It really seemed like a good idea at the time. The hype was strong; the early preproduction reviews out of Europe hailed it as “God’s Hatchback,” and proclaimed we’d been saved from Subaru’s geriatric 2.5L Turbo powertrain–on sale since G.W. Bush’s first term–and from the death of the Mitsubishi Evo, itself only a satisfactory product on racetracks. Think what you want about the Golf R, which, objectively, is a fine automobile. But knowing about Volkswagen’s emissions, uh, troubles, I wasn’t about to give them a dime.
Having spent two years with the universally lauded Ford Fiesta ST, breathed on by the smart folks at COBB Tuning, I could not wait to get my hands on a Focus RS. The idea that you could get something as fun to drive as the Fiesta ST, but in a slightly larger and more luxurious package was an instant win. Some Ford insiders I kept in with assured me that the Focus RS would be as fun as the Fiesta ST, but faster and with more space. It was an easy sell, and I got my name on the list at Galpin Ford nearly six months before the order banks even opened. In fact, I was the first one through the hole, having never even laid eyes on one.
Then Ford bungled the delivery process. Badly. Although names were submitted in the order in which they were received at individual dealers, Ford corporate mixed them all up without any sense of timing or priority, and cars ordered in January were delivered in March, while cars ordered the previous October didn’t arrive at dealers until May, June, or later. While this can be an issue for something like a special edition Porsche 911 or a Ferrari, it’s really an issue for a $42,000 hatchback, which is simultaneously a special, luxury item, and, for most folks, a necessity for commuting. I put my name on a list in February 2015, expecting the car in February, 2016. The orders went in to Ford in October, 2015. There were delays, and the first cars arrived in March, 2016, but my order, the first on the list at the world’s largest dealer, was scheduled for September, 2016. Many people were counting on delivery dates to replace a current trade-in, and ended up canceling in frustration. That's how I ended up with my car in July, rather than September. Anecdotally, I know this delivery mishap sold a lot of STI’s and Golf R’s.
I’m not still bitter about this, and the only real reason I bring it up at all now is because of the setup. With the delay, I was simultaneously frustrated at the process, while excited for the thing to finally arrive. When it did, wow did it look incredible. Galpin delivered the car in their beautifully lit Aston Martin showroom, which you enter through a bank vault door. Nitrous Blue is the single best paint color I have ever seen on a modern car, with an astonishing level of brilliance and depth. I’m certain Ford lost money on every car painted that color. I fired it up in the showroom, and the exhaust reverberated throughout the whole place, shaking the bottles of Macallan on the wall. With a nice big blip, I was rewarded with a baaa BANG and was hooked. This didn’t look, feel, or sound like a normal hatchback at all.
I had second thoughts on the drive home from Galpin, which, as is typical every time I buy a new car, was a 90-minute slog 18 miles through the 405’s nightmarish evening commute. The seats didn’t feel right. I remember the Fiesta’s optional Recaro seats were tight and awkward for the first 1500 miles or so, then they broke in wonderfully. I assumed the same would happen here. But the bottom cushion couldn’t be lowered properly. To get to an appropriate height, only the rear portion of the cushion would drop–the front part, underneath your knees, would stay pointed skyward, creating an incredibly tight angle between your thigh and your torso. In order to make that angle acceptable, I had to raise the seat so high that my head actually touched the headliner. It felt like driving from a barstool.
Seating position notwithstanding, the Focus RS felt high-quality. The leathers and microsuedes were top notch, the ‘RS2’ package stereo system sounded good, and there was plenty of popping and banging from the exhaust, on the rare occasion I was able to use more than a quarter throttle. The steering was incredibly sharp–much sharper than the equivalent Subaru or Golf–and the Brembo brakes had good initial bite (I would later learn it needed high-temp pads, fluid, and stainless steel lines for track work–I had these installed by Mountune at the first service).
Ford’s SYNC system, which received much criticism in its early forms (though, for the record, I liked the SYNC in my 2010 Raptor very much), evolved to be one of the most intuitive and easy MMI’s around, with lots of functionality, very few headaches, and a responsive touchscreen with Bluetooth that connected on startup every time.
