Ford Focus RS review
by David Finlay (1 July 2009)
Having lived with the Focus RS for a week I think I'm beginning to understand how Charlie Chaplin must have felt. Chaplin was a Hollywood megastar decades before the term was invented, and in the years of his greatest success the poor man couldn't walk a step in public without being hounded by an adoring public. I don't have an adoring public - or if I do nobody has mentioned it - but thanks to the Focus I know what it's like to be the centre of attention in a way that I never did before.
This is far from what I expected. The RS is available in white or lime green, but the example supplied by Ford for this test was, as you can see, blue, which was fine by me because it's the one which comes closest to making the car look subdued and inoffensive.
But try telling that to any male under the age of 30 living within ten miles of me. To them, the RS had about the same effect as Beyonce would have achieved if she had walked topless into the local supermarket. I've driven some distinctive-looking cars in the past few months (the Toyota iQ and Audi R8 being notable if contrasting examples) and they have certainly caused comment, but nothing has brought the county to an awed standstill in quite the way that the RS did.
It all started on the first evening of this test, when I pulled into a petrol station. Two young guys followed me, and they were already taking pictures of the car before I'd opened the door. After I'd emerged from the shop with my supplies, they engaged me in conversation, were suitably impressed to hear that the RS's maximum power output is just over 300bhp, and asked if I would floor the throttle as I left. Which I did. But only up to the 40mph speed limit. It didn't take long.
After that, news that the car was in the area spread like a wild, fiery thing. People made pilgrimages to my house just to stare at it. A near-neighbour was heard to lament that he could either buy an RS or stay with his wife and three children, but not both. Hot hatches followed the car like puppies on a leash before shooting past in an apparent attempt to persuade me to race them (which I wouldn't do, partly because I wasn't interested and partly because I was sure that if I did their drivers would kill themselves trying to keep up). It was partly crazy, partly fun, and partly disconcerting. Charlie would have understood.
I've concentrated so far on sociological impressions rather than driving ones for two reasons. First, I think the general reaction is important - if you like being stared at and talking about your car with strangers, you'll love the RS; if not, not.
Second, I've already written about the car in a previous road test, but it has been worth revisiting the subject because those comments were based on driving on roads which, though I knew them well, were not local to me.
And that's important because this time round I was able to drive the RS on my nearest A-road. This is significant because, unless you are uncommonly blessed, your nearest A-road bears the same resemblance to mine as a school production of Joseph does to the Edinburgh Festival. Mine is a 30-mile cavalcade of as many corners, gradients and camber changes as you will find in some entire countries. It is loved by some, feared by many and respected by all, and as a test route for a car like the RS it takes some beating.
On this road my original opinion of the car's most controversial feature was confirmed. Ford says that it could have given the RS four-wheel drive but decided not to for dynamic reasons, but I still think that it was really a matter of cost, and if Ford had gone down the 4x4 route nobody would be shaking their heads and saying what a pity it was that the hottest Focus didn't have front-wheel drive like all the others. You simply can't get away from the fact that applying (or, equally, cancelling) all that power has a dramatic effect on what the front end does.
At the same time, though, Ford has been enormously successful in producing a very powerful yet easily controllable 300bhp front-wheel drive car. You can certainly get into trouble, but only if you drive badly.
If you use the power rather than abuse it, let the miraculous turn-in take you into the corner and apply the throttle only when the car is ready for it (which is probably a length or two later than you might expect), you'll cover the ground exceptionally quickly and revel in the balance of the chassis rather than be spooked by the angry way in which it reacts to a rough driving technique.
The RS is at its very best when you're letting - rather than making - it go quickly. At lower speeds it's impressively docile, though the ride quality is uncompromising (that's the description motoring journalists use instead of "pretty bloody awful" when they're referring to a car they otherwise like).
The one good thing that can be said about the ride is that it isn't that way because of some terrible mismatch between wheels and suspension; it's always apparent that the bumping and jarring are things you just have to live with if you want a car which is so supremely capable at high speeds on exciting roads.
The RS has left me now, and I'm not entirely sorry. I don't want to attract the sort of attention that A-list celebrities consider normal, and with this combination of power and handling I'd want to spend all my time with the car on a race circuit and none of it on public roads. For these reasons the RS wouldn't suit me in the slightest, but that's a very personal opinion, and it doesn't affect my admiration of a superb car which I hope is a matter of career-defining pride for every member of the team responsible for it.