“King of the Super Hatches.”
“The Greatest Hatchback Ever?”
Ford officially announced their hottest hatch in January of 2015, just over eighteen months ago, and that it would be hitting dealerships in the beginning of this year. I was the lessor of a 2014 Performance Blue Fiesta ST at the time, and instantly smitten. The Fiesta ST is an incredible car; a journalist's dream: cheap, quick, reasonably efficient, razor-sharp handling, brilliant steering, and hatchback practicality.
I phoned my friends in Ford’s engineering department with one question: Is the Focus RS as fun to drive as the Fiesta ST, while offering the space and comfort of a Focus? The answer from Dearborn was a resounding YES. The German-built Focus RS offers the 2.3L turbo-four from the Ecoboost Mustang, but with more power, all-wheel-drive, that trick AWD and differential that can send 70 percent of the power to the back (and most of that to the outside) enabling the much-lauded “Drift Mode,” and aggressive styling that makes your Golf R look like farmer overalls on Sasha Grey.
I got on the list at my local dealer, Galpin Ford, that very same day, January 15th, 2015. The Fiesta ST lease would be up around that time, and I figured I could slide right in to the bigger, faster, bluer brother.
Ford officially began taking orders October 15th, and I had the number 1 allocation at Galpin, the largest Ford dealer in the world. With a $2,500 deposit charged to my much-used American Express, my order went in first: Nitrous Blue, RS2 Package (heated suede seats, nav, etc.) and 19-inch Forged Wheels with Pilot Super Sport Tires. Ford offers Pilot Sport Cup tires, the same tires you get on the Shelby GT350R, Mercedes AMG GTS, and Corvette Z06, but the Cups are loud on the road and last about 3,000 miles. So, no.
Everyone else, it seemed, got invited to Europe to drive the Focus RS on the press launch, but not me. I guess since they had already sold me one, Ford didn’t feel the need to market to my audience. I would obviously make videos with my own cars, while paying for the car, which is an easy win for Ford. Nevertheless, embargo day arrived and the rave reviews started rolling in, overflowing with superlatives, thanks in no small part to a hefty supply of pre-production cars, tires which do not ever need to be replaced for money, and a big, open space in which to huck the RS into a smoky, four-wheel drift. If the car was even half as good as these people were saying, Ford had a big winner on their hands, and I’d have a killer daily driver in my garage come springtime.
Then, I waited. And waited, and waited. A year became 14 months, then 18 months. Ford released the GT350R and gave me a week’s worth of seat time—maybe I’d get one of those instead? That engine reallyis God Incarnate. Thanks to Volkswagen fucking it up for everyone, the EPA is holding Focus RS’s, I’m told, and they won’t be here until May or June. Furthermore, Ford’s European ordering system and their American ordering system apparently don’t talk to each other very well, which became a problem very quickly.
“Bad news,” said Matt Parsons, my man at Galpin, over the phone. “It seems the orders for the RS are being processed randomly, and even though we got you the first allocation, your car won’t be here until August, whereas other cars, ordered months later, are arriving this week.”
Fortunately, I had several fourth cars to deal with, so I wasn’t pissed, but note to Ford: you really should not treat your customers this way. If someone is willing to put a deposit on a car that no one has even driven a year before it’s going to be delivered, you need to make fucking sure those people get their cars first. They are showing confidence in your product sight-unseen. It was a massive cock-up that angered more than a few.
“Good news,” said Matt Parsons, over the phone, eighteen months to the day after I got on the list, eight months to the day after my order went in, six months to the day after I returned my Fiesta ST lease, and eight days after I saw my first Focus RS on US shores. “Someone ordered a car identical to yours. They ordered it two months after you. Their car is here and they don’t want it. Do you want to take it?”
So now I have a Focus RS of my own, and in August, someone will be buy the car I originally ordered, probably at a substantial dealer mark-up. I drove the RS for three days before leaving for a work trip, and here, in no particular order, are all the things no one told me about the Focus RS before I bought one.
It looks amazing in person, especially in Nitrous Blue
The boys at Galpin certainly know how to present a car. When I arrived to pick up the Focus, it was in their Aston Martin Showroom, on a turntable that, the last time I was there, held a V12 Vantage Zagato. The lighting is perfect, and Nitrous Blue is a spectacularly beautiful color. If this were a Ferrari, an Aston, or a Lambo, Nitrous Blue could easily cost $30,000 on its own. On top of being a modernized representation of a French Racing Blue, there is a deep gold flake in the car, which vanishes in flat light and pops like crazy in direct sun. The matched blue Brembo brake calipers and blue stitching over black leather and suede really make the RS—my RS—an incredibly pretty package. None of the press photos show just how good this thing looks in person; it’s a very strong visual package. Which is hilarious because:
Despite the ‘Aggressive, Boy-Racer Styling,’ no one looks at you
Even in this color, the Focus RS is mostly invisible on the road. Car enthusiasts are a very small minority of the general population (only 4 percent of the videos on YouTube, for instance, are about cars), and for the most part, no one gives a shit about the RS. In the 3 days I was driving it, I got shout-outs from a grand total of three people—all of whom knew my first and last name. The fat, bald man in the drivers seat drew more attention than the bright blue hatchback with the giant wing. So if you’re looking for attention, you may want to look elsewhere, especially because:
The Focus RS is fucking expensive
My car is about as loaded up as they come, and had an out-the-door price of $42,000, including a custom-fit car cover ($400) and Lo-Jack ($500). Since I bought someone else’s allocation, I had to take those extras along with the car. Now, this is not significantly more than either of the RS’s primary competitors, the Golf R and the Subaru STI, but other factors come into play. The biggest one is that I actually leased the RS rather than buying it, and using my $2,500 deposit as a down payment, I’m now on the hook for—are you ready for this?—$750 per month, for 36 months, at 10,000 miles per year.
