When it comes to turbo all-paw hatches, VWís brilliant Golf R takes the cake Ė except now the Focus RS has turned up to spoil the party
C AR MANUFACTURERS normally conceal new-model testing, so itís unusual that Ford commissioned a documentary to chronicle Focus RS development. Thereís marketing puff, but proper flyon- the-wall moments too: a car breaking, engines failingÖ all of it on YouTube. Towards the end of the series of shorts, chief technical officer Raj Nair drives the RS. ďThatís Normal mode?Ē he asks. ďThatís terrible!Ē
Brave, but it underlines the effort Ford has put into making the third-gen Focus RS the best it C can be. Of course, it ends happily when the crack team donít sleep for weeks and give the RS a final polishÖ and maybe they even took the really bad stuff out.
But no amount of editing can help them now, as the first RSs are released into the wild from Valencia Airport. We canít emphasise how crucial this new hot Ford is. The first global RS is also the first all-wheel drive RS model since the 1992 Escort RS Cosworth.
For two generations of Focus RS, Ford told us that all-wheel drive added weight and cost and killed fun. Frisky front drivers were where it was at. Weíre going to experience whatís shifted that mindset while pitching the Focus against the Volkswagen Golf R.
The Golf R has a price and spec that puts it on a collision course with the RS: four-cylinder turbo, all-wheel drive, circa $50K sticker. But howís this for different philosophies: in the same way a prefect may find ginger beer awfully naughty, VW gets very excited that you can turn off the Rís stability control completely. Ford, meanwhile, brings us Drift mode, which transforms the RS into a tyre-frying hooligan.
Ford offers optional bucket seats and stickier tyres, VW a dual-clutch transmission thatís just the job on the daily grind. Climb into the RS and youíll find ho-hum Focus basics enlivened with RS fairy dust: thumbs slide over tactile blue stitching on the tautly contoured steering rim, slot instinctively into the quarter-to-three position and squish into perforated leather. There are alloy pedals, a truncated gear lever and, most importantly, two designs of sports seats.
Fordís standard chairs are so high I canít decide if I should be wearing a bib or a lifeguard vest, but they look great and hug you like youíre being gripped in a boxing glove. Plumper pilots complained of the constriction, preferring the optional and racierlooking Ė but still perfectly habitable Ė buckets.
Bizarrely, these sportier sports seats perch higher still; however, Iíd spend the cash on the forged 19- inch alloys and Michelin Cup 2 tyres like 80 per cent of buyers (weíre on the stock Pilot Super Sports now, trying the Cup 2s on track tomorrow).
On the quick dash down the Autoroute from the airport, the RS raises our already high expectations.
The previous RS got a gurgly five-cylinder turbo mill; this time itís a Mustang-derived four-cylinder EcoBoost. But not only has it been strengthened and tuned, Fordís worked on the goose bumps, too.
A symposer pipes induction tunes into the cabin, plus thereís reduced sound-deadening and a little extra fuel thrown around, which equates to a guttural rev-me-nuts-off exhaust note and mini explosions when you change gear.
Thing is, youíd know the RS means business even with the RSís volume muted. An eye-opening wodge of low-down torque pulls you through gaps in traffic and swooshes you down slip roads Ė Ford claims just five seconds from 50-100km/h in fourth gear. There is a disconnect between the sound of you pressing the throttle and the turbo waking up, but itís slight and, really, throttle response is very good.
Switch to Sport and the sense of connection deepens.
The electrically-assisted steering has nuance, lightly vibrating with road-surface information, reacting quickly and naturally and with none of the sponginess off-centre that Nair criticised in the Ford film. The gear shift is easy and slicker than a manual Golf R, and while the throw could be shorter still, itís plenty punchy enough. However, itís no surprise the RS isnít going to iron out bumps like the Golf R, as on these smooth roads thereís already an underlying agitation to the Normal modeís suspension. And you have to
conclude itíll be more pronounced on rough Oz roads.
But Iím convinced the Golf is going to have its work cut out. At 2261cc the Focus has 277cc on the Golf R, plus the crucial matter of 257kW and 440Nm, victories of 51kW and 60Nm. Thatís not to mention the 30Nm overboost bonus that works for 18 seconds; in normal driving youíll have overboost whenever you want.
Will anyone notice that the Golf is 140kg lighter?
Not when eyeballs are drawn to the Fordís incredible 4.7sec claimed 0-100km/h sprint (Golf R: 4.9sec) and 266km/h top whack (the Golf Rís limited to 250km/h).
