has the required sense of drama held so dear by hot-hatch purists.

The harmony (and quality) of Ford’s in-house engine tuning was evident in the RS’s fuel consumption, too, where we averaged 12.2 litres100km – a figure sure to turn most ST owners, well, green with envy.

Two wheels to steer and deliver 224kW…

Unpack the Focus RS’s statistical superiority to all other front-wheel drive hot hatchbacks and you’ll eventually be struck with a fundamental problem at the very centre of its design.

With its front-wheels burdened by the dual responsibility of delivering 224kW and turning 1.4t of car with agility, torque-steer is going to an unenviable by-product of the RS’s staggering performance.

FOCUSSED FINESSE: A wider track, better suspension geometry and Quaife’s limited-slip differential make all the difference.

“So why isn’t it all-wheel drive instead?” Valid question.

Well, Ford’s engineers prioritised the design principle of lightness (thereby increasing the tactility of responses) over all-wheel drive security. Adding two additional differentials (and their associated half- and drive-shafts) would have bloated the RS’s licensing mass too much.

To counter the nascent prospect of uncontrollable torque steer, Ford’s engineers fabricated two rather clever mechanical engineering solutions.

Knuckling down torque-steer

First, the front differential is a very trick limited-slip unit from gearing specialist Quaife – which of course developed the original Focus RS’s front differential .

Partnering with the Quaife differential is Ford’s euphemistically named RevoKnuckle front-strut arrangement. What does it do? Well, it's simply an ingenious driveshaft link for extremely powerful front-wheel drive cars usually suspended by Macpherson struts. The RS’s RevoKnuckle has two separate components for the front suspension’s knuckle, one attachment joins to the strut, the other rotates the steering.

By reducing the distance between the hub-centre and steering alignment (thereby optimising geometry) Ford’s RevoKnucke theoretically banishes torque steer by filtering the adverse effect of surface imperfections on steering feedback when burdened by the numbing effect of 440Nm. Does it work though? Well…

I'm not going to lie: in a straight-line at full-throttle the Focus RS’s helm will rotate to its own devices, requiring committed inputs from the driver to keep it tracking in the desired direction. Is this an issue though? Not really. Detractors will quickly assail my argument, noting how the Focus RS will career off the road if you take your hands off the steering wheel and launch it at full boost. The point is: who drives without holding the steering wheel properly in the first place?

Focus RS's torque-steer issues are miraculously absent when cornering, indicative of the quality of its Quaife differential doing what it was designed to under load. Turn-in is very crisp, without any trace of torque-steer when you drive towards the apex under full power.

Traction is essentially beyond reproach and the RS’s cornering posture confounds all conventional front-wheel drive logic.

Drive it like a loon (stabbing-off the throttle abruptly mid-corner) and the aft axle will step out of line, yet the RS’s excellently sorted independent rear suspension acts as a perfectly controllable foil to even the most severe lift-off oversteer antics.

As a dynamic package the RS’s agility and pace tempo perfectly, instead of being non-commensurate to each other – as is the case with some aftermarket fettled ST's. Driving the RS to the limit of its mechanical grip, the combination of Quaife hardware and Ford’s new steering geometry proves its worth.

On the whole the Focus RS’s dynamics are so well harmonised it grates against each every preconceived notion you have about front-wheel drive dynamics. It delivers previously unheard of levels of power through its front wheels with such secure traction you wonder how less powerful hot hatches could possibly have an excuse to ever spin an inside wheel under brutal cornering inputs from the helm.

BEST EVER?: Is this the greatest front-wheel drive hot hatch yet built? Probably, if you discount its RS500 sibling…

An authentic RS?

I desperately wanted to dislike the RS.

Its lurid surface colour.

The outrageous body Tupperware.

A lack of proper circuit (or rally) heritage.

All the above-mentioned factors tabled it as an affront to everything good about the hallowed Ford RS badge.

Are the 60 South Africans who are paying a substantial premium for their RS victims of some tremendously brazen marketing? I think not.

The Focus RS is a modern classic for one simple reason: it takes a fundamental engineering principle (that front-wheel drive does not work beyond a threshold of 180kW) and shows it to be bunk.

All the Focus ST’s points of appeal (its very airy cabin, tolerable ride quality and huge boot) remain, with the RS engineering (and style) trimmings adding an absurd level of performance to an already convincing package.

Subaru's defunct WRX STi hatch and possibly Audi's S3 could get close to the Focus RS's performance capabilities, yet both these competitors are all-wheel drive and sacrifice hugely in terms of rear cabin comfort and boot space due to their additional differentials and half shafts

Focus RS then, the greatest performance hatchback yet?

Very much so.


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