The eight best Ford RS cars ranked

18th June 2024
Ethan Jupp

Of late, fast Fords come in an almost exclusively American flavour, with the latest S650 Mustang GT, Dark Horse, and ballistic GTD almost single-handedly carrying the torch in Europe and the UK. Not so long ago, it was Focus RSs and Fiesta STs that drew us into dealers. Now, it’s the pony car that was once forbidden fruit. 


Will RS ever return? It’s almost too iconic a nameplate in Ford’s European history to not. But how it might return, in a market obsessed with high-riding SUVs and crossovers, is hard to imagine. So we thought we’d take a look back at the best RS-badged Fords and even have a go at ranking them, from the Escort RS1600, to the last Focus RS that bowed out in 2020. We miss ‘em and for now, we can’t see how we’ll ever see their like again…


8. Mk2 Ford Escort RS2000

It’s almost impossible to decide what is the effective loser in this ranking, as all RS Ford’s have their dedicated fans and frankly, all deserve love. But the droop-snoot RS2000 Escort is, well, a slightly lower peak in a veritable mountainous history. 

The Escort gave Ford the World Rally Championship manufacturers’ title in 1979, and drivers’ titles in ’79 for Björn Waldegård and in ’81 for Ari Vatanen. Yes, that was the RS1800, but the road-going RS1800 was the ultimate for the performance-Ford hungry punter. The RS2000 was Ford’s answer, a less complicated and less expensive performance hero, but one that would do nothing less than put a smile on your face every time you drove it.

Its 2.0-litre overhead-cam Pinto engine, with 112PS (82kW) was good for 60mph in 8.9 seconds. And of course, the engine was at the front and the rear wheels did the driving, so it was quite happy to slip and slide whenever the mood took you.


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7. Ford Focus RS Mk3

Another incredible car that misses a certain something by comparison to its progenitors. The 2.3-litre eco boost engine didn’t have the personality of the five-banger and while it did have a very trick all-wheel-drive system, the Mk3 Focus RS was bereft of actual rallying pedigree. Nevertheless, it was an incredibly quick, capable, and all-round fun thing, and the perfect foil in the hot hatch market of 2015 and 2016 to the Honda Civic Type R and Renault Sport Megané. Performance was brisk, brisker than nearly all of its rivals: 0-62mph in 4.5 seconds courtesy of a launch control system, while the top speed was 165mph. It stopped well, with huge 350mm ventilated front disks, and, thanks to a newly created ‘Drift’ mode, could slide itself silly.

It was a very different animal to the original RS. Too complicated? Maybe. Too heavy? Almost certainly, weighing in at 1,599kg compared to the original car’s 1,275kg. The seats were known to be too hard for the first 10,000 miles as well. But it was the best hot hatchback Ford could make at the time, and, knowing now that it’ll never be superseded, it’ll be impossible to see one without the faintest whiff of a smile.


6. Ford Focus RS Mk2

The Mk2 was in a number of ways a bit of a token RS, being quite heavy, still without all-wheel-drive, and linked only loosely to rallying. But it had a few aces in the hole. Namely, that glorious warbling 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbocharged engine, a super-trick diff, and the boulder shoulders and swagger of Connor McGregor.

Even today the Ford Focus RS Mk2 is a loopy looking thing. Available as a three-door only, the RS had 300PS (221kW) compared to the ST’s 225PS (165kW), meaning 0-62mph came up in 5.9 seconds on the way to a top speed of 163mph. Yes, all of that power went through the front wheels, but Ford had spent so much time getting the chassis and the differential just right that, while it enjoyed a camber-induced wander from time to time, it could get its power down and keep up with almost anything else on the road.

Those blistered arches, the gurning chin, enormous spoiler, barking barrel exhausts, and a nice big diffuser conspired with the lime green paint to make the RS unmistakable a mile off. There really isn’t much to dislike, unless you like your performance cars a little more introverted.


5. Mk1 Ford Escort RS1600

Old is gold and the first Ford Escort RS, the RS1600, is worth its weight in it these days. And for good reason – its proper rallying heritage and the kind of delightful dynamics we so miss in the huge heavy cars of today. Launched in 1970, the RS1600 had a 1.6-litre engine, just like the Mexico, but instead of 86PS (63kW) it had a whopping 117PS (86kW). 

