The first Ford Focus already established itself as an exceptionally talented handler back when it was first introduced in 1998. And when their first Focus RS debuted, it was rightly seen the successor to fabled Escort RS (the previous RS to have all-wheel drive).
It was brilliant to drive. And when Ford launched the second generation Focus, the world waited again, this time for a sequel. The pressure to deliver an amazing car must have been massive, but the did again with the Mk2 Focus RS in 2009, toward the end of that era Focus’ life cycle.
The third generation car also carried with it a burden of biding time while the new RS (and the engineers behind it) gathers strength. With the Mk3 Focus properly aged and having undergone a substantial update, the stage was set for yet another RS.
Ford’s decision to combine their North American and European performance divisions (SVT and TeamRS, respectively) did cast a shadow of apprehension as to whether the same magic can be replicated with a structurally altered squad, but in 2015 at the Geneva Motor Show, Ford Performance unveiled a 2.3-litre 257kW/440Nm all-wheel drive RS.
It loses one cylinder and arguably suffers in terms of soundtrack for it, but otherwise the new Focus RS takes the game forward with more performance and better handling. Over the standard 5-door hatch, there’s been a raft of mechanical changes that almost make it an entirely new car, and a comprehensive aerodynamic package. Still, the fact that it’s only available with a 6-speed manual transmission speaks volumes about the RS’s central aim to be a driver’s car.
For the amount of driving pleasure it’s capable of delivering and the performance it can put onto the road, the Ford Focus RS is something of a bargain when contrasted against the other ‘hyper hatches’ out there.
No other mainstream manufacturer has dared to create a performance car of this level and put it on the open market without charging an eye-watering sum for it. Thus, the RS trades blows with the Golf R, Audi RS3, Mercedes-AMG A45, and BMW M140i — all very fast all-wheel drive capsules with either bulging engines or ones turbocharged to the moon. And the consensus tends to reveal it’s actually a better drive than those still.
“There is nothing stealthy about this car. It’s so loud and so festooned with spoilers that many potential customers will say, “No, thanks,” and buy the much more subtle Volkswagen Golf R instead.” - The Sunday Times Driving
We should all be familiar with the regular Mk3 Ford Focus by now. It’s a rather compact 5-door hatch or 4-door sedan that that teams handsome looks with decent practicality. The faster Focus ST adds to the theatre with lowered-this and aggressive looking that. The Mk3 RS takes it further still.
It incorporates the styling tweaks introduced with the 2014 facelift, but apart from the very pronounced aero kit and new front fascia bits, big roof spoiler, and yes, the many RS badges, no one detail screams RS. To some, Ford handled this properly while others aren’t so convinced and would’ve preferred something more flamboyant.
It retains a very similar side profile, its body isn’t any wider than the garden variety Focus, and if you swap the wheels for less ostentatious ones, can be mistaken for just another sporty hatchback instead of the slithery road-going rally car it actually is.
Engine and Drivetrain
“…there’s some lag down low, but the RS’s engine pulls hard once the turbo spins up and exhibits an undiminished zeal all the way to the 6800-rpm fuel cutoff. - Car and Driver
Like its predecessors, this Mk3 RS gets its power from a heavily turbocharged engine, specifically its 2.3-litre EcoBoost four-cylinder that also powers the entry-level Mustang. It had to be more powerful than the 5-cylinder turbo used in its predecessor, and there was no way the engineers would have been able to handle that much motive force without overwhelming the front wheels.
Therefore, it was promptly decided that the new RS would need to be all-wheel driven - it was about time too, as the last truly legendary all-wheel drive Ford, the Escort RS, was getting to be such a distant memory.
Though its competitors also realised as much and have outfitted their really fast hatches with all-wheel drive, the system in the Mk3 Focus RS is something a little bit special, developed with GKN to deliver drive rearward and also to any wheel to deliberately overwhelm it. Why? To induce more slip rather than necessarily keep it planted all the time - or, in plainer terms, for fun.
The engine is a peach too, always ready to accelerate at virtually any rev and impressively lag-free for such a boost-dependent engine. What’s more is that, should 254kW not be insane enough for you, Ford Performance and Mountune offers aftermarket upgrades that unlock even more power while keeping the warranty intact.
“It’s much like a standard Focus interior, with very little that defines it as a hot hatch. It doesn’t have the finish, or quality of the materials of its rivals – even the similarly priced Golf R feels significantly more premium.” - EVO
Stepping into the car won’t shock you if you’ve already experienced any other Mk3 Focus. In fact, sans the many RS badges, so little has changed here from a forward point of view that pointing out the differences on both hands would be rather easy.
