The Ford Focus RS: It's Almost Perfect

I don't know how we got here. Shortly after the Detroit Autoshow, the DriverMod crew sat down in my 400 sqft apartment and we had our first formal meeting; whiteboard notes, shitty pizza and all. Everyone does car reviews! We're going to be different; we're going to write technical articles with brilliant visuals, go racing at far-off race tracks and tell the world about our adventures.

Then, our friend Chris offered us the keys to his Evo X, and having the willpower of a toddler, we took the car for a rip and wrote a review. That was followed by our friend Raphael offering us the keys to his Golf R, and following that review, I decided that keeping the all-wheel-drive turbo theme going might not be the worst idea. With that in mind, we dropped Dov from NV Auto a line and asked him if we could spend some time with his Nitrous Blue Focus RS. 

And this is precisely why we don't do car reviews, because what are we supposed to tell you about this car? You know that it makes 350 hp and 350 tq; you read that on Jalopnik back in the fall of 2015. You also know that it can send up to 70% of its power to an electronic limited-slip differential in the rear, and that its rear differential can send up to 90% of that power to a single wheel. You’ve probably heard that it wears Michelin® Pilot Super Sport tires on 19" wheels and has front Brembo brakes the size of my head. You definitely know about drift mode; a phrase that's been sending both insurance brokers and safety advocates running to fetch their pitchforks. 

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How does it drive? In short, pretty freaking great. This is the first electric-power-steering equipped Ford I've driven that I can say without hesitation feels properly communicative. On this cold, wet spring day on shredded tires, every crack in the road and hydroplaning-induced skittishness was at my fingertips. And its steering is fast, really fast. The RS has a faster steering rack than a Honda S2000, a Miata, a Cayman S, and about fifty other sports cars. So quick, that it has a habit of tramlining on rough pavement. Shifter throws are short, and while it doesn't have a bolt-action knotchy-ness of the Evo X, it's miles better than the Golf R's shifter, where typical German smoothness takes precedence over feel. Unfortunately, the same praise can't be said about the pedals. There’s virtually no clutch feel, and the Focus’ weird pedal placement makes performing heel-and-toe frustratingly difficult. 

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Where it feels similar to the Evo, is the way it puts down power.  Ford's fancy 'rear drive unit' (don't call it a differential) sends most the cars power to the rear axle during corner entry to rotate the car, and blasts it out of corner exit. But, for reasons we'll get to later, there's a difference. It’s best explained like this: while the Focus RS feels like it's figuring out the best way to manage torque during corner exit and entry, the Evo feels like it's already done it. While the RS' torque vectoring system doesn't feel like the afterthought that the Golf R's vectoring system is, it's not remotely as dialled in and responsive as the Mitsubishi's. Nevertheless, it's fast, changes direction quickly, and its drive modes work remarkably well to change how burbly the exhaust note is, how punishing the ride is, and how much power reaches the rear wheels.  

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Interior? Plastic. That's not to say it's bad. All the controls are intuitive and well placed, but if you're the type of person who can explain the difference between Nappa and Dakota leather in granular detail, you should probably buy a Golf R. The Focus does give you plenty to play with though. There's launch control, shock adjustment separate from the drive mode controls, automatic start-stop if you're concerned about fuel economy in your 350 hp hot-hatch, and a useful (annoying) indicator that tells you when you're in too high of a gear.  Oh, and the Recaro seats: they're good. Like really good. Like, freaking perfect.  

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Here's the deal with the Focus RS; as a street car, it's basically perfect. I can sit here and complain about the clutch feel, the amount of rubber in the shifter and the fact that the boost, temperature and pressure gauges look like they were plucked out of a Canadian Tire catalogue, but if you're looking for the best new AWD monster of 2017, this is it.  The problem, is that I don't know if it's up to par with the best of 2008. Let me explain. 

I can say with confidence that the Focus RS is a better driver’s car than the Golf R. It's more engaging, more communicative, and has a more sophisticated all-wheel-drive system, but what I'm struggling with, is whether it's better than the car that started this AWD marathon; the Evo X. To a passerby, the answer should be obvious. The Focus RS has more tech, a nicer interior and more power, but it's hard to overstate how driver-focused the Evo X is. The Evo's perfect pedal placement made footwork a breeze, its shifter has the mechanical feel reminiscent of a Porsche Cayman, and no matter how good the electric rack of the RS manages to be, it's no match for the traditional hydraulic rack in the Evo. It may sound like I'm nitpicking, but after walking away from these cars, these are the things I remember vividly; not how hard the plastic on the Evo's dashboard is.  

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Then there's the important bits. The Evo has torsen differentials in the front and rear, while the Ford has a front open differential that uses brake-biased torque vectoring. Then there’s that pesky rear-drive-unit. I say “pesky”, because its owners have been reporting problems with it overheating, causing the unit to shut down, turning this into a front-wheel-drive car. Ford has promised that they'll release a rear differential cooler soon, but that's a bandage solution to a larger issue. What Ford has done, is combine clutch-type center and rear differentials into one small unit, and if this compact unit is having trouble operating under conditions specified in the owners manual (yes, there's a section for track use), I can only imagine what will happen when tuners begin 'Eco'boosting these engines far beyond their 350 hp factory rating. The Evo also get's larger brakes that are paired with properly sized 18" wheels.  

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If it's any remediation, I think these missteps come across as so glaringly obvious because the rest of the car is so damn good. I keep bringing up the Evo X because it was the wild, meth-smoking, speed-obsessed member of the AWD, turbo-charged family, and its departure left a hole for a similarly wild and fast car; a hole that Ford is trying to fill. It's a yin to the yang that is the Golf R, and they get it 90% right. But, they missed things – important things. Call it cost cutting, but instead of focusing on marketing gimmicks such as “drift mode”, what the RS really needs is a proper drivetrain setup and a set of properly spaced pedals.  

If you're looking for the best commuter, buy a Golf R. If you're looking for the best AWD track weapon, find yourself a used Evo X. If you're looking for a bit of both, the Focus RS is probably for you. 

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What about the Subaru WRX Sti? No idea, haven't driven it. If you have a spare one kicking around, send us an email to contactus@drivermod.ca and we'd be happy to take it for a rip.

Special thanks to the guys at NV Auto for letting us borrow their RS, and a shout out to Val DiPietro for risking life and limb to take badass rolling shots in the rain. 

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