The hype surrounding Ford’s 350 horsepower hot hatch hellion seems to increase exponentially with each passing month. Even after the first lucky buyers began taking ownership of the Focus RS this summer, interest in the Euro-built pocket rocket refuses to abate, and for good reason.
Enthusiasts have been pining for this level of engineering since the early 1980s when the mid-engine RS200 came to fruition, lightyears ahead of the curve and contemptuously kicking rocks in the teeth of its competitors. When the Focus ST landed decades later, enthusiasts were elated that they were one step closer to the perfect platform. But as Europe continued to receive more potent and wildly styled hatchbacks from The Blue Oval, we were given Mustang muscle instead and interest in the ST began to wane.
Fortunately for us, Ford ended up doing the right thing and gave the people what they wanted: a fast, practical, stiffly-wound little hatchback, with plenty of exhaust noise, and a laundry list of revisions that focus on performance. Having driven the RS on tracks both up at Ford’s proving grounds in Dearborn, Michigan and at The Autobahn Country Club outside of Chicago, as well as for hours on the freeway, we can attest that the hot hatch hype is well-founded.
This vehicle is both brilliant and back-breaking. It piles on boost like nobody’s business, enters apexes with the confidence of a race horse, and unleashes a diatribe of snaps, snarls, pops, and burbles as it exits. In short, this is the kind of rally-focused hatchback engineering we have been waiting for, and with things like adjustable suspension settings, launch modes, and overboost functions on board, you bet your ass we’re pleased as punch with the results.
We took an RS on a five-hour road trip up to The Blue Oval’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan to sit down with Ford’s Global Performance Chief Engineer, Jamal Hameedi. The 22-year Ford veteran has overseen everything from the development of the 2013 Raptor and Shelby GT500, to making sure that all programs bearing SVT and ST nameplates meet engineering, manufacturing, business, and timing objectives.
Since almost everything you would ever need to know about the Focus RS has been covered by YouTube videos, automotive publications, and Ford’s own marketing and media arm, we aimed to take a different approach. Here are a handful of RS tidbits we found to be out of the ordinary or exceptionally interesting, along with some insider stats on the vehicle itself courtesy of Mr. Hameedi himself.
1. It wasn’t made for us
One of the primary reasons why everyone in America has been pining for this car is because the Europeans have always ended up with the better version, and it felt like we were just getting whatever Ford felt like kicking down to us instead. So once Hameedi and his team were given the green light for global homologation, the entire concept began to morph into something far more “focused.”
This car was engineered to tackle European country roads, where meandering mountain passes narrowly allow drivers the room to slide by trucks trundling downhill, with nary a sign of a guard rail to be seen. Europe’s narrow back roads are typically a lot more challenging to navigate than the broad-shouldered stuff we are used to in America, and by utilizing this mindset, Ford was able to make the RS that much more acute. Assembled in Saarlouis, Germany, this hatchback was built for walking fine lines, and is more Euro tuner than anything else.
2. AWD almost didn’t make it
It’s hard to imagine this car not having a voracious rear differential and all-wheel drive prowess, but according to Hameedi, this was almost the case. He says that during development Ford engineers were struggling with the conundrum that once outfitted with an all-wheel drive setup, the Focus might become “too boring to drive.” So in order to make it more engaging the team had to find a way to force it to perform on a level that is above and beyond anything else in the segment today.
Enter British transmission specialist GKN, and its “Twinster” AWD system, which utilizes a dedicated driveshaft to power the rear through a pair of independent electronically controlled clutches for improved grip. This design allows full limited-slip differential traction, as well as torque vectoring on either side of the rear axle, thus allowing up to 70% of all available twist to be piped to the car’s rear haunches. It was the decision to tap this particular design that transformed the Focus RS into what it is today, and with power being funneled to one side as the computer sees fit, things like “drift mode” suddenly became possible, along with the decision to bump grunt from 300 to 350 horsepower.
3. Winter is coming and it’s ready
By offering Focus RS buyers a winter wheel and tire package, Ford has become the first automaker to provide a check-the-box winter setup for North American enthusiasts. In order to make this option possible, Hameedi and his team of Ford Performance specialists had to first revisit the vehicle testing procedures required for the certification of a production wheel and tire, and apply winter-specific standards to the equation, something that had never been done before. Being that this was uncharted territory, Hameedi’s team had to create a fresh set of standards for wintry weather before putting them through the ringer in the unmerciful wilds of Michigan and arctic slopes of Sweden.
