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Ford Focus RS vs the rivals

Focus RS does battle with Merc A45, VW Golf R and Honda's Civic Type R

Published: 16 Feb 2016

Nowhere else do the tectonic plates shift quite as quickly as on the hot hatch continent.

Last year, we undertook our most vigorous audit of the class ever: 20 cars carefully dissected on an unforgiving circuit and bruising Scottish roads. There was a winner, eventually, but frankly we’re still debating/throwing stationery at each other over the result. And yet here we are, but seven moons later, and there’s a new world order in waiting.

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The pool of contenders is smaller, but then we’ve already separated the wheat from the chaff. Our select group includes the winner and runner-up from that last outing – the VW Golf R and Honda Civic Type-R – plus two newcomers intent on making the ‘hot’ in ‘hot hatch’ look a bit undercooked. Yup, we’re looking at you, Mercedes-AMG A45. It now produces 376bhp and 350lb ft of torque from its strung-out 2.0-litre turbo – that’s more than a Lamborghini Countach. In your face, 362bhp Audi RS3.

Words: Jack Rix

Photography: John Wycherley & Rowan Horncastle

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And then there’s the main event, the Ford Focus RS, the car that’s already being lauded as the finest example of hot-hatchery ever to grace our planet. Mainly by us, to be fair, but, hey, we’d just driven 2,000 spectacular miles in it around some of Europe’s most coveted roads and were besotted. Truth is, we may have made a rod for our own back, because in isolation it felt worthy of that title, but now it’s time to earn it.

As our convoy rolls into the Circuit des Ecuyers, 66 miles east of Paris, the sun is still hiding behind the firs and the thermometer is firmly in the negative. A mist hangs over the 2.2 miles of tarmac and 19 turns, lifting its skirt just enough in places to reveal a worryingly glazed surface. The previous afternoon had been spent exercising the cars on public roads around Reims, but this circuit does a better impression of a perfect B-road than a ‘proper’ racetrack: narrow and surrounded by a welly-stealing bog. Perfect hot-hatch territory, then, and unshackled by the rules of the public highway.

The A45 looks like a serious piece of kit and is extracting all the right sort of “phwoars” and “oofs” from our cultured TG crew

Frank Guittard, the track’s manager, is less concerned about the ice than a bunch of sleep-deprived, soft-centred Brits. “Wait for the sun. In half an hour it will burn through,” he claims before setting off in his well-used Honda CR-V for an ill-advised exploratory lap. We set off to the nearest building to hunch ourselves around cups of coffee and stare at our foursome through the glass doors.

Straight away, there’s a playground pecking order. It’s always worn its performance lightly, the Golf R, but in this company it’s elbowed to the back of the lunch queue. Not so the Focus RS that sports its RS-embossed wing, 19-inch wheels and angular front end with pride, but it’s still a far cry from its heavily muscled predecessor. In meeker colours than this Nitrous Blue, it would be a touch too apologetic for our liking.

At the other end of the taste spectrum are the A45 and Type-R, both constantly vying for your attention, desperate to add a few more mph or shave a tenth with another vent here or wing there. Except, whereas the Civic has been tinkered with for too long and the end result is quite frankly a dog’s dinner, the A45 looks like a serious piece of kit and is extracting all the right sort of “phwoars” and “oofs” from our cultured TG crew. That optional wing might be a rip-off at £1,530, but I’d swallow it and tick the box.

Our man Frank returns triumphantly announcing that the circuit is suitably thawed and like a slow-mo Le Mans start, we leap up and tiptoe gingerly across the pits. Despite spending the last four days and several thousand miles in it, I head straight for the Focus RS – keen to see how it performs flat-out.

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First things first: Frank’s idea of a thawed track is slightly different to mine. The circuit is longer, with more elevation changes than Google Images can convey, and the two trickiest, double-apex corners are both downhill on entry, off-camber in the middle and still icy as hell. I discover this as I barrel into the first of them on cold summer tyres and plough straight on. Moments before I disappear into the mud, the RS bites, with all four wheels still spinning and adopts a 45° angle as I claw my way up and out the other side. It’s eventful, near-death stuff, but for some reason I’m slapping the steering wheel and laughing out loud.