Some view this as the compromise that the car’s lower price entails, but unless you’re a stickler for needing to feel special, the interior here won’t really disappoint as it brings all the key elements for a fast hatch’s helm: great seats, visibility, and driving position.
The dashboard is familiar, yes, but feels reasonably high quality and modernly laid out. There is prevalent blue stitching and an additional series of gauges for turbo boost pressure and oil temperature still sit awkwardly above the centre stack like they do in the less fast ST, though.
Nearly every creature comfort is on offer here but you won’t find an on par experience with the Golf R, A45 ,or Audi RS 3. There’s decent space for rear occupants too, just like a regular Focus, which didn’t have a particularly large boot to begin with, and now has had that volume reduced to 260-litres to make room for the all-wheel drive under that floor.
Behind The Wheel
“Step back from the limit and it still brims with energy: the steering loads up beautifully in long corners, the brake pedal has a high biting point but plenty of feel and there’s just enough body roll to help the car feel mobile and alive underneath you.” - Top Gear
That concession in cargo capacity is easily forgiven once you get the RS going, though. The racy EcoBoost motor comes to life with a raucous note from its nearly straight-through exhaust system, which has acceleration good enough to fool anyone into thinking they’re on a rally cross special stage.
It’s a firm ride, sure, but under normal driving conditions the Focus RS’ all-wheel drive system keeps the car supremely planted but switch it over the Sport or the much debated Drift modes and the car expertly dials in extra slip through the corners. It doesn’t feel uncouth at the limit, in whichever mode, a trait that inspires confidence that the car’s onboard systems is letting you have a great amount of fun without letting you get ahead of yourself (most of the time).
Track mode should be called Super Serious, though, as sharpens up the car to be as precise as possible and keeping the drive systems primed to handle seemingly any cornering angle or speed without much break in traction. The breadth of ability is impressive.
Finally, all this is topped off by the genius inclusion of a manual gearbox, leaving you in no doubt that you’re responsible for how the car performs, that your mastery with the clutch and stick shift is the key linkage to the action. It’s a sense of connection that the German marques lack with their ultra-precise but somewhat disconnecting dual-clutch transmissions.
Safety and Technology
Ford’s SYNC 2 infotainment software is well featured, albeit a tad cumbersome to use. Some selection areas are quite small and hard to tap while on the move. - CarAdvice
The 5-door Mk3 Focus hatch was given a 5-star ANCAP safety rating so most back when the facelifted version was tested in 2015. Seeing as how much of the structure and platform is identical, the Focus RS should perform just as well in crash deformation tests though it hasn’t been tested.
Front and curtain air bags are standard but certain active systems such as the Active City Stop (AEB), blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross traffic alert features in the higher-spec Focus hatch are not included in the RS. Ford has, however, included a reversing camera and programmable MyKey support.
The RS also comes with Ford’s standard SYNC3 infotainment system with navigation, displayed through an 8-inch central touchscreen. It’s responsive, easy to use, has class-leading voice command support, and includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration.
The Mk3 Focus RS is a worthy addition to an already illustrious line of signature high performance Fords. It also represents great value for a car with this much talent, and how talented it can make you feel.
The Focus was already one of the best handling cars in the segment, but with the addition of all-wheel drive, clever torque vectoring, and heck-of-a lot of power, the RS is another hero from small beginnings. The everyman’s rally racer.
Top Gear - 9/10 - “Fast, fantastic, affordable: the Focus RS is what we call a game-changer.”
Road and Track - “…the best part is that this all comes in a very practical 5-door hatch that you could comfortably drive around town with your mom or kids. There's even room for a good-size dog in the back.”
The Sunday Times Driving - 4/5 - “Ford has bitten the bullet. It has locked the accountants in a cupboard and bought the tooling. It has fitted four-wheel drive, and you know after about 100 yards that it has created something very special. Even at James May speeds, on a roundabout in Hounslow, this car feels cleverer than is normal. It feels like a Nissan GT-R.”
CarAdvice - 9/10 - “It is the best value hot hatch on the market, it is fun and it is capable. It’s not all things to all people, but if you’re that person who is acutely aware of how hard these things are to find for sale at the moment, I’d wager it is going to be all things to you.”
EVO - 5/5 - “The Focus RS continues to impress with excellent performance and fine handling.”
Car and Driver - “There’s something refreshingly honest about it; while the RS feels brawnier and has much more linear throttle response than an early Impreza WRX STI or Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, there’s something akin to the same spirit at play here.”