A myriad of different winter tire and wheel options were tested in order to deduce an ideal blend of ride, handling, and performance gains in a wide variety of frigid conditions. What emerged as the best combination was a 18-by-7.5-inch wheel configuration that came wrapped in 225/40R18 Michelin Pilot Alpin PA4 rubber, an alloy and compound option that looks quite similar to the base Focus RS combo, but with a sparkle silver finish that hides salt deposits. Topped off with TPMS sensors and center caps, this narrower combo slices through the snow with unparalleled traction, while its tighter overall diameter allows owners the ability to slap some chains on if necessary. Available as a $1,995 U.S. option, customers in Canada will receive the package as standard equipment.
4. And so is spring, which it’s ready for too
For the lucky individuals who never have to deal with the headaches associated with shoveling snow or scraping ice off their windshield, a set of dedicated high-performance Michelin Cup 2 summer tires and forged alloy wheels are an easily accessible option. Despite rocking the same 19-inch diameter as the monoblock cast version, these one-piece, rotary spun rollers shave off a full 2 pounds of rotational mass per corner, while carrying the same 8-inch width and 50-millimeter offset.
Sticky and stiff, this wheel/tire combo provides a confident driving feel that we have come to love on the track as well as around town. But being that the tires feature a narrower 35 sidewall, the Focus RS owner’s manualstresses that this setup can also be “susceptible to damage from poor road conditions due to their diameter, width, and the use of low profile tires,” giving further reason to opt for the $1,990 upgrade. While Ford remains tight-lipped on which supplier makes the rollers for the RS, it would be safe to assume that it has handed this task over to Ronal Wheels again, this time working with the company’s Speedline Corse division. This was the same German firm that oversaw the creation of the carbon fiber wheels found on the GT350R Mustang.
5. It can go faster, but there’s a catch
The powerplant in the RS is basically a heavily modified rendition of the 2.3-liter four-banger EcoBoost engine out of the Mustang, and comes standard with an overboost function that bumps torque figures up by a full 25 pound-feet under launch. As Hameedi made mention earlier, this chassis almost remained chained to a front-wheel drive, 300 horsepower setup. But with the addition of a different twin-scroll turbocharger, a beefier compressor housing, and a one-off airbox, things began to transform rapidly. Reinforced cast-iron cylinder sleeves were also installed to handle the bump in boost, along with different pistons, a new head gasket, and a head that was specially cast and machined by Cosworth.
When asked about aftermarket tweaks to the vehicle, and issues that might manifest due to swapping in things like Hennessey’s reflash and free-flowing intake and exhaust components, Hameedi was quick to point out that turbo overspool should be a concern. “We designed this powertrain to be both powerful and reliable,” Hameedi stresses, “Our team sits next to regular [Ford] engineers every day in the office in order to make sure performance gains can also meet OE specs.” He went on to explain how aftermarket mods are one of the primary reasons why people want this chassis so badly, and that it is not their task to discourage drivers from modifying their vehicles. Instead, Hameedi prefers to remind buyers that the RS is already great right out of the box and that there are risks involved with tweaking something that’s already close to perfect.
6. Little car, beastly wipers and heating elements
We really didn’t pay the wipers on the RS much mind until we had to use them up in Dearborn one morning. These have to be the largest wiper blades we have ever encountered on a compact, with not just one, but two 28-inch units up front. Designed to offer superior visibility in the worst weather Mother Earth can muster, these monolithic beams are a not-so-small touch that often goes unnoticed. Ford’s parts division, Motorcraft, claims that some models even include a wear indicator that “changes from black to yellow to alert the driver when it’s time to replace the blade.”
Inside the cabin, practicality and simplicity are the name of the game, with the latter of the two serving up yet another surprise. Our RS came equipped with the RS2 Package, which included things like a voice-activated navi, special leather Recaro seats that give the driver eight-way power options, and a trio of heated components that warmed mirrors, front seats, and steering wheel. Consider yourselves forewarned, because when these heating elements fire up, they get hot quite quickly and crank out a lot of warmth.
7. It’s got one hell of a track record
While we had a lot of fun gallivanting around the track in the RS, as well as on back roads and open highways, we couldn’t help but recall the way in which the hot hatch has overpowered its rivals in head-to-head showdowns this year. When Car and Driver did some testing, the RS squashed Subaru’s STI and Volkswagen’s Golf R both in horsepower and torque gains, had a faster zero to 60 time, a greater top speed at 165 miles per hour, and the loudest exhaust.
Top Gear found the RS to be the big winner on track as well when it pitted it against the new Civic Type-R, VW Golf R, and the Mercedes-Benz AMG A45. As the embedded video illustrates, Motor Trend also found it to be the clear winner in a head-to-head battle. As for our own James Derek Sapienza’s review of the vehicle, we still stand by our claim that “the RS truly is a supercar for the everyman. And his wife, kids, dog, and groceries.”