Long-term Tester Review: The FoRS Is Strong With This One (and the Return of the Bark)

“It’s been a long time. I shouldn’t have left you.”

-Rakim, I Know You Got Soul

Anybody who was thinking Aaliyah when they read that quote, feel free to click “X” in the top corner of your browser. To everybody else, it’s good to be home at TTAC. Since my last post here, people across social media have been asking me three questions:

  • Whatever happened to your Focus RS? Do you still have it?
  • So, how about that Focus, huh? Are you ever going to update us on it?
  • ????
  • Okay, so it’s really only been one question. Fear not, friends. I’m back like a rebel making trouble to tell you all about my first nine months of FoRS ownership. Also, my thoughts on Maxine Waters. No, just kidding. We’ll stick to the Focus thing.

    Let’s start off by stepping into the wayback machine. If you’ll recall, I was looking for something that would be capable of handling family-of-four duties, comfortable for daily driving, and also fun to drive on the track. As such, I’ll break down my time with the car into those three categories and how the Focus has managed to fulfill my expectations of it.

    Family-hauling Hatchback

    Sadly, despite being approximately five million times faster than your regular old Ford Focus SE, it’s not actually any larger inside than any other Focus. I know, completely and totally shocking. In comparison to the Fiesta ST I had for two years, the available interior space might be larger on a spec sheet, but in the real world, it’s not any better. The Recaros are not super comfortable, even after 8,000 miles of break-in.

    But for my family, which includes a not-quite-on-the-growth-chart nine-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, the space is more than adequate. I can easily load a week’s worth of groceries into it and not have to fold down any seats to do it. Soccer gear and ballerina outfits are easily transported, and trips as long as an hour can be done with little to no “quit touching me! Dad, he’s in my space!” complaining.

    After owning a Boss 302 for several years, I must say that the practicality of four doors cannot be overstated. Yes, it’s incredibly easy to compare the Focus RS to the Mustang GT, thanks to the similarity of their price points, but for the 99 percent of the time that you’re not tracking it, the Focus is just easier to live with. Can you have your kids climb in and out of the backseat of a Mustang? Sure. Do you really want to have to? Probably not. There’s no denying that, for all the Nitrous Blue paint and the 15 different RS logos placed all over the exterior and interior of the car, it’s still just a Focus underneath, and it’s good at doing Focusy kinds of stuff. This is both admirable and regrettable.

    And yet, while its Focusness can’t be ignored, there’s still something intrinsically cool about the RS. While there can be no doubt that a Mustang is more suitable to this nearly-40-year-old’s mid-life crisis status, the Focus RS carries a certain cachet that a regular old Mustang GT just…doesn’t. In the nine months I’ve owned the RS, I have seen exactly none of them on the road. I’ve been car spotted several times on various Kentucky car forums, tagged in several Instagram posts, and had Focus ST and Fiesta ST drivers chase me down for photo opps.

    My kids, who admittedly still shout “Mustang!” each and every time we pass anything from a Shelby GT350R to a six-cylinder New Edge on the street, like the fact that Dad picks them up from school in something that nobody else has. “This is the only Nitrous Blue one in Kentucky,” my son proudly states whenever the subject is raised. And while I’m pretty sure that’s not as true as it was the day I brought it home, he’s still very proud of being squired around in it.

    So as far as family-hauling duties go, I’ll give it a passing grade, as it’s undeniably better than both the Boss 302 and Fiesta ST that preceded it.

    Spine-Crunching, Completely Blah, Or Somewhere In The Middle

    As a daily driver, the Focus RS is a plain old-fashioned hoot — or at least it is once you press the Drive Mode button twice, which switches the RS from “Normal” to “Sport” driving modes. Sport keeps the dampers softened, but it tightens up the steering significantly and puts the exhaust into “pops and burbles” mode. This has been my preferred driving mode for driving around town, as it prevents the dampers from going into “ow, my back” mode, but still allows me to feel like I’m being a tad sporty. Throttle response is also improved, making the hot hatch actually feel somewhat toasty.

