Review: 2016 Ford Focus RS

Ford has another massive hit on their hands

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Ford’s Focus RS is a hot hatch and there’s no missing it in the bright ‘nitrous’ blue and definitely no mistaking it with a distinctive exhaust note. After spending a week in the Focus RS, there’s lots to discuss so strap yourselves in and hold on for the ride.

The RS is different than most mass market cars, unlike the base Focus model, there’s not an annual release, instead the RS project is only released once in a blue moon, but done so with purpose. Last time we seen Ford ship the RS was for a limited production run of the RS500 back in 2010, but most would be more familiar with the 2009 version of the RS. What used to be unadulterated lunacy is now a serious performance monster that’s more practical, more thoughtful and frankly, more fun for anyone to drive.

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Visual Design

Far too often we see big aggressive body styling on concept cars that get toned down to boring by the marketing boffins to appeal to the masses. When you look at the Focus RS, it’s clear those internal battles were won this time, by the engineering team. The 2016 version of the RS displays an absolute commitment to delivering performance numbers and nothing about the car’s design is peripheral, its all with purpose and direction and that clarity is rare in the modern automotive industry.

The car looks different to everything else on the road. It has a big, bold, aggressive front end designed to capture air and force it down the throat of the turbocharger and inlets to pass air through to cool the brakes. At the rear of the car, you can’t miss the big rear wing, branded with the confident RS badge, with creates downforce to help the car stay planted to the road, while being at the perfect angle to minimise drag.

The ride height looks really low when you approach the vehicle and immediately you think speed bumps are your newest nightmare. After cautiously approaching the first few, the car never scraped, not once, even on the harshest angles. This further reflects the finer details of ownership that have clearly been thought through by Ford and an asset to their considerations. It would have been easy to maintain the ride height of the standard or ST versions of the Focus, but that wouldn’t deliver the handling characteristics that were dreamt up for the RS. The car has to be high enough to be practical (many supercars aren’t) as a daily driver, but lower enough and the chassis rigid enough as to make it corner like the car’s on rails.

 

Drive modes: Another Ford transformer

When the Focus RS launched in Australia, it gained a lot of attention and some commendation from people concerned the car was shipping with a mode that allowed drivers to drift it.

There’s a couple of very good reasons why you won’t see these things drifting around your streets any time soon. The first is the cost of tyres, if you buy this car, you’ll enjoy it, but also be protective of it and its highly unlikely you’ll be destroying a very important part of your vehicle by sliding sideways. If you have more money than god, than you’re probably paying for professional drifting lessons at a track, rather than trying to be a home-made Ken Block. The second reason is the knowledge that you’re insurance company is definitely going to wave goodbye with a cheeky smirk if you’re ever involved in an accident with Drift Mode enabled.

Drift mode
Now for the fun bit. Drift mode is awesome. I was fortunate enough to get access to Motorsport Training Australia’s Logic track (available for hire) which features a 1.6 km and 11m wide driver circuit. This amazing opportunity left me with the place to myself and after closing the gates, fun was had.

Working through each drive mode to first learn the track, but then learn the car’s capabilities. There is no doubt that as a driver, the drive mode puts you in control of transforming this car from a casual run-about grocery-cart, to a performance track beast.

Normal mode
Every time you turn off the vehicle, the car reverts to standard mode, this is so another driver jumping in is assured of being behind the wheel in a safe manner, something that lets the car perform like a normal car. The ride is about as harsh as you want for a daily driver, remember this isn’t a supercar you’ll drive once a year, it is engineered to be driver.

Sports mode
When you select Sports mode, you’ve found yourself a good bit of the windy stuff to engage in a bit of ‘spirited’ driving. In this mode the car tenses up, everything gets a lot more dialed-in. The steering is more accurate, the power comes on more aggressively and the suspension hardens which all makes the car feel like its on rails. There were times I looked down at the speedo and just laughed at how ridiculous it was that last corner was taken at that speed. The thing about it though is that with all four wheels providing the power, the car always felt in control, confident and capable.

