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Clarkson on the Ford Focus RS
I’m reliably informed, by my 14-year-old daughter, that there are two types of people in the world - Chavs and Sloanes. And there are no prizes for guessing which type will be most interested in the new Focus RS - a car that comes in a choice of three colours: DFS blue, Stiletto white and Bacardi Breezer green.
On the very day production of this new car started in Germany, I took it for a spin up herein the Cotswolds and, frankly, I couldn’t find one house outside which it might look even vaguely appropriate. If it were a garden ornament, and it sort of is when it’s parked outside your house, then it would be a stone lion and, as a result, I feel fairly sure that if you were to apply the Top Gear cool test - would Kristin Scott Thomas like it? - the answer would be: “No thanks. I’ll go on the bus.”
So let’s ignore the Sloanes, shall we, and start off by saying, “Chavs. This one’s for you.”
I’m the man for the job, because I’m a sucker for flared wheel arches. I’ve often said that in the same way a man can never be too rich, his wheel arches can never be too flared. And the RS, to accommodate its wider track, has some whoppers.
There’s another reason I’m a man for the job, though. I love fast Fords. My first love was a GT40, my first car was a Cortina 1600E and back in the Nineties, I ran two Escort Cosworths. And I’ve always loved RSes too. From the X pack Capris through the Escort 1600i to the 150mph Sierras.
That’s why I was so quick off the mark with the new car. I wanted to see what it was like. And when it arrived at my house, the aural promise of greatness was unmistakable. Its big exhausts make the sort of rumble that rattle even the most beautifully finished sash windows. I honestly thought as it reversed into my yard that my wife was out there in her Aston. It’s low loud. Bass loud. Dog- frighteningly loud.
And then came the crushing disappointment. Despite the enormity of Ford’s global operation, they had fitted the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car. The man who had brought it tried to argue that in other parts of the world people drive on the wrong side of the road, but obviously he was covering up for some other bloke’s massive cock-up. Wrong side of the road? Whatever next?
Assuming that they get this fixed before the car goes on a sale, and I’m assured they will, the interior is much as you’d expect. Extra dials (which you can’t read), a satnav with a woman who cannot be silenced unless you are Bill Gates, and excellent bucket seats. If you have a tweed jacket in your wardrobe, you will hate it in there. If you do not, you will find it great.
But what about on the road?
The last Focus RS was a huge disappointment. It looked good - better than this one, in fact - but to tame the engine’s not particularly stratospheric power, it had been fitted with a front differential of such monumental hopelessness, it probably thought it was a biscuit. You got a ton of torque steer when you set off, then the steering system would jam and then you’d hit a tree, fly through the windscreen and be killed. Technically, engineers called the system ‘s***’.
I was hoping, as the new RS produces 300bhp, it would have four-wheel drive. But no. That would have been too expensive to engineer, so they’ve stuck with a diff. I’m told it’s all new, and softer in its responses. In other words, it’s designed for people who like to drive on roads and not be killed.
Does it work? Well, because it has a revo knuckle - and if you know what this is, you are James May - the driveshafts always stay level with something or other. This means you can blast one wheel through a puddle and not have the steering wheel wrenched from your hand. It also means the car doesn’t follow the camber of the road with anything like the hopelessness of the previous RS.
I have to say that even when the weather is awful, the grip and the poise are excellent. Better than excellent. I can’t imagine that even an Evo X is going to pull away. I know for a fact that on a damp road, it would leave my CLK Black for dead. It’s that good, and not once did I encounter any of the dreaded tread shuffle that seems to plague the testers on other magazines.
But there’s no getting away from the fact that the torque steer is still there. I suppose it’s a consequence of putting 300 horses through a system that also has to deal with the steering. It’s physics. Get used to it. It’s worth it.
The engine is epic. Yes, it is essentially the same blown 2.5-litre Volvo five-pot from the ST, but it has new pistons, a new blower, a new intercooler, a new inlet manifold and that new, dog-baiting exhaust system. Of course, there’s some lag, but from less than 3,000rpm you can feel the shove, you can feel the urgency, you can feel the 324lb ft of torque. And unlike most turbo engines, which run out of puff when you get near the red line, this one keeps right on singing. Well, shouting.
Ford says the ST is like a dolphin, and the RS is like a shark. I’d like to laugh at them for this, but they’re right. It’s a good analogy.
Except the RS is nowhere near as hard as you might imagine. Of course it’s firm, but it’s not “Oh Christ. My Teeth!” firm. It’s more sort of reassuring.
So let’s talk money. The Focus RS costs £24,995, and at that sort of price, this sort of speed and this sort of engineering is unheard of. Especially as it comes with seating for five, a big boot, fold-down rear seats and lots of buttons.
As a result, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment. I’d have a slower but more discreet Golf GTI. But that’s because I’ve moved on. My house is yellow, and my wellies are French. But if you haven’t moved on. If your hat is still on back to front. If you still think the Boss is God and your collar’s still blue, then trust me: life has never been better. The RS glory days, after a momentary blip, are back.
This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Top Gear magazine