2017 Ford Focus RS

2017 Ford Focus RS and Raptor : playing in the snow has a whole new meaning

Canadians are no strangers to the concept of playing in the snow. Snow forts, igloos, snow men, snow ball fights… winter can be that much fun. Then Ford drifts in with their Fun in the Snow event and playing in the snow takes on a whole new meaning.

The automaker took a group of journalists from across the country to show them a good time in picturesque Quebec. If snow has been scarce in the south of the province, the mountains of the Laurentians had received plenty and offered the ideal wintery setting to put two of Ford’s monsters to the test, the 2017 Ford Raptor and Focus RS.

2017 Ford Raptor

I was part of the Blue – almost men – group. Our day started off at the wheel of the all-new Raptor, or what happens when the F-150 goes into beast mode. This year, the Raptor has received quite a few upgrades, including the updated, second-generation 3.5L V6 Ecoboost engine it shares with the 2017 F-150, but with an increased output of 450 horsepower and 510 lb-ft of torque, teamed with the same ten-speed automatic transmission.

The new aluminum structure has allowed the upgraded pickup truck to shed 227 kg as well as a 5% decrease in drag for improved fuel economy. I guess some people really do care.

Now onto the fun part; getting behind the wheel. We were put in two specific groups. First activity of the day allowed us to take the Raptor on an off-road, rally-like course. Sitting next to me, my driving instructor of the morning was none other than Quebec’s very own Nascar driver Louis-Philippe Dumoulin. I have to say, I was a little starstruck. Our team of instructors was quite the roster of well-known drivers from the Canadian racing scene, including Micra Cup champion Xavier Coupal and Canada’s Worst Driver instructor Philippe Létourneau. Without being a motorsports enthusiast like some of my colleagues, these are names I have learned to know and respect. Sitting next to L-P Dumoulin for  my laps on the off road course was an honour.

L-P acted as my co-driver, like he would have in a rally. I was at the wheel, excited to try and push the limits of the Raptor, or my own, whichever came first. Mine did. The Raptor would have kept going even further. In the master hands of Louis-Philippe, the Baja-inspired monster was surprisingly nimble for its size and willingly delivered power without too much hesitation. It soldiered through water and mud pits even in the worst possible drive mode combination, such as Sport drive in rear-wheel drive.

After the off road course, we had some alone time with the vehicle in a, let’s say, more realistic context as we hit the road. The snowy setting was perfect to put the Raptor through some proper real-world testing, even though the vehicle seems designed for everything but real life. Combining six different driving modes such as Sport, Snow and Baja, with your choice of rear-wheel or four-wheel drive output, you are sure to find the combination ideal for all conditions. In a testing context, my driving partner and I decided to give the different combinations a try and as soon as a new mode was selected, I could feel the vehicle’s personality and handling change quite dramatically.

For instance, the Weather mode reduces the engine’s output and revolutions to keep more traction, while automatically engaging four-wheel drive. Sport mode makes the steering feel heavier in my hand and the transmission allows for the engine to run at higher revolutions by staying in lower gears longer. Then there’s the mysterious and puzzling Baja mode the instructors warned us about.

“You can try it, but really, you might want to keep it in Weather mode.” Well, now I really have to try it. The thing is that the Raptor does what the F-150 does, and does it well. But it can also do much more and will probably get bored sticking to a daily drive, or carrying a mattress every so often.

2017 Ford Focus RS

For the Blue group, the afternoon was spent in the Focus RS, beginning with the on road activity, followed by the best activity of them all, if you ask me : the ice track.

Having driven the Focus RS back in September for a few days, I could remember the car being a fun little hot hatch without any overflow of enthusiasm. An afternoon spent at the wheel of the car refreshed my memory and reminded me of how cool the RS actually is. It does a number of things well and some even better. Clad in its signature electric baby blue coat, the RS is powered by a 2.3L, four-cylinder EcoBoost turbo engine that tosses it around with 350 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque.

God save the manuals – a six-speed manual transmission is the only available box with this version of the Focus. The gearbox is smooth and precise, the throws are quick and nimble; just the kind of agility required for a more spirited drive and a marked improvement over the Focus ST.

Sitting in the car, you feel in control. The curve-hugging sports seats keep you secure and in place when you decide to take advantage of the RS’ dynamic personality. But it also provides all the utility of the Focus hatchback with seating for five and decent cargo capacity.

We drove in a convoy for the first activity of the day, driving on the local roads. On the way to the turn point, we got stuck behind the holy trinity of slow drivers : a freight truck, an SUV with a Thule case on its top and a minivan. Way to put the blue little monster to the test. On the way back however, the path cleared and curves and bends on the road were no match for the all-wheel drive and driving assists of the RS. The suspension is definitely destined to be tried by tossing the car around. It is very firm and on the road, maybe even a little too much.

Once on the track, I got to sit side by side Claude Bourbonnais, another racing legend, and former Jacques Villeneuve teammate, who calls Quebec home. He was going to teach me how to take advantage of what the RS does best and that is taking corners sideways.

There are four selectable driving modes, all which provide different set ups of the steering, engine, all-wheel drive system, the exhaust valve, dampers and the ESC. Normal mode keeps all of these components on their best behaviour, but press the button twice to put the RS in Track mode and they all go wild. The famous Drift mode is a balance of both. It keeps the steering and the dampers in a normal setup but throws the ESC, the exhaust valve and the engine into sport mode. And the all-wheel drive? It goes into a special drift mode.

The track course was straightforward. A long slalom between cones was followed by a series of bends and double bends. Cones had been set to visually indicate where to look during the maneuvers, though 10 years of riding motorcycles, which teaches you to look far ahead and deep into the corner, made that part easy to master. What I struggled with was actually making the car slide.

Once the car would start sliding, instead of focusing on trying to keep control and releasing the gas pedal as you would do in normal conditions, Claude instructed me to hit the gas and turn the wheel even further. The whole point was not to regain control of the car but, on the contrary, to kick the rear end out and turn the steering wheel the opposite way.

No matter how much fun I had and how much more in control I felt sliding with the wheels pointing in what felt like the wrong way, and despite being allowed the treat of a few additional laps, I still have a long way to go before I fully master the skill of drifting. With an ear-to-ear smile from having finally tried my hand at some proper skids,  the master took the wheel. Time slowed. I think I could hear “Nadia’s song” rising through the air as Claude tossed the RS around the track and on the donut. Like an epic movie scene unfolding in slow motion.

On the track, the RS worked superbly. Snow is definitely its element. As much as it provides plenty of grip on dry tarmac, it also willingly looses itself in the pleasure of a few skids.

I offered to drive one of the Focus RS cars back to the airport, but it wasn’t meant to be. There were actually transport trucks on site ready to do just that, so the Ford F-150 I arrived in was going to be my way home. It was worth a try. My first experience of Mecaglisse has been a pretty exciting one. You don’t often get the chance to let loose in the mud and on an ice track in Ford’s monster duo.


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