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Not another test of the Ford Focus RS? A very fair point, given the length of build-up this car has had. Including collecting Top Gear’s own Car of the Year award. But it’s only just arriving in Britain, where 3000 faithful individuals have already ordered it without the chance to try it. We just have, on lumpy and damp Bucks/Northants back-roads, as well as on the smooth, if wet, tarmac of Silverstone. And is it just as magical as you thought? In many ways yes. Does that mean “in one or more ways no”?
Sad to say it does. Go on… Strangely, the RS comes slightly undone in just the circumstance you might expect it to excel. Which is tight and bumpy back-roads. It has marvellously responsive steering. Move the wheel and the nose of the car acts immediately, and in exact degree to the amount by which you’ve turned the rim. Big Read: Across Europe in the new Ford Focus RS Can’t see a problem there chum. Nope, it’s exactly what you want. But the RS has, over and above that, extremely direct steering: a very high-geared rack. Just two turns between the (admittedly not very tight) locks. In other words, a small movement of your hands brings a large rotation of the car. It’s stiffly suspended, so every time you hit a bump, your hands will inevitably jiggle a bit. And so the car will dart left or right. This isn’t fun if you’re meeting a truck at speed. If the steering were less direct, it wouldn’t be an issue. And I’m sure Ford could have done that without losing the wonderful urgency and precision. So to avoid getting deflected, you tend to clamp your arms and grip the wheel like you’re trying to strangle it. Which isn’t conducive to smooth, interactive control. Got that out of your system now? Yes thanks. Rant over. It isn’t a deal-breaker, not at all. Would you now like to resume normal service and shower the car with extravagant praise? Certainly would. First, the handling is awesome, and like nothing else. Not like front-drivers, not like rear-drivers, not like other four-wheel drivers – at least not up to GT-R level. The accurate steering and urgent turn-in aren’t unique of course. It’s what happens when you get busy with the accelerator that distinguishes the RS. It lets you trim the line mid-bend and feel it happening. Then after the apex it’ll rocket away with huge traction. Depending on where you’ve set the electronics there’s a small or large degree of easily-caught tail action too. (You can pick from normal, sport, track and drift in the main combo menu, plus independently sub-select ESP and damper modes.) The RS’s hardware and software means it doesn’t only control slip angles by braking an inside wheel: it over-powers an outside one too. It all makes the RS uniquely rewarding even among the other very excellent AWD super-hatches - Golf R, AMG A45 and Audi RS3. On a road or track with open corners, in the dry, a front-drive Civic Type-R would present a stiff challenge to the RS. But if you make the corners tighter or the surface moister, the Honda can’t get traction and Ford runs away from it.
The 350bhp number sounds impressive, and so does 0-62 in 4.7 seconds. But does the engine make you smile too? Oh yes. For a start it sounds much more interesting than the 2.3 turbo in the Mustang, the engine from which it has been (considerably) developed. Even if it’s only a four-cylinder, the soundscape put me in mind of the five-cylinder in the previous Focus RS, strangely. There’s little lag in the low revs, bags of pull in the middle register and a keen rush for the climactic red-line. It’s an engine that wants to be used. Oh and it’s got a manual gearbox. Woo-hoo. A good one too. Nuff said. Big Read: Ford Focus RS vs the rivals Does it stop? Just as well as it goes. The brakes provide big forces free of fade, easily controlled in big stops – maybe too eager in gentle stops actually. And the chassis is stable as you do it. Can a Focus really wear a £30k price? It’s £29,995 now, but goes up to £31k on May 1, so act fast. As I said, some 3000 folk already have in the UK alone. They’re clearly not spooked by the price, as 60 percent of them have added the pricey Nitrous Blue paint, and high proportions too have exposed their wallets to some combination of forged wheels, active safety aids, navigation, a luxury pack and race-replica seats. But on the wider question, does a Focus feel too cheap for £30k? Quibble about perceived quality if you want – the plastics and switches – but the fundamental engineering quality of this car is immense. It feels solid and precise. It’s refined and rides stiffly but not harshly. It’s fine on a long journey, and easy to drive in traffic. It’s a hatch and completely practical. Get it blue if you want to stand out, slate grey if you want to be stealthy. If you’re paying £30k plus options and think a Ford is beneath you, that’s not Ford’s defect but your own. You’re seriously missing out. Get out and drive it: the RS is truly a step-change car.
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