    Track mode is fun, but it’s best saved for the autocross or even the aforementioned track. The shock settings are just too stiff to be enjoyable on Kentucky roads, and the AWD system gets super-aggressive.

    Normal mode, however, is best for long stretches of highway driving. The steering loosens up a bit, the exhaust quiets down, and throttle response is slowed. But this doesn’t mean the Focus RS can’t still entice the driver into felonious speeds in Normal mode. In fact, I got my first ticket in a long time on the way to Road Atlanta back in February — and then I got another one in Kentucky about a month ago. The RS in Normal mode feels quite calm, cool, and collected, even at speeds up to and exceeding 100 miles per hour. This is good for my driving enjoyment level, but very, very bad for my wallet.

    My wallet also feels the pain at the pumps, unfortunately. Since the Focus requires 91-plus octane, and with the rising cost of premium fuel, the RS can be punitive to drive at times. Granted, I have a heavy foot, but I’ve never seen anything over 19 miles per gallon in the Focus for any extended period of time, regardless of drive mode. If I have a trip of any significant distance to take, I always select my Ford Flex instead.

    Therefore, it’s difficult to recommend the Focus RS over the Focus ST for everyday driving. If I were never going to track it, I’d probably stick with the ST and save half (!!!) of the $43,000 sticker price of the RS. But, since I do track it…

    Brakes, Brakes, Needs More Brakes!

    My first track session in the RS was at Road Atlanta back in February, during the practice for the opening race of the American Endurance Racing season. If you’re not familiar with Road Atlanta, it’s an excellent track for exposing the weaknesses of a car — long straights, high-speed sweepers, climbing esses, and tight radius turns.

    The Focus RS likes three of these four things.

    I had no problem gobbling up nearly every car on track in the long back straight. The aggressive AWD of “Track” mode means the RS digs hard out of corners, getting a jump on anybody who dares to drag race it for position. The nature of the AWD means mid-corner speed is easy to maintain and modulate if needed. And it’s very difficult to upset, because the optional Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires mean that you’ve always got more grip than you need.

    That brings us to the slow corners. That powerful combination of AWD and Michelin means the RS does not, cannot, and will not rotate at slow speeds. The 60/40 weight balance makes the Focus RS just as likely to plow through a pokey corner as little brother ST — in order to make the thing rotate, serious throttle needs to be applied at just the right time. Too early, and you end up early apexing and pointed in the wrong direction. Too late, and you watch RWD cars slide right by your windows. It’s a delicate art, and one that my limited track time in the car has not given me enough time to perfect.

    None of this matters, though, when you can’t brake, and the Focus RS has a tendency to cook brakes nearly immediately. When this happens, you don’t just experience fade. No, you experience a quick vibration, followed by the pedal falling to the floor. When this happened to me in Turn 1 at Utah Motorsports Park, I thought I might be taking a trip to the ER. It’s unpredictable, and it doesn’t happen each successive time. The only thing that solves the problem is a cooling off period, and if there’s not enough time for that, a complete flush of the front brakes.

    Doesn’t mean it’s not a hell of a lot of fun, though. And when you look at the clock at the end of the day, it ends up being a lot faster than cars you wouldn’t expect it to beat — like the aforementioned Mustang GT.

    So what’s the verdict?

    Given the chance to buy the RS again… I would. This is a case where the total of the car is clearly more than the sum of its parts. It’s not perfect at any one task — it needs more space and better fuel economy to be a great DD, and it needs more brake cooling to be a track rat — but it’s a unique car, one that is deserving of all the hype it gets. And you’ll notice that I didn’t say “Drift Mode” once in my review of it, because, frankly, it’s a stupid, worthless gimmick.

    So, if you can find a dealer who’s not still holding on to the $10,000 markup fantasy, the Focus RS is worth your consideration. And if you don’t like Nitrous Blue, they’ll even sell it to you in white, black, or gray.

    Of course, those colors are all wrong. Just ask my son.

    [Images: ©2017 Mark Baruth/The Truth About Cars]

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