Soon enough, with four of us lapping, the sheet ice turns to slush and there’s meaningful feedback to work with. In a straight line, the Focus’s 345bhp, 2.3-litre, 4cyl EcoBoost engine is a revelation – floor it from low revs and there’s a sniff of turbo lag, but from there on it’s a wall of torque (325lb ft or 347lb ft on overboost) – a thrusting linear surge that’ll headbutt the 6,800rpm limiter if you’re not quick on the draw with your gear changes, and leaves a rasping rally-style note in its wake, with AK-47 flurries on the overrun. The six-speed manual is a revised version of Ford’s trusty unit, but with a shorter lever and revised mechanism – not quite the precision-milled action you get in the Type-R (the only other manual here), but positive enough and compatible with a gobsmackingly effective launch-control system… more on that later.

The ultimate source of the RS’s otherworldly powers, though, is its advanced torque-vectoring four-wheel-drive system. We’ve already bombarded you with the gritty technical details of how the electronic clutch-based system operates, but suffice it to say that it can shift up to 70 per cent of the torque to the rear axle, and then up to 100 per cent of that to either of the rear wheels. The algorithm with which it divvies up the torque is up to you. So, in Sport, you get sharper throttle response, meatier steering and more explosive tailpipes, plus a more neutral stance in corners. You can still trim your line with the throttle, but it’ll never rotate beyond a degree or two.

Things get a little more serious in Track. For starters, the two-stage dampers firm up, holding the body tighter while the rear end loosens a notch. In these cold damp conditions, it would be the most effective way to post a lap time, but would it be the most fun? Nope, for that you need to select Drift (and switch the ESC off completely, if you’re feeling bold) and unleash the beast. Well, I say “beast”, but it’s more of a large domestic cat really, given the welcoming way in which it lets you approach the limit, go straight past it and still keep your underpants fresh.

For fans of proper, chest-beating oversteer – the kind you get in a Viper ACR that widens your eyes to saucers and floods your stomach with adrenaline – the way the Focus RS slides might be a bit Fisher-Price, but for the other 99.9 per cent of us, it’s a revelation. You provoke the rear end with a hefty prod of the throttle then simply keep it pinned and enjoy the sideways ride. With 30 per cent of the power still spinning the front tyres, it hauls you forward while the tail hangs out, reducing the chance of swapping ends to virtually zero. In many ways, it’s a modern-day Mitsubishi Evo, born to flatter the driver, but also to deliver those hero moments that you can’t wait to embellish in the pub.

While sensations from the RS are still fresh in my fingertips, it’s the A45 I need to try next. It may cost precisely £10,000 more than the RS, but Ford makes no secret that it’s the Merc and the similarly pricey Audi RS3 it’s gunning for. The Audi is an absentee because we’ve already established that it’s a bit of a one-trick pony – crushing in a straight line but inert with steering lock applied – but the A45 has arrived armed to the teeth. It’s not just the extra grunt (unlocking a 0–62mph time of 4.2 seconds, four tenths faster than the pre-facelift model) at play here – there’s a new locking front differential and a faster seven-speed dual-clutch ’box.

What hasn’t changed much is the interior, and that’s good. You sink lower into the seats than you do in the Focus, while everywhere you look and touch show it to be a more premium machine. From the grippy Alcantara on its wheel to its chunky paddles nicked from the AMG GT, the A45 comes from a rarefied world that’s alien to the blue-collar Focus. Whether that’s worth the £10,000 entry ticket in itself is up to you, but let’s see how it moves before making snap judgements.

It’s a proper fireworks factory this engine, with bursts of artillery fire from the exhausts that are denser, more varied and louder than the RS. The way it snaps forward feels a league above, too, and because you don’t have to dip the clutch and manoeuvre a small stick when you want to change gear, there’s zero break in the torque, just all the acceleration, all the time. Upshifts are now a thing of uninterrupted beauty, but it still has a habit of delaying on the way down. Pull the left-hand paddle three times and it’ll stack the shifts, waiting until you’re done then dropping three cogs in quick succession. Frustrating, but not a deal-breaker.

Immediately the ride feels firmer than the others in their softer modes, although there’s less of a gap with the Merc when you crank the dampers up. As we’re on a track, that’s not a huge concern right now. Right now, I’m learning that while the A45 is brutally effective on the road, given enough space, it can also be enticed to play. Trail-brake into corners, and the rear swings around obediently, and from there satisfying four-wheel slides are yours for the taking. Build your confidence to approach the higher limits, and it can even be coaxed into a bit of power oversteer, all the while responding instantly to your inputs and feeling shot through with a build quality the others cannot match.