Shift light
If you’re serious about extracting the optimal performance out of the car, you’ll hold off on shifting gears until you see the hidden RS light illuminated in the RPM cluster. This acts as your very own shift light. Again this is one of those features that typically lives in the aftermarket world that somehow made its way into a production car.

Launch control

Optimising the drive off the line is made dead easy with software assistance. Ordinarily raising the revs and dropping the clutch in a car with this much power would leave black liquorice strips in the rear view. Instead Ford have implemented a launch control option to ensure all the power gets used in the most efficient way possible, to propel the car forward.

Using the launch control never happens by accident, as the driver needs to dive into the menu and select it as an option listed under ‘driver assists’. Once engaged, you have a few seconds to use it or it’ll cancel itself out.

To launch off the line, its dead easy, just hold the clutch in engage the first gear as you normally would. Press and hold the accelerator flat to the floor. This is a very abnormal feeling, but you have to trust the system. The car will bounce on the rev limiter which sounds incredibly cool. You then dump the clutch, the car hunkers down and all 4 wheels power the car forward in a huge surge.

Driving characteriscs
The Focus RS is an all-wheel drive car which pays dividends in relation to its driveability, namely avoiding the understeer the plagues front-wheel drive vehicles. The RS stands for Rally Sport, so naturally I had to take it off the tarmac and experience the car’s handling on gravel and dirt surfaces.

I’m happy to report that the RS does an exceptional job at giving you confidence through the wheel and pedals to power through turns even when the road surface substantially reduces your traction.

Infotainment System: hands on the wheel, eyes on the road

While most of your interaction with the car comes through the wheel and pedals, your other interactions will be through SYNC 2. Ford’s in-vehicle entertainment system is certainly showing its age with no sense of natural language processing, instead driver’s are left throwing scripted commands. Thankfully Ford are moving on SYNC 3, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are all coming in vehicles shipping in 2017. Given all the Focus RS’s that are coming to Australia this year are already sold, if you’re reading this as a potential buyer, then you don’t have to worry, things are getting better.

Ford’s mantra is ‘keep your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel’ and through the use of voice, you should be able to do that.

The biggest problem comes from the fact our lives are far more than phone calls, sms and music playback. Personally I use Facebook Messages as my messaging client, but the car knows nothing about Facebook, so only SMS’s come through the SYNC2 system.

I also listen to Spotify and Podcasts using the Pocketcasts app, but again the car knows nothing of this and expects locally stored music on the phone to have any control over it. I have zero music stored locally on my phone.

The display is a high-resolution 8.0-inch high resolution colour touch screen and just like you’re phone, is a fingerprint magnet. Thankfully when in operation, there’s enough brightness to make fingerprints a non-issue. Its recessed into the dash which helps with the readability of the display, but does make the UI elements on the edges of the display a little harder to access. 

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That sound

Its quite frankly amazing that this car is legal. The engineers at Ford have tuned this exhaust to reflect the sports car performance that is associated with the RS badge. There’s all sorts of crazy good pops and crackles when you back off the gas. When you’re behind the wheel, the sound is so addictive you’ll find yourself coming back time and time again for the music to your ears. Obviously they’ve done the checks and balances to make sure the EPA is happy with what comes out the back end, but I’d definitely be nervous booting it anywhere in earshot of a cop as you’ll surely draw some attention. If attention from pedestrians is what you’re after, it’s stupidly easy to turn heads and the sound so unique, they won’t forget it.

The problem with a car that sounds so good when you plant the right foot is that its the opposite to a the driving style that’s conducive to the fuel economy numbers. Thankfully in later 2016, 95 RON fuel isn’t ludicrously expensive, so you may not care so much.