My girlfriend’s Volvo V60 R-Design (with Polestar!) stickered at $53,000, and she pays $580 per month, with only $1,000 down. That’s $230 less per month for a car that costs $11,000 more than the Focus RS. There are no incentives, there are no rebates, there are no target sales goal deals to be had, and there is absolutely no cash on the hood. Furthermore, Ford Credit, which leased me the Fiesta ST at a phenomenal rate, does not lease Ford Performance vehicles like the RS or the Shelby GT350. In fact, in California only one bank, US Bank, will lease the RS, and they run that lease program like Tony Soprano runs the Bada Bing: Anything is possible, but you’ll pay for it.
You ask: so why didn’t you just buy it, then? The rates, honestly, weren’t any better, even with my Tier 1 credit (anti-humblebrag: I have good credit). And I’m not rich or dumb enough to pay full cash for a car that isn’t 100 percent investment grade.
Nevertheless, when I saw it spinning under Galpin’s 5600-Kelvin spotlights, sparkling like one of Trump’s CZ cufflinks, I wanted it, and I signed the deal. Like I said, I’m not very good at buying cars.
Let’s go back to that European press launch for a minute, the one from which we were all inundated with tales of oversteer, hijinks, and hoonery on Ford’s dime. I’m as guilty as anyone of this, but the way you drive a car on a media launch is not like the way you drive a car in person, in the real world. To that point:
The Focus RS makes a great effort as a luxury car
With the suspension set to normal, the ride is excellent, even in LA’s quasi-shitty grid. The car is very quiet and refined, and the interior is excellent, with supportive and comfortable Recaro seats, a great driving position, good materials in the places you touch the most, and a great-sounding 10-speaker stereo. In the midst of a heat wave the AC absolutely cranks, and seems to sap very little power from the engine. The back seat is reasonably roomy, the trunk is spacious, and the layout of all the controls is logical and has virtually zero learning curve. There are two USB ports and two 12v ports, and unlike the Mustang, the cup holders aren’t in the way of the shifter.
On the road and in traffic, which is where I spent most of my first two days, the Focus asks virtually nothing of the driver. Clutch feel is excellent and the pedal isn’t the least bit heavy, the shifter feel is better than either the Focus or Fiesta ST, and it’s honestly a really nice place to spend time. SYNC 3 is up there with the best infotainment systems I’ve used, and easily integrates with my iPhone 6 whether plugged in or on Bluetooth. Apple CarPlay is not included (though I’ve heard a software update in a few months will include it at no charge) but after spending time with CarPlay in a bunch of press cars, I don’t miss it. It’s much farther up the luxury car food chain than I expected, which is interesting because:
It doesn’t feel remotely like the screaming demon the press made it out to be
Now, I’m not saying the RS isn’t quick; quite the contrary. At the top of the powerband, from 4,500-7,000 RPM, this thing pulls like mad in every gear. But below that, it’s a pussycat. It might even feel slower about town than the Focus ST and its smaller turbo.
The GT350 is the same way; it feels slower than the base car at the bottom of the band, but much faster at the top. The problem is, to enjoy it, you have to rev the hell out of it, and to do that, you’re going way faster than traffic, in any gear.
My schedule didn’t allow for a proper canyon- or track-thrashing in the first two days, but I can say that the steering feel is light and predictable, the grip is excellent despite a top-heaviness at the limit, and there is no understeer at all—which is exactly what you want. Huck it into a corner and that bitch will stick, much like the charges I’m probably going to rack up after three years with this car. Like all great cars, the RS masks speed well, and it’s very easy to find yourself in triple digits on the highway without even thinking about it.
In the first few hundred miles, I’m trying to avoid beating on it too hard, but I’d imagine once the engine is nicely broken in, I’ll be spending a lot of time at the top half of the tach. And that’s because:
Unless you’re driving it really hard, it’s way too quiet
Every journalist from Clarkson on down went on and on about the popping and cracking from the exhaust, but that’s the difference between press launch- or Top Gear driving and real-world driving. Over in Europe, these guys drove around for hours at 5,000 RPM, going full throttle at every opportunity.