If the Merc’s willingness to play the fool is the day’s biggest surprise, then the Golf R is the biggest disappointment

If the Merc’s willingness to play the fool is the day’s biggest surprise, then the Golf R is the biggest disappointment… on the road, at least. Whereas the A45 feels like it has core strength and a rippling six-pack, the Golf has been skipping leg day and grown a sizeable paunch. It’s a tough gig for the 296bhp Golf, but as our reigning hot-hatch champ it should be well-equipped for such a task. Instead, it feels soft and slow-witted, underendowed both aurally and visually, and generally outclassed. I appreciate that this is a Golf and needs to ace the daily grind better than anything out there, but while it’s doing an impression of a 1.4 TSI SE, the other three are gurgling and goading, without resorting to unbearable refinement.

And then, when I’m all but ready to give up, I hit the track, attack hard and the whole thing comes to life. It’s as if it’s lifted several inches and is suddenly up on its toes, sidestepping, dancing, anticipating the next turn. The steering is under-geared in this company, and with a 50/50 torque split from the Haldex four-wheel-drive system, it never feels rear-driven like the RS, but lifts of the throttle or dabs of the brake are your tools for getting the car turned in, then there’s masses of traction to sling you down the next straight. It starts to find its voice, too – a metallic gnash rather than anything overly dramatic – and the gearbox is the best auto here. Oh it’s good, this car, very good. But good enough to win again? I’m not so sure.

There’s a reason I’ve left the Civic Type-R until last: these are far from ideal conditions for a 306bhp, front-wheel-drive, turbocharged nutter-hatch, and I’ve just watched our road test editor being towed back onto the track following a spin that left the front tyres two feet from the tarmac. It didn’t require a genius to deduce that traction was going to be an issue. So, let’s start with the positives. The steering is rife with feedback and has a brawnier weight to it than the other cars do here – I wouldn’t say it requires serious muscle, but it feels like you’re operating something manly and mechanical. Rowan Horncastle points out that the seats are the best here, too, which I agree with, before he adds that he likes “fighty” cars like this and does an impression of a lion. Strange man.

You can sense that this is a car set up with lap times at the top of the job list because it feels wider than its dimensions, with immense lateral grip. It possesses a genuinely mighty engine – boosty, yes, but in a straight line it doesn’t feel any slower than the Focus RS, despite giving up a second in the official 0–62mph figures. Trouble is, besides the turbo whistling and puffing away, the engine makes a horribly vacuous noise, and, despite the best efforts of the front diff, the front tyres are constantly scrambling for purchase. And I mean constantly, even with the unnecessarily twitchy R+ mode turned off. Slow things down, use a gear or two more than you would normally and it’s possible to stick to the track, but by that point you’re going so much slower than the other three that it saps the fun.

It’s on this basis that I make a call which will infuriate keyboard warriors everywhere. I leave it out of the drag race. OK, so the width of the track means there’s only enough room for three abreast, but on our hastily constructed, slightly uphill, fifth-of-a-mile drag strip, the Honda would be left for dead, so we leave things to our four-wheel-drive, launch-equipped trio.

Go on, have a guess at the result. You’re thinking Mercedes, Ford then VW, right? Wrong, I’m afraid. While the Focus’s brilliant and easy-to-activate launch control (select launch in the instrument cluster, slot it into first, bury the throttle then dump the clutch) means it’s the sharpest off the line, each extension of my human leg and flick of my flesh-and-blood wrist is no match for the others' dual-clutch, computer-controlled transmissions. And so with every upshift, they pull further ahead, the A45 winning at a canter.

Never the sore loser, I rack my brain for excuses and realise our little race actually shines a light on the Focus’s core philosophy. Who cares if the manual ’box loses it a race or two or if the interior is a bit scratchy in places? Its job is to make serious performance accessible, pleasurable and affordable to the man in the street. It achieves that, no question, but to leave it there would be damning it with faint praise, because it’s fundamentally a better driver’s car than the other three here.

While the Golf R still has flashes of magic in its bones and can smoothe the edges off the real world better than the other three, it’s too staid in the face of more exotic competition. The same can’t be said of the flamboyant Civic, but its main contribution on this test was to highlight the shortcomings of front-wheel drive. The recent changes have done the Mercedes a world of good, it’s still the most unhinged hatch in the world and it’s learned not to take itself too seriously. But despite the willy-waving rear wing, double diffuser and silly exhaust (kept permanently in its shouty setting, of course), it still lacks a layer of interactivity at and beyond the limit – space that the Focus RS now officially owns. The tectonic plates are shifting alright, and it’s the RS that’s moving them.

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