Few cars have a family tree as iconic, evocative and downright impressive as the new Ford Focus RS: the Escort RS Mexico, the Sierra and Escort RS Cosworths and of course the first two generations of Focus RS. All of these cars brought power to the people in a way which was practical, affordable and fun. They made their drivers feel like they were on a rally stage or racetrack every time they popped to the shops.
And now all of these RS badge-wearers are worth far, far more than when they were new, promoting them into the stuff of legend.
Step forward the Focus RS Mk3, teased by Ford for months before it burst onto the scene in January 2016. A car that brings four-wheel drive to the Focus for the first time, and has almost 350 horsepower, 'Drift mode', and so many awards and accolades that Ford's mantelpiece needs reinforcing.
So is this car worthy of the hallowed RS badge? Is it the ultimate daily driver? Or has Ford's pursuit to turn a hot hatch into a super hatch taken the Focus too far from its everyday roots? Let's find out.
Hot hatch design has always divided opinion. Some love their bigger wheels, wider bodies and louder exhausts while others see little difference between these rally relations and the souped-up shopping cars you might see outside a fast-food restaurant late on a Saturday night.
The new RS continues this tradition by sprinkling the common-or-garden Focus with all the usual extras; the body is bulging, the alloys are bigger, the exhaust is loud, the seats are racing buckets and the whole car exudes a menace which warns you not to mess with it. These details all appeal to me, a child of the 1990s who grew up on a diet of Need For Speed: Underground and Fast Ford magazine, but I can understand those who simply don't get it. They can opt for the equally quick but far more subtle Volkswagen Golf R instead.
Inside, the Ford is far more restrained. The interior is almost identical to the regular Focus save for some blue stitching, an RS badge on the wheel, and three extra gauges on top of the dashboard for oil pressure and temperature, and turbo boost pressure. To liven things up a bit, my review car included a set of Recaro bucket seats (£1,145) which look absolutely superb and hug you perfectly in the corners. They are set a little too high, making the steering wheel feel low and forcing your feet to meet the pedals at a strange angle, but it's something you soon learn to live with.
Also worth adding to that 'learn to live with' list is the heavy clutch which has an aggressive and narrow biting point, and the brakes which although hugely powerful, reliable and confidence inspiring, are quite sharp and a little too eager to please when driving around town.
In fairness, my first few hours with the RS involved driving across central London on a weekday evening, followed the next day by a trip 200 miles north to Manchester. Neither count as natural habitat for this car and the firm suspension in particular (even in the softest Normal mode) passed the uncomfortable and soon teetered on the downright annoying.
But then the sat-nav came to the rescue. For reasons I still can't work out (and believe me, I've tried), the car took me on the most obscure route imaginable from Manchester, across the northern edge of the Peak District and into Huddersfield. Perhaps the RS knew it needed to impress after the motorway slog; maybe it knew I wouldn't encounter a single car or traffic light for the whole 30-mile journey. Whatever happened, the stars aligned just so and the Ford gave me the drive of my life.
Switched into Sport mode (sharper throttle, more antisocial-but-addictive pops and bangs from the exhaust, even firmer suspension), the car came alive. The quick steering (just two turns lock to lock) talks clearly to you through every corner and weights up beautifully as you point the front towards each apex – which you will hit every single time because the grip simply beggars belief.
The four-wheel-drive system can send up to 70% of the engine's power to the rear wheels, then all of that to either left or right depending on grip levels at that moment. The inside wheel brakes and the outside accelerates to keep the RS locked like a heat-seeking missile to whatever line you choose. Where accelerating mid-corner in most hot hatches will cause understeer and push the front end wide, the RS simple clings on until finally the rear steps gradually and predictably out of line. On a dry road, front-wheel-drive superhatches such as the new Honda Civic Type-R might keep up, but in the wet the Ford will romp away.
The soundtrack can't be described as particularly soulful or musical, but it is a hard mix of induction noise and a deep, resonating track which builds from a thuggish rumble to a rasping rally-stage bellow. I say 'soundtrack' because, as is becoming more common, Ford augments the RS's exhaust with noises played through the speaker system. I only learnt this after giving the car back, so you shouldn't let this little trick put you off. Your neighbours might be thankful, but the deliberate volley of cracks and bangs of unburnt fuel exploding when you lift off the throttle are loud enough to wake the dead.
Switch the RS to Track mode and you instantly realise why this isn't intended for potholed public roads. It dials the dampers up to 11 and makes the ride incredibly hard. Great for track days and fun to play with for two minutes, but certain to knock your fillings out if left on. The final trick up its software's sleeve is Drift mode, but unfortunately I wasn't able to try this strictly track-only feature for myself. In practice, it softens the dampers, pumps loads of power to the rear wheels and pitches the car into a four-wheel drift with a simple yank of the wheel and boot of the accelerator. A 345-horsepower Focus doing four-wheel drifts? No one can accuse Ford of not having a sense of humour.
Another blast across the moors the next day put an enormous smile on my face yet again, but the return journey to London reminded me of that overly firm suspension. It's perfect when you want to have fun, but when I just want the RS to be a regular Focus and take me home I longed for a softer setting. I returned to London and realised the Ford had given my wallet a hard time too; over 530 miles I'd averaged just 21.7 miles per gallon, well below the 35mpg Ford claims is possible.
That economy figure shouldn't really come as a surprise. If any car could be accused of peer pressure, it would be the Focus RS. Everything about it eggs you on, telling you to drop a gear here and accelerate there. I love it for that and wouldn't change it for the world.
I would, as you have probably worked out, change the suspension. The firmness is fine when you're in the mood, but a softer option for longer drives and pottering around town would really help.
The Focus RS is a truly magnificent car which is huge fun and made me smile like no other – and at £31,000 (£35,135 as tested) it's good value. But I fear that, in its pursuit of creating a super hatch to embarrass most sports cars, and even some super cars, Ford has taken one too many steps away from what a hot hatch should be. I want to drive this car every day and enjoy trips to B&Q as much as a B-road blast, but – whisper it – perhaps the RS isn't quite the everyday hero I wanted it to be. Less daily fun, more weekend riot.
Ford Focus RS 2016 specs:
- 2.3-litre, four-cylinder EcoBoost engine
- 345 horsepower and 470Nm torque
- 0-62mph (100km/h) in 4.7 seconds
- Top speed of 165mph
- Priced from: £31,000
- Price as reviewed: £35,135