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Hammond's icons: Focus RS Mk1
Surprise is an oddly slippery concept for the most part. Sometimes, things surprise us by differing massively from our expectations. More rarely, they ambush us by being exactly what we expect. Dropping into this Focus RS - the only turbo petrol-engined Focus of the first generation - I expected to find a hot hatch that felt truly hot, in the old-school hot-hatch sense of hot. And does it ever deliver on that.
Sat motionless and sitting low to the ground, it felt like my feet were jammed dead centre between the front wheels. After a bare metre or two of travel, it was apparent that here was a proper old-school, seat-of-your-pants, genuinely hot, hot hatch. I was surprised. In a good way.
I’ll come clean: I still keep a little place in my heart for the original standard Focus. So many times, we read all the usual guff about a new design, about how ‘crisp’ and ‘fresh’ it is; but here, in 1998, was something other than a salad that I felt justified the description. I love the exterior, the gently shocking - at the time, at least - boot design, the smooth front end. I loved, and still do, the interior. The lines that slice across the dash connecting passenger and driver’s side, until the person in the left seat feels as involved in the car’s progress as the person behind the wheel. All that still stands today. Perhaps even more so when the car’s design, maybe less compromised by more recent legislative safety requirements, still represents all those words. Fresh. Clean. Sharp. It’s still very, very modern.This RS version was previewed in 2000 before going on sale in ‘02, and all that styling confidence slams together and is magnified tenfold. Fatter wheels, a bulge here, a stripe there. Subtle, but they cast off any shopping-car pretensions and leave you in no doubt from the start: here’s something special.
The deep bucket seats don’t have fumbly, track-day-only race harnesses poking through the holes in the headrest but proper seatbelts instead. So it was easy to strap in and head out onto the track, and into a high-def reminder of why this car is so loved by so many.
Yes, 212bhp of unruly turbo grunt sent through the front wheels requires a wrestling match with ever-present torque-steer. But I like to think that’s just a reminder that this is a serious car. Whether you turn out to be a serious driver is down to you, but the RS delivers every piece of information you could possibly need to do a good job. Surface, grip, slip and turn, every nuance is fed to waiting hands and feet.
But there’s also the dual-purpose thing going on. This car was - and still is - one that could be used every single day as a donkey, plodding to school and work, but it also carries the potential for track-day hilarity and hoonery just beneath the surface. And it just feels… special. All the time.
One of the reasons is that we’ll often talk about how a chassis is the key to a particular car’s success or failure, but it’s usually a bit of a nebulous, catch-all term for the bits that aren’t suspension. In the RS, somehow, you can actually feel the chassis. You’re aware that sitting there, feet slotted between the front wheels, hands on the small wheel and backside hovering a few inches off the deck, you are in command not just of an engine, brakes and steering, but of the chassis holding it all together. Of course, none of this is actually a surprise. As I said, the Focus RS surprises by delivering exactly what is expected of it.
And so these are not a cheap buy. A good one - and it has to be a good one if you’re considering ownership - will sting you for about £10k. But I drove it the day after driving three brand-new hot hatches around the same track, each costing around £19k. Which will be worth the most in five years’ time? If you can’t answer, then I don’t think any of them is for you.