Here’s when the exhaust makes those awesome sounds: In sport mode, at over 4,000 RPM, when using full throttle or doing a high-RPM downshift. That’s it. Even in Sport mode, which I’m using exclusively, you don’t get those pops you want so badly unless you’re going full throttle everywhere. Like Porsche and Jaguar, Ford has a master degree in exhaust sounds. But they missed here. In fact, the whole car is way too quiet. I didn’t want to spend seven hundred and fifty dollars a month on a hatchback for it to be this quiet all the time. This is an RS, for chrissakes. There are two giant cans sticking out from the rear bumper. Why doesn’t more sound come out of them? In fact, the biggest surprise in my first three days with the car was:
It’s a 2.3L Turbocharged Inline Four that sounds like a Subaru
I don’t know how they did it, but this engine rumbles like a flat-four. It’s not a flat-four. But it really sounds, feels, and revs like one. I’m genuinely confused, but at the same time, somewhat pleased with this. On the other hand:
This engine drinks fuel like mad
It’s a safe bet that my first 200 miles in this car will be just about the gentlest miles this car will see. Make no mistake, the benefit of a lease here is that I can beat the shit out of my RS with reckless abandon, knowing full well the three-year, 36,000-mile warranty period will cover it if I break it.
Nevertheless, it’s a brand new car and I do like to go easy for the first few hundred miles. And in those first 200 miles, I’ve done a lot of around-town errand runs, some highway driving at normal speeds, and gone 30 miles up and down a canyon road at a pace befitting a Dodge Caravan, not a Focus RS. I burned through the first tank of fuel in 200 miles. My on-board computer is indicating an average 19.6 miles per gallon, which, considering my driving style so far, isn’t very good. Now, this is a new engine, one that I do expect to get slightly more efficient as it breaks in (no, they don't break in these engines at the factory) and 200 miles of driving is hardly big enough to demonstrate any kind of scientific average. But the window sticker says 19/25 MPG, and to get 25 you have to drive this car like an absolute pussy, which, again, is not what I’m paying $750 per month to do. By the 1,000-mile mark, I expect my average to be in the mid-teens, at best. But that’s all fine by me, because:
The Focus RS just ‘feels’ like Motorsport
This is very hard to explain, but roll with me here. Certain road cars feel like Motorsport. The Shelby GT350 and Fifth-Gen Camaro Z28 have it. The Porsche 911 GT3 has it. And now, the Focus RS has it. Certain cars offer a level of feel, feedback, and connectivity that really, truly, feel like race cars. It’s a feeling of power moving from the engine through the driveline to the wheels. It’s an engagement of the driver on another level that goes beyond the performance of the car. It’s a combination of robustness, well-tuned engine vibrations, perfect controls, and harmony. There are good cars—great cars, even—that do not have Motorsport feel. The Ferrari 488 GTB and Lamborghini Huracan, for instance. Both are excellent cars, incredible performance machines, and lightning fast. But they feel like road cars. McLarens feel like Motorsport; like they took the race car and made it streetable, and not the other way around. This, more than anything else I can tell you about the Focus RS, is why I’m happy to pay $750 per month for this thing. Motorsport feel can’t be quantified, it can’t be measured objectively, and so far, it hasn’t been mentioned in any reviews. The Focus and Fiesta ST are both great cars, but do not offer Motorsport Feel. The Mitsubishi Evo and Subaru STI are great performance cars, but neither offers Motorsport Feel. The Focus RS does, and that’s why:
After all this, the Focus RS is still worth it
Yes, it’s been hyped more than the search for Becky With the Good Hair. In order to get the ever-more valuable clicks, the superlatives will become more and more ridiculous. “Is the Focus RS An Automotive Diety?” the Jalopnik headlines will say. And it’s easy to write that, when your experience is limited to 200 miles of foreign-land switchbacks and an open airfield on which to test Drift Mode. Give me a borrowed Focus RS and an airfield, and I’ll tell you what: I’m going to have a real good goddamn time.
The real world, as always, is the 95 percent gray area that exists between “God’s Hatchback” and “Hitler.” And the Focus RS isn’t perfect. There are some things about it that, even in the first couple days, I don’t like. But the good outweighs the bad threefold. I can get an aftermarket exhaust to make it louder. I can find more excuses to beat the crap out of it on racetracks. I write off all my fuel anyway, gas is cheap now, and hell, I used to drive a Raptor so anything over 12 MPG is an improvement. And that invisibility I craved while writing about my DeLorean? Now I have it, in the brightest, bluest, bitchin-est hatchback Americans have ever built in Germany. And as I write this from my parents' house in Connecticut with a loaned McLaren 570S in the driveway, I’m actually thinking about how nice it will be to get back to California. Because I want to go out and drive my Focus RS. Because despite its flaws, it’s exactly the car I spent eighteen months waiting for, and it was worth the wait.