Test Drive: 2016 Ford Focus RS

This performance-oriented people’s car achieves a hyperfocal plane

Designing a car is a study in trade-offs. Manufacturers have to balance performance with economy, comfort with technology, cost with quality. Driver input versus computer control. All of these endless compromises are constantly being checked against strategies, budgets and timelines. And even when a company gets all the balances right, the resulting car can fall flat. The blueprint, as they say, isn’t the product. Which is why it’s so unbelievably refreshing when, very rarely, an exceptional car is born from this process. The 2016 Ford Focus RS—which is already a hit in Europe—is such a car.

Ford dropped off a Nitrous Blue RS at our office late on a summer Friday afternoon to spend some time in NYC before heading up to the Monticello Motor Club to work the car out on track. A word here on the color: if you want everyone to know you have an RS, it’s the obvious choice. The blue sparkles in direct sunlight and glows at dusk. The Focus RS drew a very particular type of attention from fellow drivers. It was mostly invisible to the general public; a slightly ostentatious hatchback navigating the city streets and upstate highways. But for those who knew, they gawked. Drivers of STIs and GTIs would slow to get a look. It is a car for people who love cars.

And for good reason: driving the RS is sublime. The steering input is lively and razor sharp, with Ford’s all-wheel drive torque vectoring technology making the car feel like it’s pivoting on axis. Shifting the six-speed manual transmission from first to second is solid and satisfying. With the driving mode set to Sport, the exhaust pops and crackles in playful call and response with your throttle input. The whole experience on-road is visceral but taut. Things like onramps and roundabouts become moments of absolute delight. Even driven to what seemed like a limit, the car never felt squirrel-y or uncertain. Nothing about the driving experience feels artificial.

As a city daily driver, the Focus RS is also completely practical. It handles domestic mundanity like in-town trips and parallel parking with adroitness. The interior is roomy enough for two adults and a car-seated toddler with space for luggage and a stroller in the trunk. The suspension took to everything from gravel to cobblestones to potholes with little complaint.

On track, the RS’ powers are all the more apparent. Braking response is immediate, as is the acceleration out of the apex. The sport suspension, intolerable on road, here is firm and planted. On tight chicanes and hairpins, the all-wheel drive system makes you feel as if you are pivoting in place. And then there’s the Focus RS’ most infamous (and nearly outlawed) parlor trick: drift mode. Four quick taps of the drive mode button, and the RS will allow the driver to hold the car in seemingly perpetual drifts without losing control. How does it work? Simple: turn wheel, mash gas pedal to the floor, and voila— smoky donuts.

The Focus RS isn’t the perfect car. There are always going to be flaws, and the RS has a few. The interior, for one, isn’t much improved from the rental car spec Focus you can get at any airport lot. The Recaro seats are lovely if not a little over-supportive on longer drives, especially if you’re an athletic type. The Sync infotainment system is still pretty abysmal (support for Apple Carplay and Android Auto is forthcoming, which will help a little). And, let’s be frank: the Focus RS is not a pretty car. Striking? Yes. Aggressive? Totally. Eye-catching? In this shade of blue, absolutely. But this car is not pretty in the way a Jaguar F-Type is, or any Aston Martin is. It’s more muscular and aggressive than its plainer badgemates, and does adopt some of the better cues of Ford’s design styling, but it’s no beauty queen. (But perhaps that doesn’t matter: the RS200 was no looker either, and it’s a legend. Like Tom Robbins once wrote: “The ugly may be beautiful, the pretty never.” This may be true of the Focus RS. Give it time and it might age into its looks.)

The biggest issue of all, however, is the price: at $36,000, it’s nearly double the MSRP of a base model Focus (our unit, which included a heated steering wheel and some additional options, topped out at over $40,000). It is, however, absolutely worth it. It’s the most fun you can buy in a new car for the money. But it’s also the most expensive Ford Focus ever sold in the United States.

Sitting in the passenger seat for a few hot laps around Monticello with Ben Collins (aka The Stig) at the wheel, we asked what his thoughts are on the car. “It’s a small car, and Ford has managed to fit a World Rally spec drivetrain into it, which is hard. Most cars that have tried to do that end up being very heavy and very stiff, something that isn’t very pliable. Most of these cars now are so stiff that you don’t feel like you’re really driving it,” he tells us. “This car is very alive, because it’s able to move the power around so quickly. Most cars today have so much interfering software—the big difference in the Focus RS is the software in this car is working quietly for you.”

Perhaps that’s what makes this car feel special and different from much of the automotive landscape today. The RS feels like a partner. It is inviting and challenging, eager to let you push it but also able to correct your mistakes. It makes you a better driver than you are, and makes you want to try harder to be a better driver for it. It is, in a word, exceptional.

Built in Germany and available for the first time in the USA, the 2016 Ford Focus RS is priced starting around $36,000, available now through your local Ford dealer.

Images by Ryan McManus