Ford Focus RS

FIRSTDRIVES

JOHN CAREY

Bargain-priced hyper hatch

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

CAN they read the smoke signals rising from Spain as far away as Germany?

Source of the smelly haze is the Focus RS noisily scribing sideways circles in a car park behind the pit area of the Circuit de Valencia. Drift Mode is the Fordís spectacular party trick Ė a world-first Ė with purposedeveloped drivetrain, ESC and chassis calibration intended to unleash the Ken Block that lurks inside all of us.

Drift Modeís effectiveness is attention-grabbing, but itís not what Mercedes-AMG and Audiís quattro division should be worried about. What must instead concern them is the way this allwheel- drive Ford delivers stellar performance and handling at a price that reads like a misprint.

Thereís a delicious harmony to the way the $50,990 Focus RS drives thatís lacking in the A45 and RS3. Both the Mercedes-AMG and the Audi are well in excess of $20,000 more costly than the Ford, but neither can match the fluidity and cohesion of its dynamics.

The Fordís snarly 257kW Ecoboost 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbo, a close relative of the samesize engine in the new Mustang, delivers a lovely and linear surge of thrust. It may not produce quite as much power as Mercedes- AMGís 280kW 2.0-litre turbo four or Audiís 270kW 2.5-litre turbo five, but the RS does have a drivetrain that more than compensates for the shortfall.

Bolted to the gearbox of the Focus RS is a simple power takeoff unit for the propshaft to the rear axle. Thereís no central differential or Haldex-style interaxle clutch. Instead, the rear drive unit in the Fordís aft axle is home to a pair of multi-plate clutches.

The left- and right-side clutch

packsí electrically powered hydraulic actuators can be individually controlled. This component, supplied by Brit drivetrain specialists GKN, is the carís not-so-secret weapon.

Itís perhaps the chief reason for a couple of the Focus RSís almost miraculous abilities. When cornering, the rear drive unit can channel significant torque to the outside rear wheel, practically exterminating that joy-killer called power-on understeer. From a standing start, the system can lock both clutches to deliver truly awesome traction.

Achieving a good 0-100km/h time was important to Ford, and the claim of 4.7sec is impressive.

Though realistic, itís half a second shy of the A45. But as Ford Performance vehicle engineering manager Tyrone Johnson points out, in the Mercedes-AMG, Launch Control must be selected to ready its seven-speed dual-clutch for access to the carís full potential.

The Focus RS, which has a six-speed manual, is always ready to give its best, he says.

But this isnít the reason a manual was chosen for the Focus RS, the engineer explains; it was the manualís weight advantage compared to any kind of auto. A prime program objective was to minimise understeer, so having about 30kg less mass over the front axle was irresistible.

And the Focus RS is superbly understeer resistant. Its electric steering rack Ė quicker than Focus ST, just 2.0 turns lock-to-lock Ė highlights the carís fabulous agility. Slight torque steer can sometimes be felt, but its direct and wellweighted steering is one of this Fordís best attributes.

The brakes arenít bad, either.

Big front discs clamped by fixed four-piston Brembo calipers do a great job of shedding speed.

They only began to wilt a little after nine hard Track-mode laps of the Valencia circuit.

What didnít change during those laps was the Focus RSís unwavering composure. It turns better into corners, and drives earlier and harder out of corners, than any obvious competitor.

These same qualities make the Ford a formidable car on the road.

Its ride in both default Normal and selectable Sport modes, which use the same softer setting for the two-stage variable dampers, is firmly disciplined, but not unbearable. Only Track mode engages the stiffer damper setting.

The Focus RS has few weaknesses. Its interior fails to convey the same visual excitement as the exterior, its thirst will be heavy when driven hard (it flashed an 80km-toempty warning on the circuit with the fuel gauge showing above half full!) and its turning circle, like any other Focus with large wheels, is atrocious.

But this new Ford is a case of where thereís smoke, thereís a fiery new challenger for the hyper-hatch crown.

PLUS & MINUS

Interior; thirst when performance is exploited; turning circle Engine; steering; brakes; grip; handling; price

PILOT BUILD 01

Ford Performance has a new and exclusive relationship with Michelin. The standard tyre is 235/35ZR19 Pilot Super Sport.

Same size but stickier Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres on lighter forged rims will be a $2500 option in Australia.

INTER ALIA 02

Aggressive nose houses the biggest intercooler Ford Performance engineers could make fit. Grille mesh design maximises airflow. Ducts beside the fog lights feed cool air to the front brakes.

SPOILER ALERT 03

Spoiler is designed to kill lift.

Lower down, the RSís diffuser helps cut drag. Cd is 0.36 Ė not great, but slightly better than the previous Focus RS from 2009.

No love for A45

Tyrone Johnson doesnít hesitate when asked if his team intended to produce a Focus RS that could take on the likes of the A45 AMG. ďYes,Ē he replies. But then the Ford Performance vehicle engineering manager doesnít have a very high opinion of Mercedes- AMGís hot hatch. ďI have one in my department, but itís got a dust layer about that thick on top of it,Ē Johnson says. ďNo one drives it any more.

No one enjoys it. Itís fine for transportation, but thatís it.Ē

OR TRY THESE...

Mercedes-AMG A45

$77,900 It has a classier interior, for sure.

And a bigger maximum power number too. But the Focus RS is arguably a better drive, with handling that appears to set a new class benchmark. Bring on the comparo!

Volkswagen Golf R

$52,740 Focus RS is slightly cheaper than the Golf R, but its ability is in a much higher league. The Ford has loads more power, and knows exactly what to do with it. But only the VW offers a two-pedal option, if thatís your thing.