Both acceleration times are thanks to the assured traction of four driven wheels Ė duly aided by launch control Ė but the way they put power down is fundamentally different: the Golf takes power to the rear with a traditional Haldex system, albeit housing a fifth-gen coupling thatís impressed us before; the Focus uses a system essentially similar to the Range Rover Evoqueís and supplied by GKN Driveline, which uses twin clutch packs located either side of a reardrive unit and shuffles torque front-to-rear and sideto- side across the rear axle. But here itís dealing with 80kW more than the Evoque has ever thrown at it, so itís significantly re-engineered.
When we arrive at our location, the Golf is all understated aggression save for its one-per-cylinder exhaust tips. Meanwhile the Focus grabs attention with its big rear wing, shouty diffuser and a front end that appears to be gorging on Gobstoppers. Itís literally cramming as much air as possible into the front end, says RS boss Tyrone Johnson later, adding that the diffuser reduces drag and the spoiler eliminates lift.
Inside, the Golf doesnít move the game on significantly beyond the GTI, but it looks more cohesive than the Focus in that understated Germanic way. It exudes higher quality, and the infotainment is easier to fathom. Peripheral to the driving experience maybe, but a great hot hatch does everything well.
I head straight out in the Golf and immediately it impresses. Yes, the seats could go lower, but theyíre positively subterranean compared with the Focus highchairs. And while an R pilot doesnít have quite the support of his RS rival, the seats are daily-driver comfortable and give the restrained cabin a lift.
From our vantage point, the N330 near Los Pedrones plunges downhill, zigging and zagging through mountain terrain that rarely allows the steering to straighten for more than a second. Itís hard work for the Golfís sliding-caliper brakes, and it highlights weight transfer if you push too hard. Yet the Golf quickly finds a rhythm. Its steering is light, fast and precise, and the variable ratio means you never need move your hands from quarter-to-three. Meanwhile brake pedal feel is good, stopping power strong and the EA888 turbo quick to muster its ponies and fling you down the road. You can jump in the R and quickly pick apart an unfamiliar and challenging road.
Like the Focus thereís a little lag to the power delivery, but throttle response is impressively keen, and the hit of easily accessible torque gives the performance a flexibility thatíd send front tyres scrabbling on front drivers, but never does on the R. Not everyone likes the artificial engine sounds, but they give the Golf a pulsing, more guttural backing track than its lowerpowered Ė but still EA888-motivated Ė GTI stablemate.
On the Golf Rís adaptive dampers Ė also standard on the Ford Ė itís immediately obvious that we can side-step Comfort mode; thereís such cushiness and body roll compared with the RS that the balance feels tilted too far towards, well, comfort. Body roll persists in Normal mode, but itís well-contained and feels natural, giving you a sense of the tyresí approaching limits while the steering simultaneously weights up and tremors a little in your hands. The DSG Golf lacks the manualís sense of involvement, but it makes you quicker on tortuous roads.
As the topography levels out, I take an epic stretch of road with tricky flicks of direction, low-speed climbs out of hairpins and faster swoops that challenge traction and body control and reveal how well a car can cling to its line. Itís the perfect place to see how different the two carsí all-wheel drive systems are.
Not so long ago, all-wheel drive Golfs lagged a little
Before the XR3 got its Ďií, the fuel-injected RS1600i was the first front-drive RS and a kind of super XR3 built to Group A motorsport regs
First turbo RS upped RS1600iís 86kW to 98kW. Chassis wasnít necessarily equal to the task, but fast become a cult car and worth plenty today
More common, more colours, and built for the road rather than a homologation special, the Mk4 RS Turbo gently evolved the original. Still 98kW
Disappointing prequel to the RS Cosworth had temerity to wheel out Mk2 RS2000 in Rocky-style ad campaign. AWD offered from í92
Wild looks echoed Mk5ís, but was based on Sierra floorpan with longitudinal 169kW YB engine.
AWD got 33/66 front/ rear split
First Focus RS got 2.0-litre turbo with 158kW. Quaife diff deftly pulled the FWD RS into corners on track; tugged it across cambers on road
Upgraded to five cylinders, with 224kW and trick RevoKnuckle suspension to kill torque steer. Limitededition RS500 tweaked to 257kW
Homologated for Ė but unsuccessful in Ė rallying, the left-hand drive Rallye had blistered arches, all-wheel drive and a supercharged 1.8-litre 8v 119kW engine
A lux, understated version of the Rallye, limited to 71 units.
All the options, a sleeper five-door body, but AWD and a supercharged 1.8-litre 16v with 154kW
Looked like a GTI, with unique wheels, wider wheelarch lips and subtle badging.
