The hot hatchback segment is seemingly growing despite the lack of interest in compact cars as pedestrian means of transportation. Customers are voting with their dollars, and they are voting crossovers and SUVs. Nevertheless, there are currently four high-end, high-horsepower hot hatches on the market, and we just spent a week in one of the hottest; the 2016 Ford Focus RS.
Competing against the RS is the Volkswagen Golf R, the Subaru WRX STI (although not currently a hatch), and the Honda Civic Type R. While this author hasn’t spent any time yet in the Honda — it’s quite new — we’re experienced with the other Focus RS competition. That’s why it’s important when we say this is the best hot hatch you can presently buy (except for the Civic, which we can’t judge yet).
It’s a flawed Focus, for sure, but it’s very very good at the business of going fast, and surprises and delights in the easy-to-drive category. The Focus RS is a car that likes to be driven quickly, but can also be driven quickly by novices and professionals alike.
Unlike every other Focus you can buy, the RS has all-wheel drive. It’s a complex and technical unit that shifts power to practically any wheel that needs it. A total of 70% can go to the rear for tail-out shenanigans, or it can send most to the front for it to behave like a normal fuel sipper on the highway. It all depends on what drive mode you’re in and how you drive.
A computer-controlled drive mode system handles of the duties of turning the stiffly-sprung RS from a normal street car into a track or drift machine. In the normal startup mode, it’s quite like a normal car with light steering and the softest suspension possible. Bumping it into track mode tells the car you’re ready to have a bit of fun, but leaves the electronic nannies at full attention and keeps the dampers soft.
Changing to track mode stiffens the dampers and cuts back on the stability control. You can still completely turn the stability control off in any setting, and the dampers can also be independently controlled by a button on the indicator stalk.
Finally, there’s drift mode. While it sounds cool — and indeed is cool — it’s really not something you’ll be using a lot because most of this car’s time will be spent on the street and you don’t want to waste money having to buy new tires all the time.
Also unlike every other Focus you can buy, the Focus RS is powered by a 2.3L EcoBoost engine that makes 350 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque. That’s more than the EcoBoost Mustang, which the engine in the RS is based on.
To address how performance-oriented this car is, we took it to the Grand Valley State University autocross outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan to see how the car performed at dodging cones. While I didn’t go into it expecting any miracles — it’s a new car to me and I didn’t want to completely obliterate Ford’s tires — I was quite impressed with how the car handled.
The car always seems like it wants to work with you, instead of against you. The electronics, especially in the all-wheel drive system, figure out what you’re trying to do and make the car as fast as possible in doing there. In corners where you’d normally understeer if you stood on the accelerator, the Focus RS just gripped and turned. Really tight corners were still annoying because of a reason I’ll talk about in a bit, but overall the Focus RS is a worthy companion on the course.
When the car’s not a full-boil, you start to notice some of its flaws. And if you’re planning on living with the Focus RS daily, you’ll want to know about them.
First off, the ride quality is on the firm side, even with the dampers in their normal setting. There are some Michigan roads where an Alfa Romeo 4C is more comfortable than this car. If you’re coming from a car with a modified suspension, you might not care about the stiffness on the Focus RS, but compared to the Golf R the ride is a bit harsh.
The RS2’s Recaro seats are awesome to look at, but not the best to sit in. Over the course of the week I did manage to find a comfortable driving position in them, thanks in part to the power lumbar support, but there are people who won’t like them. I’ve read that they’ll break in over time, but you’ll want to sit in them before buying them.
The most-annoying thing with a daily-driven car though is the turning radius. To make tight parking lot maneuvers — like grabbing an end spot at Costco — you have the swing the car way out to make the turn. On roads where most cars can make a U-turn, you end up doing a 3-point turn. It ends up being the most frustrating thing about driving the car.
There are a few other little niggles. I’d like an auto-dimming interior rearview mirror. If we’re saving weight, the Recaro seats wouldn’t be powered and heated. So since it’s obvious ever gram doesn’t matter, put in the fancy mirror into the nearly $40,000 Focus.
You also lose some rear seat space and trunk space to accommodate the all-wheel drive unit.
Overall, though, the Focus RS is a fantastic hot hatch. Like the other hot hatches in the segment, you’re going to want a one in order to buy one. There are other performance cars out there that are in this price range. But the Focus RS easily climbs to the top of the hot hatch hierarchy with the best horsepower and torque, great handling characteristics, and European charm.
If I were to get one, I’d opt for either the base wheels or the lightweight alloys, but skip the Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires. The Super Sports — the standard tire — are great in the rain and will last awhile. I’d also opt for the Nitrous Blue paint because it’s great looking in person and received a lot of compliments.
The Focus RS, despite some everyday drivability concerns, will go down in history as one of the great performance hatches from Ford. If you’re thinking about pulling the trigger you won’t be sorry.
Photo Credit: Bryan Redeker