2017 Ford Focus RS: The Everyman’s Five-Door Ford GT

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Beatlemania. If you follow cars at all, you know the Ford Focus RS rollout has been the automotive equivalent of Beatlemania. After years of “will-they-or-won’t-they,” the Blue Oval decided to bring the RS — Ford Europe’s most prestigious performance nameplate — to America. We (along with seemingly every other gearhead in the country) could barely contain ourselves when it was unveiled at a big-budget spectacle in Cologne, Germany in February 2015. Ford was flooded with thousands of pre-orders before we — or anyone else — even knew what performance or even final price looked like. From there, things only got crazier. Production has started! The first shipment has landed! Wait, Ford can’t keep up with demand and it’s pushing orders back?! A $10K dealer markup?!

Every move the RS has made so far has commanded headlines, and with good reason. This isn’t a million-dollar supercar, a $65K Dodge Hellcat or Shelby GT350, or even an almost-affordable exotic like the BMW M2 coupe. This is a pure driver’s car with 350 horsepower, 350 pound-feet of torque in a sub-3,500 pound package, a cutting-edge all-wheel drive system, and a sweet six-speed manual transmission with a $35,000 base price. The fact that it’s also a five-door Focus with enough room for the kids and groceries in back is just icing on the cake.

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

For the uninitiated, the best way to think of the RS’s relationship to the Focus is like the dearly-departed Mitsubishi Evo X to the Lancer — namely that they share a body, an interior, and that’s about it. Ford spent years developing the RS, and it brought in the big guns to do it. Ken Block, the Hoonigan himself, was instrumental in dialing-in the car, and spent much of its Cologne launch drifting one through the Ford plant. If you want to see what an RS can do when pushed to his limits (ahem, tuned to 600 horsepower), watch Gymkhana Nine; you won’t be disappointed.

And while Block was putting the RS sideways, Ben Collins — everyone’s favorite Top Gear Stig — was shaking it down on the track. At a New York event, Collins recently painted a stark contrast between the RS and the competition for me:

They’re not the only company to do a four-wheel drive hatch, but of all the ones I’ve driven, most stuff four-wheel drive in, the car is heavier, and if you look at lap times, they’re slower. Handling is numb; the car will take you where it wants to go, but the driver can’t really dictate terms to the car. …

This one is so completely removed [from those] in how it works; the grip is phenomenally high. If you were being driven around blindfolded, because of the way they’ve tuned this chassis, and the fantastic tires, you’d think you were in a supercar.

Of all the four-wheel drive hatches out there, he says it’s the only one where “you can feel the car working for you.” Driving it is “totally intuitive.” The car is “amazing,” and “a real standout.” And most importantly, in his opinion, Ford’s powertrain “is the only system that’s working for the driver.” No small praise from two of the most respected drivers in the world, let alone for a car that costs as much as a loaded Toyota Camry.

The Focus RS is a new dream car for the everyman; it’s a world-class performance car that you can you can buy at your local Ford dealership. An imported exotic (it’s built in Germany) that won’t break the bank. A daily driver that you can vacuum, take the child seats out of, and go to the track, or to Cars and Coffee. Sure, there are some compromises that needed to be made along the way — there always are — but at the end of the day, the Focus RS is here, and it was well worth the wait.

Exterior

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The Focus RS is available in four colors: Shadow Black, Stealth Gray, Frozen White, and Nitrous Blue. That last color is a $695 option, but trust us, this is the RS’s signature color. It looks fine in the other three, but this is the one to get. You aren’t going to be mistaken for a run-of-the-mill Focus anyway, so you might as well go with the paint job that best highlights the sheer lunacy of the car.

Most of the front end is used to feed air to the engine and brakes, fenders are flared, the car is lowered and purposefully stanced over its 19-inch painted rally wheels, and an RS-badged wing, diffuser, and dual exhausts let people know what just passed them. You can’t exactly call it pretty, but it all makes the RS look like the true standalone performance car it is, not just some trim level.

Exterior pros and cons

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Some cars have their signature color; the RS’s is Nitrous Blue. It’s well worth the extra cost.

+ Aggressive aero is purposeful and mean-looking without looking too over the top.

+ That said, it looks seriously imposing in person.

– The RS isn’t a sleeper. You aren’t going to fool anyone at stoplights.

– If you’re looking for something subtle, look elsewhere.

– As high-profile as it is, you may find yourself explaining why your Focus is so special to non-car people.