 

The Focus RS as a daily driver

The driver and passenger are treated to Recaro bucket seats that ensure you don’t move (at all) through the twisty bits. The combination swade/leather fabrics are complimented with blue leather stitching which help add to the quality feel. As you look across to the other seat, you’ll notice just how thin the seat construction is in the top half, a testiment to the new technology in seat design.

As someone who added Recaro’s from an Evo 8 to my own Lancer, I thought they were good, but now I hate them, its clear, in 10 years they’ve come a long way, like, a really long way.

The ability to hug you tight does come with one downside. The sides of the seats are high, much higher than any non-supercar seat I’ve been in. This means getting in and out of the car is a little awkward and even after a week, I still wasn’t used to it. For some this may seem like a major issue, but once you’ve felt the benefits, its likely you won’t care a bit.

When you look behind you, you’ll notice the back seat hasn’t been forgotten about eather. It gets a similar fabric treatment and there’s actually a decent amount of room for what is essentially a small car. With room enough for adults, the only thing you’ll need to tweak is the headrest which sits low by default, but is adjustable. Of course as you sit over the rear axle, you’ll also feel that stiffness in the suspension. While the back row of the Mustang was a bit of a joke, the Focus RS back seat is actually very practical. Rear passengers do however miss out on air vents, something we definitely would have liked to see included.

Storage

Plenty of storage in the boot and as a hatch, you could easily fit a couple of suit cases or a stroller. Just remember to secure your cargo as you’re likely to forget about it as you head through a round about at speed.

One of the best features I discovered about the Focus RS is a secret compartment underneath the cup holders. This is brilliant design and something all vehicles should come with. To show it off and explain the feature properly, I put together a video.

 

Convenience lighting

Something you won’t find out from a test drive is the car has convenience lighting meaning the interior light as well as exterior lights stay illuminated for a number of seconds after you exit the vehicle. This is one of the nicer touches that make owning a new car just that much better. Chances are you’ll be fumbling around looking for keys or door handles and the car kind of helps you with that task. It does also kind of look like the car is tempting you to jump back in the bucket seat and have some more fun.

Something that I loved about the Mustang was the unique pony emblem that was projected from the mirror down to the ground, adding that unique Ford touch. While the pony doesn’t make sense here, it would be great to see an RS used instead.

 

If you haven’t bought a car in 10 years

There’s plenty of different philosophies when it comes to car ownership. Some people prefer to trade in their car for a new one every 2-3 years, while others run a car into the ground before replacing it. For those who aren’t on the rapid vehicle cycle, you’re likely driving a car that’s 10+ years old and there’s plenty of improvements in modern vehicles you should be aware of.

Recent technology developments in comfort, entertainment and safety have changed the experience of being behind the wheel and is certainly something you should consider while you watch your pride and joy depreciate to zero.

Modern cars have modern systems like emergency stops should the car detect an accident is immenent and the driver hasn’t intervened, it will apply the brakes in an effort to to avoid, or at least minimise the impact. The ABS systems have also been evolved and no longer have that awkward shuddering felt through a hard press of the pedal. With traction calculations made thousands of times per second, the system extracts the maximum possible stopping power from the tyres and brake pads.

Modern cars offer more airbags than days gone by, with side airbags keeping drivers and passengers safer during a side impact. These airbags allow humans to survive an accident that 10 years ago would have ended as a fatality.  

Rear vision mirrors now feature a light sensor, similar to that in your smartphone, so it automatically tones down the brightness of the reflection when the headlights from following cars are shining bright. This can often be distracting and never having to worry about what’s behind you at night, allows you to focus on the road ahead.

Automatic headlights seriously is set and forget. If the ambient light level is detected at a defined threshold, the headlights are activated automatically. Of course you can override this if you had a unique circumstance, but external lighting for your drive is now something you never have to think about.

Keyless entry really does make you feel like a VIP. As you approach the vehicle with the key-fob in your pocket, your car unlocks and you simply open the door handle. The car features a push-button start, like that of luxury vehicles and all the security around ensuring only the driver is driving is based on electronics, rather than analog key cutting. This makes the day-to-day experience of jumping in and out of the car much easier, simpler and enjoyable.

