Test Drive: 2016 Ford Focus RS

Mourn not for the hot hatchback. The numbers may have dwindled, but perhaps few will lament the passing of the Citation X-11 or some of the hatchback variants to carry the name Charger.

After all, quantity isn’t synonymous with quality, as a few of those earlier hatches confirmed. Today’s market may have fewer of them, but the ones that remain — VW Golf GTI, VW Golf R, Mini John Cooper Works 3-door, Chevy Sonic RS, Fiat 500 Abarth, and today’s subject, the Ford Focus RS — all make pretty good names for themselves.

It would be disingenuous to start any discussion of the Focus RS without first addressing one key issue: it’s the most expensive of the bunch. With a starting price just north of $47,000, it’s a significant commitment relative to the $22,000 to $39,000 starting prices of the others.

So, what do you get for the money. In two words, a lot.

First off, Focus RS is the most powerful of them all, by a lot. With 350 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque, the 2.3-litre turbo four has at least 58 units of each over its nearest rival, the Golf R, and at least 100 over the others. Do I have your attention now?

All that power has to go somewhere, and in the case of the RS, it goes to all four wheels, with a unique all-wheel-drive system that includes a nifty drift mode, handy for hanging out the tail when the mood strikes.

Between the engine and all-wheel drive is a slick-shifting, six-speed manual gearbox; running up through the first five gears is an exercise in joy. Shifts are quick, precise and intuitive. Fifth to sixth isn’t quite so slick. Perhaps it’s the return spring that directs the shifter back to the third-fourth axis when in neutral, but it was far too easy to have the shifter end up in fourth again instead of sixth.

The clutch feels a bit heavier than a typical Focus, which isn’t unexpected given the torque.

As a high-performance hatch, the RS comes with heavily bolstered sports seats. Wider folk might find them tight, but to me, they fit snugly enough to almost be like a three-point seat belt. I had trouble getting accustomed to the rearward rake of the seat bottom, however. It pushed the knees up just a bit too much for me to be completely comfortable.

What makes the RS special is that in addition to being the hottest Focus around, it’s also a Focus. In other words, the cargo space, passenger space and amenities are just what you’d expect from the top-end Focus hatchback.

Handling is excellent, and the balance of the car is helped somewhat by the all-wheel-drive system, which puts a bit more weight at the rear axle than front-drive Focus models. It still feels like a front-driver, however. It’s just too hard to get away from the fact the engine is mounted transversely.

The best part of the handling is ride doesn’t suffer. Much. It’s a bit harsher than a run-of-the-mill Focus, but you won’t be shopping for new kidneys. It’s firm enough to be fun, not so firm as to be punishing. They seem to have got that particular balance right.

The RS also buys you some distinctive styling, from the blacked-out grille with red RS badging to the bold but not overly boy racer rear wing, there’s no confusing this for a mere grocery-getter. (But that would be a heck of a grocery run.)

The only option on our tester was the nitrous blue quad coat paint, for $995. The rest, the heated, power-adjustable sports seats, the cruise control, SYNC3 and keyless entry and start system were all standard.

The Focus RS is, by every definition, a niche product. Not every Focus buyer is going to want to ratchet up his landed price to $50,000. But for those who do, those who play in lapping races or autocross circuits, the RS is a tour de force among compact, sport hatchbacks.

2016 Ford Focus RS

Engine: 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
Power: 350 horsepower (with 93 octane fuel, power range not specified)
Torque: 350 lb-ft (with 93 octane fuel, torque curve not specified)
Transmission: six-speed automatic (don’t even ask for an automatic)
Brakes: four-wheel discs
Suspension: not specified
Steering: electric power-assist rack-and-pinion
Fuel economy: (l/100km), city/highway/combined: 12.1/9.3/10.8
Fuel economy: (l/100km), observed: 12.3
Price: $47,969, base MSRP; $50,664, as-tested (incl. optional paint colour, excise fee, destination)
Main competitors: Mini John Cooper Works, Subaru WRX STi, Volkswagen Golf R

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