Powertrain

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The base Focus hatch is $19,015. Our RS rang up at $40,255. Why? Its mighty powertrain. The 2.3-liter EcoBoost four is based on the unit found in the Mustang, but here it makes an additional 40 horsepower and 30 pound-feet of torque. Mated to an excellent six-speed manual — the only transmission option — the RS has more power than any normally front-wheel drive hatchback would be asked to handle.

But the X-factor here is the RS’s torque-vectoring all-wheel drive. Based on units found in professional rally cars, the all-electronic system can transfer up to 100% of the engine’s power to the rear axle instantaneously, or a whopping 70% of the engine’s torque to a single wheel at a time, making sure the car grips the road in any conditions.

Of course, with all that power able to go to one wheel, you can also have some fun. Presumably over the objections of Ford’s legal staff (though it has been reportedly dialed in), the RS comes standard with “Drift Mode,” a system that allows you to do smoky donuts or execute perfect drifts to your heart’s content.

The suspension can be adjusted through several drive settings, and ranges from rock hard to diamond hard (more on that later), with the controls located just below the traction control button next to the shifter. In some instances, the suspension is one of the best in the world; in others, it may be just too firm.

Powertrain pros and cons

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ More power and torque than the EcoBoost Mustang, and from the ponycar’s own engine, too.

+ Torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system is a gem, especially in the wet.

+ Engine sounds way better than we expected the turbocharged inline-four to.

– Fuel economy is down compared to the Focus ST, but who cares? Over 100 more horsepower!

– If you’re planning on daily driving one in a climate with snow, prepare to buy an extra set of rims and snow tires.

Interior

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

If you’re thinking about buying a Focus RS, go to your local rental car office, find the cheapest Focus they’ll rent you, and take it out for a few hours. If you don’t mind the acres of black plastic, then you’ll be fine in the RS. Ford spared no expense on the powertrain, but the interior is a low-rent affair, save for the well-bolstered Recaro racing seats up front, similarly upholstered (though far less supportive) 60/40 bench out back, blue accent stitching on the steering wheel and shifter boot, and auxiliary gauge cluster cribbed from the Focus ST atop the dash.

In this sense, it’s best to think of the RS as a classic muscle car. Back in the ’60s, buyers weren’t buying a Boss 429 Mustang for its interior, they wanted its unbelievable performance. Half a century later, Focus RS buyers will be doing the same.

Interior pros and cons

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Recaros look great, and keep you snug in hard driving.

+ Auxiliary gauges give the otherwise low-key interior a performance look.

+ Interior may be spartan, but we’re glad Ford didn’t go full-on Boy Racer here.

– If you’re looking for creature comforts, look elsewhere.

– Recaros can get uncomfortable in city driving or on long road trips.

Tech and safety

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The RS has some cutting-edge tech, but most of it is in the torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system and drive modes. Inside, the driver gets a power seat; steering wheel, mirrors, and front seats are heated (attention: winter rally drivers), and Ford’s familiar Sync 3 system works with an 8-inch color touchscreen and Sony stereo. Other than that, the RS is a base-model Focus — at least tech-wise.

And like the base Focus hatch, the RS has dual front and driver’s side knee airbags, side airbags and curtains, and a five-star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Tech and safety pros and cons

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ One of the best all-wheel drive systems in the world.

+ Big, bright touchscreen stays easy to read even in bright sunlight.

+ It isn’t perfect, but we like Sync 3’s intuitive and easy-to-read layout.

– Don’t expect driver aids or creature comforts here.

– Lack of amenities may be a tough sell if you’re trying to convince someone (say, your better half) to let you get one.

The drive

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

I’m based in New York City, and one of the best things about testing cars here is shaking out their suspension shortcomings by exposing them to the nightmarish hellscape that is The Greatest City in the World’s roads. There was nothing to shake out of the RS; instead, its unforgiving suspension was busy shaking out my fillings, while those deep-bolstered Recaros pummeled my kidneys. Yes, no expense has been spared in designing it for track duty, and “what did you expect taking a performance car into a city?” and all that, but at the end of the day, people are going to buy this car as a daily driver, not just a track toy, and even in Comfort mode, city driving is just rough — like, Jeep Wrangler rough.

