They launched the new Mark III Ford Focus RS on Winnie-the-Pooh day (January 18th); so that’s two reasons to feel good about being British, then. For while production of this new RS – the 30th car to bear the coveted Rallye Sport badge – has long-since moved from Ford‘s Averley special-build plant (remember the AVO moniker?) in Essex to Saarlouis in Germany, RS is still held close to the hearts of every British driving enthusiast not blessed with the wherewithal to stump up for an Italian supercar.
As Malcolm Wilson, Ford’s rally supremo once recalled: ‘I remember going to watch Roger Clark before I even had a driving licence. It was the noise that captured my imagination. I knew exactly what I wanted to do after that; drive a BD-engined Escort and rev it to 9,000rpm… That engine could make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.’
Time’s moved on and these days RS isn’t so much about rallying and more about marketing, but Ford engineers regard it as a challenge to make each new model faster and better-handling. So this new go-faster Ford makes a welcome return to four-wheel drive, with a clever system based on a GKN rear axle with two clutch packs. The system slightly overspeeds the rear wheels, which enables it to over-drive and positively steer the car from the rear; all controlled by the clutches. It also allows Drift Mode, one of four progressively more lairy driver settings, which make it easier to perform the sort of Ken Block antics – in a controlled environment of course rather than a deserted supermarket car park in the wee small hours. The others are Normal, Sport and Track, where the steering, damping, engine response, stability control exhaust noise and all-wheel drive settings are increasingly sharpened up.
Under the bonnet is a much modified version of the Ford Mustang‘s 2.3-litre, four cylinder, with a Honeywell twin-scroll supercharger and induction system, an aluminium, twin-cam, cylinder head and new cylinder liners courtesy, in part, of Cosworth. It produces 345bhp and a steady 325lb ft of torque, with 347lb ft on over boost.
In this 1.6-tonne five-door family hatchback the performance is exhilarating to say the least. Top speed is 165mph, with 0-62mph in 4.7sec. Combined fuel consumption is 36.7mpg and CO2 emissions are Band H 175g/km.
The launch is Spain proved its mettle, with scintillating acceleration and a cheeky blare from the virtually straight-through exhaust system. Two setting dampers give a firm ride as standard and a bone jarring one in the uprated mode, but the handling is confidence-inspiring and grip amazing on specially developed Michelin Sport Pilot tyres. A spell on the circuit de Valencia showed that in Track mode, the RS has a forgiving chassis allowing quite extreme angles of tail-out fun before it electronically gathers everything up. You need to be quite precise with the steering and the engine lacks the strident call to arms of RS models of yore, but Ford has done a pretty good job giving the throttle an immediacy and it’s so flexible that you don’t need to rev the unit anywhere near its 6,500rpm red line to go blazing up the road. Drift mode does pretty much what it says on the switch and allows even drivers of quite modest ability to get the back end out and cremate their expensive tyres, though who would do that to their own car?
Selling in world markets means Ford has chosen a strengthened version of five-door Focus bodyshell and, while wind-tunnel tweaks ensure the car is slippery through the air with zero aerodynamic lift at speed, it’s not as visually exciting as the bewinged Focus RS Mark II. Nor is the cabin much to write home about, being largely identical to the standard car’s with three extra gauges peeking out of the dash, a set of figure-hugging Recaro front seats and a bit of blue stitching to lift the all-black trim.
But check out the price. At £29,995, the RS comfortably under cuts its German
rivals: the £33,890 Volkswagen Golf R, the £39,995 Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG and the £40,795 Audi RS3. BMW’s brand-new rear drive £40,070 M2 coupé comes to the UK this April. It’s fast, grippy and fun, which is exactly what an RS model should be and if you doubt its appeal, then consider that while Ford is boasting about 3,100 advanced orders for the RS across Europe, over 2,000 of those come from Britain…
Photography by Stuart Price