2016 Ford Focus RS First Test: Driving Ford’s 350-HP AWD Hot Hatch

Posted on Nov 24 2016 - 5:18am by Lisa Chan

It’s a magical time, isn’t it? Here is a hatchback with 350 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque. Here is an all-wheel-drive system capable of adjusting power distribution rearward and side to side. Here, from a major automaker with an appropriately sized legal department, is a button that if you press it enough times, the word “drift” appears on the center display.

2016 Ford Focus RS

Actual functionality of Drift mode aside (spoiler alert: it’s OK), its existence speaks volumes of Ford’s mindset. This 113-year-old automaker has just won Le Mans with a successor to the GT40, from which a production variant will soon be on public streets. It produces a Mustang with a unique flat-plane-crank V-8 and carbon-fiber wheels that took second place in our 2016 Best Driver’s Car competition. (It lost to the vastly more powerful, more expensive, and more carbon-fibered McLaren 570S.) And here’s an all-wheel-drive four-door Focus with a Drift mode.

A huge wing on the back of the roof and black 19-inch wheels further ensure the absence of subtly on the RS. The exhaust pops and burbles, seemingly in effort of emulating rally cars at the staging lights. The color is called Nitrous Blue, for crying out loud!

Related Video: Driving with The Stig in the Ford Focus RS

How does it scamper away from stop, err, staging lights? All-wheel drive plus a rapid, full-throttle clutch dump nets 060 in 4.5 seconds and a quarter-mile pass of 13.3 seconds at 103.3 mph. This process also ensures cringes from the test driver, as the brunt of all that power is forced upon the poor driveline—don’t do this too frequently at home, kids.

Now we have to talk about tires. Our test car came with optional Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s, an extreme racetrack-orientated tire that’s available on track-ready cars such as the Chevrolet Corvette Z06 and Porsche 911 GT3 RS. They amplify all test numbers, from aforementioned longitudinal acceleration to the 1.02 lateral g average on the skidpad and the 104-foot stopping distance from 60 mph. The Focus RS’ 24.0-second figure-eight time is in the realm of the BMW M3 and M4.

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The tires are the primary contributor to these performance results, although the all-wheel-drive system helps, too. Because the system can route power rearward and side to side, adding to the gas pedal can adjust the pitch and balance of the car midcorner. When you’re ready to come out of the corner, you hit the gas harder. The nose tucks, and you exit faster than anticipated.

Although drift mode is a small disappointment in practice even if its existence in a four-door hatchback wins our nonofficial Corporate Subversive of the Year award, it’s the vertical pogoing effect with the Cup tires that we find unacceptable. We suspect the standard tires will eliminate this phenomenon. It would be worth it even at the expense of the amazing performance numbers our test car generated.

This is truly disappointing because the Focus RS’ fundamentals are solid: from chassis to steering response, you feel an unyielding sense of terrific agility. Eliminate the pogo-stick bounce, and the Focus RS will reframe your perception of previous all-wheel-drive sport compacts, such as the Subaru WRX STI and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. It’s much, much faster and more fun to drive.

The biggest problem becomes price. From a pure performance standpoint, the Focus RS gets uncomfortably close to better driving rear-drive coupes that are faster and capable of real honest-to-goodness drifts without the need of special modes. With a base price of $36,775, the Focus RS equals that of a Mustang GT with the optional Performance pack and Recaro bucket seats. When loaded with options, the Focus RS gets close in price to the vastly superior-handling and faster Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE. The hatchback and four doors make the car more livable for a single-car family, but there are better-performing and better-riding cars available for $42,245.