Supercharged with 119kW. Three/fivedoor, left-hand-drive only, super-rare
Golf matures to battle 3-series with 2.8-litre narrow-angle VR6 engine and 130kW, but front-drive only. More about luxury than GTI thrills. Automatic gearbox offered
VR6 engine grows to 3.2 litres (177kW/320Nm).
Gets all-wheel drive and keeps the VR6ís luxury-focused intent.
Provided salvation for Volkswagen during GTIís darkest days
Same recipe as Mk4, with additional 7kW but no extra torque, more weight, and the introduction of DSG. But the GTI had its mojo back; we preferred it
Canít escape downsizing trend, losing two cylinders and retreating to a GTI-sized 2.0. Power up to 199kW, weight down. Fastest, most agile R, until now
when the front tyres ran out of talent and delegated to the rears; weíre talking milliseconds, but it felt so tardy that the traction crisis sometimes ended before the rear wheels chipped in. The faster-acting Haldex coupling means the lag is history, but the Golf continues to feel like a front-drive hatch with the scragginess dialled out; it just hooks up and fires down the next straight, but the sensation of being pulled by your collar remains.
Wolfsburgís ESP-based torque vectoring acts on top of this, subtly tweaking the inside front brake when necessary and tugging it towards the apex; it kills understeer and adds adjustability, a kind of skislalom energy as the Golfís backside jigs left and right through bends. Go into a corner off-power and then exaggerate your steering and instead of understeering the Golf simply claws extra grip out of the surface and describes a tighter arc. Itís a lot of fun.
The Golf is 51kW down on the Focus and feels it, but itís so balanced that itís quite a thing to hustle crosscountry.
Factor in its classless design, useability, higher perceived quality, super-quick DSGÖ the Focus driving dynamics will need to blow it out of the water to neutralise all that. Well, take cover Wolfsburg.
Immediately the RS feels stronger, ripping through to peak revs where you wish the Golf had that 51kW surplus and another 500rpm breathing space for a final flourish. Whatís really striking is how the Ford transfers power to the road. We remember the wild tug of the Mk1ís Quaife ATB diff and the clever torquesteer- quelling RevoKnuckle suspension of the Mk2, but this is just something else; the all-wheel drive setup makes the RS feel rear driven. So you not only get the sense of power being transferred rearwards when necessary, it seems to be there constantly, like youíre steering with the throttle. The genius is youíve also got an all-wheel drive security blanket, but one that increases driving engagement because you can attack corners harder and faster.
The RS canít defy physics, you canít just pin the throttle at any speed and expect zero understeer, but the RS chassis can take everything the powerful EcoBoost lump can throw at it. And when it runs out of smarts, the four-piston brakes have deeper reserves than a Saudi oil well. The Golfís stoppers do a good job, but theyíre out-classed here.
Ford has dropped the Focus STís variable-ratio steering system for the RS, and you can feel why. I try the same off-power trick as I did in the Golf, barrelling into a corner and adding a bung of steering, and the RSís trick torque vectoring makes it feel significantly shorter and more wieldy than if you took the same corner more sensibly; itís a similar feeling to the Golf in some ways, but itís almost shockingly agile and I suspect adding steering that quickens the more you turn it would make the RS feel unstable and unpredictable. What we lose in steering trickery, we more than gain in driving modes. Just like the aboutface with all-wheel drive, Ford always told us that one driving mode was all you need. Now we get Normal, Sport, Track and Drift.
On the road youíre best served with Normal or Sport, the latter reducing steering assistance while upping throttle response and introducing those engaging little backfires. The dampers Ė already firm Ė remain unchanged, but you can stiffen them by 40 per cent by selecting Track mode. Sportís extra throttle response adds to the thrill, the noise is more engaging but the steering becomes heavier and self-centres like a boomerang with separation anxiety, even if it does blend into the background when your bloodís up and your eyes are on stalks scanning apex after apex.
This is where the Focus RS rules, covering ground so quickly the Golf canít summon an answer.
Not that itís all about sure-footed speed. When I first heard about Drift mode, I thought Iíd be the hero and drive with it engaged all the time. Now my brain canít pre-emptively understand whatís going to happen.
I just press a button and all of a sudden a car with superglue traction puts its footy shirt over its head and does massive skids?
