An escape from the everyday

Ford’s new front-wheel-drive Focus RS happily combines family hatchback sensibilities with sports car capabilities
By Andrew Frankel

This is a test I wasn’t meant to write. On the day Ford launched this new Focus RS to a small band of international media, I was in another country driving another car. Then a shaft of light appeared in the schedule: if I could get a flight to Nice by midday and if Ford had a spare RS, then I could have one for two hours.

Two hours. That is a miserably small sliver of time in which to conduct a thorough examination of any car, especially one that asked so many questions. But this was Nice, north of which lies the Col de Vence, probably the best-loved road in Europe for those who test cars for a living. If I could have a Focus RS to test anywhere for two hours, it would be here. And testing it would need, not least to discover whether Ford’s claim that it had succeeded where others hadn’t even tried and found a way of directing 305bhp through the front wheels could withstand any scrutiny.

Settling into its thin, hard bucket seat, thoughts of the last Focus RS, now seven years old, were impossible to avoid. It was a car I admired more than liked. I only truly appreciated its point-to-point speed when I discovered how easy it was to sit on the tail of a well-driven BMW M3 CSL, but I never imagined owning one: it was too crude, too narrowly defined.

Puttering out of Nice, the new RS felt anything but. Its ride was firm but not uncomfortable, the cabin quality not actively annoying. And, while the old RS made you listen to a noisy, rough 2-litre four-cylinder motor, the thrum of the 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo in this RS reminded me of that limited-edition, short-wheelbase homologation lunatic, the Audi Quattro Sport – which, for fans of historical coincidences, also matches the Focus’s power output.

But how could Ford deploy this power, not to mention 324lb ft of torque, through a medium as compromised and conflicted as the front wheels of a car? Clever suspension geometry, tyre choice and careful attention to the way the steering rack is mounted, geared and powered will get you so far, but with the standard fitment of a Quaife limited slip differential providing yet more traction, the chances of it being able to accelerate hard and steer properly at the same time seemed remote. The Col de Vence was approaching; it was time to find out.

I thought about building up to it slowly, but this was neither the time, the car, nor the road for the softly, softly approach. So I gave it the lot.

It seems odd to say now, but the one thing I hadn’t expected was for the RS to feel so damn fast. Ford claims a 0-62mph time of 5.9sec, the same as the new Jaguar XF diesel saloon. All I can say is that if the car I was driving had the traction to exploit its power, you could knock another second off that. Put another way, up to speeds at which you can hang onto your driving licence, I don’t think a new Porsche 911 feels any faster.

As for the dreaded torque steer, it’s there and anyone who says it’s not either forgot to put their foot down or drove wearing oven gloves. What it’s not is ruinously intrusive. Ford has contained the engine torque’s desire to influence your direction of travel well enough so that most of the time, a gentle writhing of the wheel is the worst you’ll encounter. Bury your foot at the exit of a second-gear corner and even if the Quaife finds enough traction to transfer all the torque to the road surface, the resulting torque steer still will not deflect the car from your intended direction.

As the time elapsed, so the scale of Ford’s achievement became clear. No front-drive car, not even RenaultSport’s hilarious Mégane R26R, has ever brought a blend of speed and composure like this. I drove knowing the rules were being rewritten before my eyes.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the RS is that its ability to cope with such power is not the most remarkable thing about it. Its attitude to corners, whether under or off-power, is what I’ll remember most. Ford has tuned the Electronic Stability Programme to intervene not when the limit is approached, but once it has been broached, yet there’s nothing to be feared from disabling it altogether. On the contrary, lobbing the RS into a tight turn at ambitious speed and on a trailing throttle provided as much fun as I’ve had in a front-drive car since Peugeot’s 205GTI. The Focus has such natural agility and balance that the back doesn’t skid or slide, it just swings around as if directly steered, and once it’s gone far enough to make sure your nose is pointing into the apex, you snap open the throttle and let Mr Quaife and friends do the rest.

Do this for even a short while and the conclusion that this is the most capable front-drive performance car ever conceived becomes inescapable.

If it has a problem, this is where it lies. Certain cars – examples being the Porsche Cayenne Turbo, the Bugatti Veyron and this Focus – are what I call qualification cars. However fulsome the praise, it cannot come without qualification: the Cayenne Turbo is incredible for an SUV, the Veyron for a car weighing two tonnes, and the Focus RS is amazing for a front-wheel-drive car. You drive a Cayenne thinking how much better it would be were it lower, the Bug were it lighter, while the dream of a rear-drive Focus RS is as enticing as it is impossible. While the RS offers huge power for its £24,995 list price, a Lotus Elise S is cheaper. Put a gun to my head and ask which one I’d rather drive up the Col de Vence and I’d take the Lotus.

The real achievement of the RS’s engineers is that they can even come close to extracting a comparable level of fun from a car that can be used as a family hatch as Lotus manages from a purpose-built sports car with just over half the weight.

So the Focus RS is not the most fun car you can buy for less than £25,000, but if you need one machine to use every day and, occasionally, thrill you to the core, for the money and regardless of the location of its driveshafts, the Focus RS sets a new standard.