Hill start assist means you have a few seconds of grace when taking off at an intersection on an incline. This avoids the need to perform a more complex maneuver of engaging the handbrake and releasing it at exactly the right time you find the clutch bite point and angle of incidence on the accelerator. Its a small thing but this feature can eliminate an part of the driving experience that needlessly poses an opportunity to have an accident.

Traction and stability control are now commonly found in vehicles and thanks to engineering understanding of vehicle dynamics and frankly accident data, vehicles are designed to avoid slides, spins and prevent the driver from doing loosing control. A common example of an incident is when you swerve to avoid an animal on the road, stability control will dynamically adjust the power to each wheel and as much as technically possible, will avoid you binning the car.

All of these components combine to make the modern experience of a new vehicle much more enjoyable, safer and easier to drive. The big difference with the Focus RS is that when it comes to the driving aids, if you want to, you have the capacity to adjust how the factory systems are applied.

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Pricing and Availability

The Ford Focus RS starts at $50,990. If you opt up for paint, you’ll pay another $450 for anything but white. While I reviewed the feature colour ‘nitrous’ blue, the car is also available in shadow black, magnetic (dark grey) and frozen white. Strangely the blue brake calipers come as blue, regardless of the body colour you select.

If you want the best performance, you’ll pay up for the performance wheels package and add another $2,500 for the 235/35 R19 Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres for enhanced performance in dry and wet track. If you do go for both of these options, you’ll be driving away for something like A$58,484.

In many ways the car is great value for what you get and the all-wheel drive and transformative nature of the drive modes is an absolute highlight for that price point.

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Overall

As you can probably tell I had a great time behind the wheel of the Focus RS, but I wouldn’t buy this car. That’s for one very simple reason. After having driven cars with adaptive cruise control, its now a requirement for my next car. Unfortunately the Focus RS doesn’t have this feature and if you’re someone who does a lot of commuting or long-distance drives, you’ll understand how important this feature is.

Does that mean you shouldn’t buy this car? Absolutely not. When I was in my early 20s, I bought a Mitsubishi Lancer and proceeded to upgrade a number of components to improve the performance and handling of the car. This car has everything you ever need to put a smile on your face. It has a fantastically addictive exhaust note, it has Recaro seats that hug you tighter than an over excited grandparent, it has a great transmission and short shift as well as enough turbocharged power to make you never care what the performance numbers are, because you always have plenty. The great thing is all of this comes standard in the Focus RS, from the factory, with warranty.

I’m probably going to hell for suggesting this, but personally, I would have liked to see Ford offer the Focus RS with flappy paddles, at least as an option. This would help assist the ‘keeping your hands on the wheel’ part of their safety message. When you understand modern electronics allow drivers to shift much faster with an automatic clutch and pull of a trigger, than a driver can engage the clutch, shift gear, release clutch, you start to wonder why be so arbitrary about a manual-only 6-speed transmission.

The car is a delight to drive, but does beg to be driven hard and when you do it excels. As a daily driver, it’s a harsh ride you may be completely prepared to endure, but try convincing your wife to let you strap a baby in the back seat. The feeling of being on rails around corners is something that comes with a compromise and that is a firm ride.

The experience of ownership is a great one with the proximity entry providing a very special walk up and get in experience to make you feel like a king. It’s a great car and if you’re hunting a vehicle that prioritises performance over almost everything else, buy this car, it’ll put a smile on your face that’ll never leave, especially as you reflect on what you’re getting for not a lot of coin.

9
Ford Focus RS
The Good
  • Performance
  • Design
  • Sound
  • Features (drive modes)
  • Driver Assists
The Bad
  • Awkward to enter/exit
  • SYNC2
  • Performance
    9.5
  • Design
    9
  • Features
    8.5
  • Affordability
    9
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