Drift mode switches the drive modes to Normal suspension (so you get more oversteer-promoting body roll) and steering (so slides are easier to catch), and tweaks the power delivery more aggressively rearwards. Ford only partially disables the stability control initially, but press it again and itís just you and a good lawyer. On the road, the RS doesnít feel like a drift monster, and you have to work it hard to wind on even a quarter turn of oppo. It just feels a little less stable and less well sorted, and thereís actually more fun to be had from making the RS cover ground as quickly as talent can carry you. I try Drift mode on track and you have to be pretty aggressive to get it properly smoking; itís a lot of fun and a neat little trick to demonstrate the rear bias, but if youíre used to reardrive cars it feels artificial. I just wanted to disconnect the front driveshafts altogether.
That track is Valencia, with its challenging flat
out lefts, quick flicks and big stops into double-apex bends. We arenít allowed to bring the Golf R to a track Ford has hired for the launch, but I did take my long-termer to play at Rockingham Motor Speedway recently, and the differences are pronounced. Mostly, when you take a road car on track thereís a level of adjustment, the space egging you on to carry excess speed into corners. It means you must adapt to avoid understeer and clumsy weight transfer that you wonít experience on the road. This is true of the Golf.
The Focus RS doesnít really do that. Ford says itís designed to excite the expert and flatter the novice, and it really does. Itís got such grip and balance you basically point the RS where you want to go and it does it. The rear will slide when you over-cook it, the front will understeer, but the limits are very, very high, and for the most part it feels like youíre thinking it through a lap, not adjusting to how it wants to be driven. The beefy brakes and solid body control pay dividends here Ė as do the optional Cup 2 tyres Ė but Iím not totally convinced of Race mode on track; sometimes the rear end feels so firm it hops about when you turn in at the end of a heavy braking zone, where the softer Sport offers more fluidity.
The Golf is a different kettle of fish. Itís still fun, still adjustable, but you have to baby it around a lap like Williams F1 engineer Rob Smedley talking Felipe Massa through a GP. Itís more traditional in that when you push hard you can feel the weight over the front end, the tyres slipping into understeer and the body roll scrappily dragging you off line; you spend your time caressing the Golf into corners and easing off the brakes, like taking your weight off an infantís bed without waking them.
The Focus is a little heavier, longer, wider and taller than the Golf, and yet itís the wieldier, more intuitive machine to pedal quickly. But for some, the RS image will be enough to keep them out of its driverís seat.
The Golf remains a better all-rounder, but if you want the best driversí hot-hatch money can buy then the RS is the undisputed winner. It genuinely elevates the hot hatch genre into a whole new dimension. That it offers so much performance, ability and fun for $50,990 only sweetens the deal. M
BODY 5-door, 5-seat hatch DRIVE all-wheel ENGINE 2261cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo BORE/STROKE 87.4 x 94.0mm COMPRESSION 9.4:1 POWER 257kW @ 6000rpm TORQUE 440Nm @ 2000-4500rpm (470Nm on overboost) POWER/WEIGHT 163kW/tonne TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual WEIGHT 1575kg SUSPENSION (F) struts, coil springs, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar SUSPENSION(R) multi-links, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar L/W/H 4390/1823/1472mm WHEELBASE 2648mm TRACKS 1547/1524mm (f/r) STEERING electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion BRAKES (F) 350mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers BRAKES (R) 350mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers WHEELS 19.0 x 8.0-inch (f/r) TYRE SIZES 235/35 R19 (f/r) TYRE Michelin Pilot Super Sport (f/r) PRICE AS TESTED $50,990 PROS Benchmark performance and handling; incredible value CONS Harsh interior STAR RATING 11112
BODY 5-door, 5-seat hatch DRIVE all-wheel ENGINE 1984cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo BORE/STROKE 82.5 x 92.8mm COMPRESSION 9.3:1 POWER 206kW @ 5100-6500rpm TORQUE 380Nm @ 1800-5100rpm POWER/WEIGHT 144kW/tonne TRANSMISSION 6-speed dual-clutch WEIGHT 1435kg SUSPENSION (F) struts, adjustable dampers, coil springs, anti-roll bar SUSPENSION(R) multi-links, adjustable dampers, anti-roll bar L/W/H 4276/1790/1436mm WHEELBASE 2632mm TRACKS 1536/1514mm (f/r) STEERING electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion BRAKES (F) 340mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers BRAKES (R) 310mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers WHEELS 19.0 x 8.0-inch (f/r) TYRE SIZES 235/35 R19 91Y(f/r) TYRE Bridgestone Potenza RE050A PRICE AS TESTED $55,240 PROS Great in every area, a brilliant all-rounder CONS Canít match Focus for performance or engagement STAR RATING 11112