REMEMBER FORD’S angrier Focus RS that was spied tearing around the Nurburgring Nordschleife some years ago? The press dubbed it the new ‘RS 500’ and that it would rip an Audi RS3 to shreds. Whispers inside Ford said it was going to happen. But the business case didn’t convince the bean counters. It was suddenly axed, leaving the hot hatch’s potential to be explored in the aftermarket.
The Tunehouse RS pays tribute to it, at least in looks. It is in the same Stealth Grey. It sits on the same black 19-inch forged alloys and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber. It has a taller wing and even a carbon-fibre bonnet with vents in the exact same places.
The Sydney-based shop is a good fit for one of the greatest hot hatches of recent times. They boast records on drag strips and racetracks with modified cars across Australia. But the base package is already at such a high level, improving one must be like trying to make an atom bomb more explosive. “Compared with the previous Focus [RS] it’s much more efficient,” says Jim Ghelis of Tunehouse. “The handling is awesome. Definitely it’s a better car altogether from the previous one, more complicated, but a better car.”
He’s right. Its 2.3-litre engine has been around for a while. Yet here it’s squeezing 204Nm from each litre on overboost. That’s more than a 911 Turbo S. And then there’s its handling. Its all-wheel drive technology is usually reserved for cars twice its price and helped it nab Bang For Your Bucks and a strong Performance Car of the Year finish in 2017.
Lift the car’s gorgeous carbon-fibre bonnet and you’ll see the beginnings of Tunehouse’s newly developed ‘Stage 2’ kit. It replaces all turbocharger-related piping with freer flowing hardware from Cobb Tuning in the United States. The carbon-fibre intake pipes glisten. Lurking underneath there’s a larger intercooler with a more efficient core. Then hung off the turbine is a full 4.5-inch exhaust system with an adjustable rear muffler.
Ghelis has programmed the ECU with his own map via special Cobb software, but it wasn’t as simple as it is with other cars. He tells us things like fuel, timing and boost are all based on torque values, and forced him to tune more than 250 maps before signing off.
The hard work has at least paid off on the dyno sheets. An RS produces 257kW at 6000rpm and 440Nm at 2000rpm on its factory spec sheet, or 470Nm at 3200rpm with overboost. On their hub-based Dynapack dyno that translated to 213kW and 446Nm at its front wheels. The Stage 2 kit on Aussie 98RON fuel raises those figures to 269kW at 5260rpm and 550Nm at 3309rpm – or 56kW/104Nm more. Boost is set at 22psi, or one pound less than stock.
“I’m not a big believer in ‘boost is the only answer’ to make power,” he says, “you can make 28 pounds, but the range of the boost is small. Or you can make it 22 and spread it across and use your timing and fuelling to make it work for you.”
Either way, climbing aboard and starting the engine reveals nothing extraordinary. The rear muffler baffles change with the factory drive mode software, and in Normal mode it awakes with the typical raspiness of a stock system. More aggressive sounds soon emerge, though. You hear the turbo sucking hard as it starts to blow positive pressure. But the true fun starts with its re-circulative blow off valve. When the throttle plate closes it forces air back onto the compressor blades, turning its turbo whistle into a deflating flutter. It sounds like Darth Vader in a coughing fit.
Switching from Normal to Sport mode upgrades the power map. Torque builds more keenly off boost. The turbo wakes at 1500rpm, spools hard at 2500rpm, then a big clump of acceleration hits in the mid-range. Ghelis has made the power curve taper off well before its 6800rpm redline (up from 6600rpm) to prevent harmful limiter bashing.
“Everytime you hit the rev limiter,” he says, “it’s a very, very aggressive harmonic happening, even if it’s tested on a low range. You can definitely damage the valvetrains and chains, bottom ends and stuff.”
The only bangs unleashed here are from the exhaust on upshifts. It’s louder as well, but adds more resonance and blare rather than anything musical. Instead of top-end acceleration that reels in the horizon, the Tunehouse RS pulls from low with solid tractability. Its mid-range is stronger, and the engine feels half a litre larger than it is. Its response now feels as honed as the car’s chassis, helped by the fitment of a solid rear engine mount that means the throttle pedal literally tingles with feedback.
This gives you a much finer sense of how much output is finding the tyres and means it can stay in gear through tight, twisting corners – somewhere small turbo engines struggle to be effective.
This car’s also upgraded with a plethora of bits on top of the Stage 2 kit. A Boomba short-shift kit cuts stroke distances in half and produces short, heavy rows. They’re enjoyable if you’re committed, or clunky and easily baulked if not. The hex-shaped shift knob is also awkward to grasp.
We’re big fans of how it looks underneath the vinyl wrap. That bonnet, wing, and lowered stance perfectly complement the car’s aggressive looks. The lowering springs do add a touch more bounce to an already harsh ride. It also pushes more into a corner, as if it’s less keen to rotate on its outside front, but that is easily fixed with a set of rollcentre adjusters.
While we’re on gripes, the steering wheel matches the shift knob in both shape and finish as they’re from the same company. But its flat-top design proves annoying when you grab its brim for more lock. Anything that needs more than two turns lock to lock should have a round wheel.
So, has Tunehouse managed to build its own RS 500? Yes and no. On one hand, they’ve enhanced its low-down response and mid-range to make it even more usable. And the quality of its package shows in how it ran without fault and could be used like any factory car we regularly test. Tunehouse has also kept balance in mind with its kit. Its brakes, tyres and suspension easily absorb the extra urge.
Those expecting to munch Mercedes-AMG A45s at traffic lights, though, might be disappointed. Acceleration isn’t improved as much as an extra 56kW/104Nm at the hubs would have you believe. You could push further with these modifications, but there is just not that much headroom in this EcoBoost’s stock turbocharger, injectors and cylinder block. And if you’re keen to replace those things, you stand to spend more than what you might gain.
That’s perhaps why Ford never signed off on an RS 500. It was always going to be hard to improve on such an athletic package. But if you must modify an RS to such a degree, then this kit presents good value. It enhances its traits rather than spoils them. And that might be the next best thing.