Keep in mind that the base Escort 1100 has a meagre 41PS (30kW). So yeah, this thing had some poke in its day. Rally success for the Escort made the speedy RS1600 an icon.


4. Ford Focus RS Mk1

Controversial to put this above the Escort? Maybe. But it’s a properly significant car, not just for Ford as the Escort is, but for the whole hot hatch genre. Arguably, it got the hyper hatch ball rolling, delivering a 212PS (156kW) to its front wheels via a very aggressive diff, that made the Focus RS a properly gnarly, darty, animal of a thing to drive. It’s also the only Focus RS with a bit of rallying heritage, too. 

The Focus RS WRC made its debut in 1999 as the replacement for the Escort RS Cosworth, and immediately set about giving Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Subaru a bit of a headache. In just its third rally a certain Colin McRae took a win, and to prove it wasn’t a fluke McRae did the same thing in the following round, too. The rest of the season might not have gone as planned but it put the Focus in front of a passionate motorsport audience, which in turn meant more sales of the regular Focus and the opportunity for Ford to take some of that rally tech and chuck it into a road car. 

This RS is the result. The performance credentials stand up to this day, getting from 0-60mph in 5.9 seconds. It paired that power and the mega diff with a wider front track, bigger brakes, better tyres, and more sophisticated suspension. Just 4,501 were made over 13 months, all sold in Imperial Blue, of which 2,147 found themselves forever settled in the UK. See one today and it still looks just right. Drive a good one today and it’ll feel just as fresh and exciting as it did back in 2002.


3. Escort RS Cosworth

Ford lunged into the 1990s off the back of the turbo-nutter Sierra with an altogether more sophisticated approach: An Escort RS with 227Ps (167kW) of 2.0-litre turbocharged Cosworth-fettled power and all-wheel-drive. The first Ford RS of the post-Group B World Rally Car era, it hit the ground running (and four-wheel drifting) in 1992.

Two Escort RS Cosworths came second and third in their first WRC event, the 1993 Monte Carlo Rally, no less. While Ford never won the manufacturers’ title with the Escort RS Cosworth, it brought ten WRC victories, and in national championships it stacked up numerous titles. It even made it onto the Formula 1 grid, albeit as a safety car for two events in 1992.


2. Ford RS 200

The mad Group B reject makes the top two, because of course it does. What a magnificent thing. The Ford RS200 is perhaps the wildest RS Ford has created. Actually, it is the wildest RS Ford has created.

Group B regulations were introduced into the WRC in 1982 and the rules were rather relaxed. The result, as we know, was some of the fastest rally cars ever. The RS200 was a hideously complicated machine. The Cosworth 1.8-litre turbocharged engine was mid-mounted, while the gearbox was at the front and the car was, of course, four-wheel-drive. The body was made of fibreglass by Reliant (yes, Reliant, the company that gave us the Robin three-wheeler) and there was double-wishbone suspension all the way round with twin dampers at each corner.

In race trim the engine produced anything between 350PS (257kW) and 400PS (294kW), while the road dweller had a more modest 250PS (184kW). Well, modest until you remember it weighed less than 1,200kg. Unless Ford decides to build a road-going Fiesta WRC, the RS200 will forever be the Ford WRC wild child.


1. Sierra RS500 Cosworth

It had to come out at the top, didn’t it? The Sierra RS500 Cosworth is the epitome of what a fast Ford should be: a beefed-up grocery-getter that’s too powerful for its own good, with proper pucker racing heritage and a bad attitude to match Tyson Fury. It barrelled into Group A World Touring Car racing half way through the 1987 season and deliberately spilled all the German’s pints (ignoring the fact it’s a bit German itself), by oversteering its way to four victories. In subsequent years it took the ETCC title, two ATCC titles, a DTM title, a BTCC title, and numerous others. It was a proper monster and a proven winner.

On the road it deployed 225PS (165kW) to the rear wheels, pushed into the ground by a truly ridiculous spoiler (though not enough to stop what was a rampant skidder in its day). In fact, it wasn’t dissimilar in character to the current V8 Mustang. Mind you, only the South African Sierra XR8 got a V8. There of course were less extreme, more numerous versions other than the homologation special RS500, that only fortify the Cossie legend, along with the Escort Cosworth of the 1990s. This thing is the RS-badged Ford hero, of the highest order.

  • Ford

  • Escort

  • Sierra

  • Cosworth

  • WRC

  • Focus

  • RS200

  • Road

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