Ah, the “hot hatch.”
It has a history that dates to the early 1970s, according to “Top Gear.” But for most auto enthusiasts, the original smouldering hatchback was the VW GTI. It showed up in the US during the Reagan administration and knocked everybody’s Chuck Taylors off, with a whopping 90 horsepower.
The era of the hot hatch had begun. Dozens of these peppy little savages, in many cases raced in competition as rally cars, hit the scene.
Ford, with its European presence, was quick to join the crowd and by the 1990s, the automaker had created one of the best-known examples, a Group A rally racer that was homologated as the Escort RS Cosworth. It could do 0-60 mph in about 6 seconds, with its 2.0-litre turbo engine, and it topped out at 150 mph.
The spiritual descendant of that car is the all-new Focus RS, the return of a rallying hot-hatch design that was first used in the early 2000s. The Focus RS is a product of the newly created Ford Performance division, so it can get into a bit of rallycross racing. But it has also become a sold-out road car for the 2017 model year — and it’s easily among the best-received vehicles Ford has produced in the past ten years.
I got a crack at it at the Monticello Motor Club’s track in upstate New York — after being blasted around the curves by Ben Collins, a former Stig of “Top Gear” fame. I fell deeply and swiftly in love.
But that was taking the $US36,000 bundle o’ fun around the track. How would the Focus RS do on the road, during a week of driving it in New York City and in the New Jersey suburbs?
Let’s find out:
That's Ben Collins, who was once The Stig on 'Top Gear.' He ripped around the course like a real pro.
Speaking of hatches, when you open the RS's, there's a decent amount of cargo space. And you can always drop the rear seats for more room.
And there's your model name. Ford has been building the Focus since 1998 and started selling it in the US in 2000.
The Ford Performance engine is a 2.3-litre, turbocharged 4-banger that makes a stunning 350 horsepower. It's got a lot of go.
This is what the driver sees. Basic, simple gauges -- just what you want in a car intended be managed with purpose.
The perforated leather-wrapped steering wheel, with its sporty blue contrast stitching, is superb. The steering itself is precise and responsive. It inspires a lot of confidence.
The infotainment system is powered by the latest version of Ford's Sync. It covers all the bases: satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity, navigation, USB, AUX port, and voice commands. Voice, by the way, I found to be very good.
Not a big fan of this toggle controller. But with a bit of practice, it works fine. The Sony audio system sounds reasonably good, but not premium.
Normal keeps the steering smooth and the suspension soft. But I'd be hard-pressed to say that the ride is ever actually plush.
Sport mode firms everything up and tightens. But track mode shows the RS in its most aggressive mood: taut, sharp, and almost missile-like. The 0-60 mph time is achieved in a Ford-claimed 4.7 seconds, which is darn quick.
OK, OK, OK. Yes, you can drift this puppy. Even though it has all-wheel-drive, which otherwise makes it highly stable to drive hard. I didn't not drift it.
Now for the really good stuff. This 6-speed manual is exceptional. It's designed to be useful when the car is being pushed on a track. But in boring everyday driving, it's quick and direct. The gears are no challenge to find.
Three pedals on the floor. The clutch is very crisp and sensitive, ready to do your bidding once you get the hang of it.
I won't lie: it wasn't nearly as much fun. But if you want a track car than can do double duty as a daily driver, the Focus RS is one of the best, if not the best, values for the money. You can take it to the track and get into all 350 horses. That's what most amateur racers should be aiming for.
Obviously, the car was designed to appeal to traditional hot-hatch fans: young guys in their 20s and 30s. They're going to like this car. In fact, Ford is sold out of the 2017 model year worldwide.
For me, the car was indeed a blast on winding back roads, with its point-and-shoot steering, faultless brakes, sonically thrilling engine, and wonderful gearshifter and clutch.
But on torn up roads in NYC, the stiffness of the suspension, even in Normal mode, is an issue. Around the 'burbs, this wasn't as much of a problem. On the highway, the RS is capable, but a road-trip machine it isn't. As a commuter, however, I think it could be all right. And with fuel economy of 19 mpg city/25 highway/22 combined, it won't lay waste to your bank account.
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