What if I told you there was a sensible daily commuter hatchback that also had the performance of a sports car? This combination defines the “hot-hatch” segment, populated by vehicles like the Volkswagen GTI and Golf R, Subaru WRX, and Hyundai Veloster. The formula is simple: Take a compact sedan or hatchback, give it a turbocharged engine, performance suspension, and, in some cases, all-wheel-drive.
Such is the case with the all-new Ford Focus RS.
Many in the automotive community lament their inability to purchase cars that are sold overseas. Notable examples were the older Nissan GT-Rs, the current Ford Ranger, and Australia’s “Utes,” which are basically modern Chevy El Caminos. As early as 2002, there were rumblings about a Euro-only Focus with its roots in motorsport. The Focus RS has been the road-going version of the car designed to compete in the World Rally Championship, and forums were ablaze with demands to bring this sporty hatch to our shores.
The wait was certainly worth it: The 2016 Ford Focus RS lives up to the notion of a rally car for the road. It is nearly identical to the European version, differentiating itself from more common variants of the Focus with a revised front end sporting a massive, blacked out grille, added aerodynamic work on all four sides, dark 18-inch wheels, dual exhaust tips, and a high rear spoiler with “RS” pressed into the sides. The look is capped off by paint job that Ford calls “stealth,” but is really anything but.
Subtlety is not the on the menu with the RS. This look is sometimes negatively referred to as “Boy-racer.” The Subaru WRX STI is the gold standard in this segment, but it looks like it wants to earn you a speeding ticket. So there is something to be said for owning a car that’s fun, but that doesn’t look like a transformer, mid-formation. Another entrant in this segment, the Golf R, delivers 292 horsepower and AWD, but with a more subtle exterior and a refined cabin.
Inside, the Focus RS has more in common with the Golf R in terms of design. The WRX is based on the utilitarian Impreza, which is a great car but its interior can generously be called spartan. Meanwhile, the Focus RS blends form and function with solid build quality and high-end features. The Recaro bucket seats are bolstered, though not always comfortable. Our test model featured heated seats, ambient lighting in the foot wells, and numerous cubbies and cupholders for gear. As a daily driver, the car pulls its own weight.
Speaking of pulling its own weight, the 2.3-liter EcoBoost inline-4 is a marvel. This is the same turbocharged unit available in the Mustang, but in the case of the RS, it makes 350 horsepower and 350 lb.-ft. of torque. The only transmission option is a 6-speed manual, sending power to all-wheel-drive.
Shift throws are surprisingly satisfying, locking into each gear with authority. The clutch engages at a very low point, like an actual track-prepped car. The pedals are aluminum with minimal grips. They look cool, but if your shoes are remotely wet, they could slip on the pedals. Combined with the really strong feedback of the pedal, you could easily drop the clutch by accident.
In the center console to the left of the shifter, a Drive Mode button allows you to toggle between Normal, Sport, Track, and Drift modes. These various modes tweak the AWD system, dampers, steering response, engine tuning, stability control, and even the exhaust note. Normal and Sport are for daily driving, while Track is for racing-circuit-only events. Drift mode reduces the input of the stability control, to make it easier to break grip free–it doesn’t actually help you drift any better.
More practically, the Focus RS features engine shutoff and auto start to save fuel, helping the Focus RS earn fuel economy of 19 city, 25 highway, 22 combined. Turn off the auto-stop and leave it in Sport mode, and you’ll average close to 21 mpg in mixed driving.
Engaging the performance clutch can be jarring if you’re coming out of a less powerful car with a manual. The low engage point and force feedback of the pedal will take some getting used to. Expect gains in your left calf muscles.
Even if you don’t shift as often and leave the car in a higher gear, the benefit of the power and torque on tap means you can pour on acceleration in essentially any gear. With an average hatch making under 180 hp, if I wanted to get up speed to pass, I’d need to drop down two or more gears. In the RS, you can drop down one or even stay in the gear you’re in and there’s power to spare. It’s incredible to think that there is a Focus under all this that is just a casual daily commuter. They have turned it into a road monster.
The 2016 Ford Focus RS starts at $35,900. With optional equipment such as the Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires, 19-inch painted alloy wheels, navigation, and heated seats and steering wheel, the price is more like $41,000. That pricing puts it right in line with the Subaru WRX STI and Volkswagen Golf R. The WRX is only available as a sedan these days, and the Golf R is far subtler than the Focus RS.
By the time you can afford a $40,000 car, you might be at the age where you’re over the Boy-Racer looks, and prefer the subtle cues of the Golf R. But if you are trying to make a statement with a car that can back it up on the road and on the track, there are no better ways to make it than with the Ford Focus RS.
2016 Ford Focus RS
Price: $35,900. As tested: $41,000+. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 19/25. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 21.2 mpg. Drivetrain: 2.3L turbocharged I4, 6-MT, all-wheel-drive. Body: Hatchback.
Horsepower: 350. Overall length: 171.6 in. Wheelbase 104.3 in. Height: 58.4 in. Width: 71.8 in. Curb weight: 3,459 lbs.
Fantastic acceleration, impressive cornering, racy looks.
Pricey commuter car, stiff bucket seats, racy looks.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Buy one, and your commute will never be the same.
Subaru WRX STI, Volkswagen Golf R.
George Kennedy is a freelance automotive journalist. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @GKenns101.