But then the first night you have it, you’re under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and you stomp the gas as you upshift to second a little harder than you expected to (damn dress shoes), and that turbo goes, and next thing you know, you’re pulling your head out of the headrest at the next stoplight. “Whoa,” you think. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

Then I took it to my favorite road upstate, and the RS was a revelation. Those Recaros hold you snuggly as you run through the gears up and down the hilly passes, revving the engine to hear that beautiful, European-sounding bark, while the suspension you were cursing just a few hours before plants you closer to the ground as you step on the gas. Steering feel is perfect: nicely weighted and direct. Everything is balanced and firm — you couldn’t give a shit about any of its shortcomings anymore. Yes, it can make the zero to 60 run in 4.6 seconds, and it has about as much lateral grip as a Porsche Cayman, and every other superlative you’ve heard about it is true. But in the right conditions, all you care about is that feeling where everything falls away except you, the RS, and the road. There aren’t many cars on the planet that can do that, let alone ones in the sub-$40K segment. Simply put, the RS is sublime.

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Now, as for Drift Mode: I waited until the end of my week with the RS to try it, what with A) living in a crowded city, B) recent footage of someone not familiar with the car drifting one into a mountain not far from where I took it upstate, and C) not wanting to get addicted and explain to Ford why it was out a set of perfectly good supercar-class Michelin Super Sport Cups. Nonetheless, I am an automotive journalist, and it was my duty to try it out, at least once. For the sake of this article’s integrity, or something like that.

Somewhere in New York City, there’s a large, open area (shocking, I know), with large stretches of empty pavement. On this particular day, I found two lots there, each about a quarter mile wide and separated by an access road. On this day, some family friendly event elsewhere in the area left one lot pretty full, and the other completely empty. OK, now or never.

I pulled into the middle of the empty lot, and switched the drive mode over to Drift from the controls next to the gear shift. “TRACK USE ONLY” flashed in the MID. Yeah, whatever. Close enough. With my heart racing and not wanting to attract cops or break the car, I let out the clutch, locked the wheel to the right and stomped the gas.

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

And away we went. The car knew what it was doing, and kicked that rear end out like a champ. I promised myself one, maybe two spins, but the engine kept revving, the rubber kept flying, and before it was all over I had swung that ass around about six times. What a thrill! What pure joy! A car that wants to do donuts! The inside of the car smelled like hot rubber, and when the smoke cleared, I noticed that about 10 people had walked over to the end of the other lot to see what just happened, and had lined up across the road. With the adrenaline coursing through my veins, part of me felt exhilarated. I gave those people a show! But about two seconds later, another part of me said “Christ. You’re on the wrong side of 30 to do that. Go home before someone calls the cops.” So I did.

But I don’t regret it. It’s a minor miracle that drift mode made it past the lawyers, and it would be a blast on an autocross course. In fact, I think a similar system should make it into more cars, along with launch control (which the RS also has). You’re rarely going to use it, especially if you’re the one paying for new tires. But wouldn’t it be great to do once or twice a year, especially after a really bad day at work, or to impress the kids in an empty parking lot? 

Wrap up and review

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Like the original Beatlemania, you will be the center of attention in the Focus RS, for good and ill, or at least until Ford catches up on their back orders. You’ll get a thumbs up at gas stations. People will ask you how you got your hands on one, how much you paid for it, or if they could buy it off you. But you’ll also get people in everything from 20-year-old Civics and Chevy HHR SSs to Lamborghinis that will try to race you at stop lights. Or cut through two lanes of traffic to cut you off. Or brake check you once they do. Ask us how we know.

The Focus RS is arriving at a traditional time in the performance market. Detroit has finally realized that enthusiasts want more than just muscle cars and the Corvette. Hot hatches are finally growing up, with the Volkswagen Golf R and Subaru WRX STI sitting at the top of the pack. There’s a hole in the market left by the legendary all-wheel drive Mitsubishi Evo X’s departure, and enthusiasts are chomping at the bit for the upcoming front-wheel drive Honda Civic Type R, even though it’ll be a while until we get that car.

2016 Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Maybe it’s because Ford has already made headway in the hot hatch segment with the Fiesta and Focus ST cars, or maybe it’s because it’s been building RS cars in Europe for nearly 50 years, but the Focus RS feels like the right car for our times. Yes, the Mustang and Camaro are better than ever, Ferraris will start every day (mostly), and we have Teslas that are as fast as Porsche 911 Turbos, but the Focus RS feels like the culmination of everything America and Europe have learned from building attainable performance cars for the past 50 years. It’s a supercar in the sense that it can do almost everything well, from the road to the track and everything in between — seriously, we can’t wait to see Ford take it rallying. More than anything else out there, the RS truly is a supercar for the everyman. And his wife, kids, dog, and groceries.