Ironically, considering the extra size and heft of the Focus over its smaller Fiesta sibling, the Focus really doesn’t have much more usable space. It has a bit more rear seat room, though still not enough to comfortably fit a person behind my 6’3” frame (meaning it’s a three-seater); it has a bit more cargo room, but still held roughly the same amount of camera gear and/or luggage as the Fiesta, and although the front seats are spaced farther apart, the seats themselves are just as tight as the Fiesta’s, and possibly because of the leather and suede vs. the Fiesta’s cloth, broke in slower, broke in less, or, in the case of my passenger seat, didn’t break in at all. The foot well is wider than the Fiesta, which was welcome, but actual legroom was as close as made no difference, and the RS’s dead pedal wasn’t far enough back to straighten my left leg all the way out, exacerbating an old knee injury.
Now, some good things: The RS’s turbocharged 2.3L engine is a real sweetheart, especially characterful for the segment, and is very well matched to the RS’s chassis and trick AWD system. It can be a pussycat when asked, or violently angry on the floorboard when “overboost” comes on. Though the shotgun blasts from the dual tips may simply be “exhaust theater,” it’s a more than welcome bit of theater, emphasizing the rally car experience. I never once, on the road or racetrack, experienced a deficiency of grip; the stock Pilot Super Sport tires were excellent in all (Southern California) conditions, and even with my quasi-aggressive driving, and two full track days, lasted over 12,000 miles with very even wear and only one rotation.
I used “Drift Mode” exactly one time, and not for drifting. Drift mode sends as much power as the AWD system allows to the Rear Drive Unit, and furthermore as much power as the RDU allows to one side. On a racetrack (or in a parking lot, natch), this means the Focus RS is the only hatchback on the market that will deliver real, genuine, power-on oversteer. It eliminates a lot of traditional front-drive handling characteristics, and with the RS’s uber-sharp steering, means you can flick the thing into a corner really hard, then smash the gas and powerslide out. I have seen some dumb marketing gimmicks with cars before, but this one actually does work.
In a hot day of hard lapping at the Thermal Club in Palm Desert, I never experienced a “Rear Drive Unit Disengagement,” which was reported in a lot of RS enthusiast forums. Falsely attributed to an “overheating rear differential,” the RDU (which, FYI, does not have a temperature sensor to tell the engine of “overheating") is programmed to disengage through a series of “If X, then Y” algorithms in the ECU. If the car decides you are driving it in too abusive of a manner and might blow the thing up, it will disengage to save itself from your bad driving. The racing drivers at Mountune have never gotten their RDU to disengage, either. Some folks in the know, when asked about people’s claims of disengagement, responded to the effect of, “You have to drive it like a real asshole to get that to happen.”
The Focus RS is absolutely a car worth modifying. Mountune USA builds many of the engines for the factory-supported Rally and Rallycross teams and have kits available at Ford Dealerships in Europe and the US, making them a nearly-factory tuning company. I eagerly took every part they reasonably wanted to throw at me, with two goals in mind: 1) Make the Focus RS more fun to drive in everyday situations without hurting reliability, and 2) Fix the car’s punishing ride.
Full Disclosure: Mountune USA, Fifteen52, Pirelli, and KW Suspension did not charge me for the parts on my Focus RS. In exchange for the parts and installation, I gave my fully honest opinions of the modifications on my YouTube channel and Instagram, and provided feedback on the kits to Mountune and KW’s engineers as I drove.
One of the biggest issues with the Focus RS was that, in normal urban driving, it simply wasn’t very fun. It was just a less-comfortable Focus. With the Fiesta ST, every grocery store run was a riot, especially once we gave it a more aggressive tune that made it louder and angrier. It shone between 20 and 60 mph. I wanted that back, and the Focus wasn’t much fun under 90. So Mountune installed what they now call their “B7” kit, consisting of an air intake, up-pipe, full aluminum intercooler, and a cat-back exhaust, their short shifter kit. King Nerd Randy Robles, Mountune’s programmer, wrote a 91-octane tune and a 100-octane tune, easily switchable in a couple of minutes using the COBB Accessport, and the game was on.
Mountune’s valved exhaust added a wonderful grumble, while their air intake provided the whoosh you want out of a turbo car, without being overly obnoxious. The pops and bangs got a bit louder and more frequent, and most importantly, big gains in low-end and midrange torque, along with mild improvements in top-end power (stock turbos are small and max out up top easily), provided more shove around town, improving the overall experience significantly. On the 100-octane tune, the RS was a f***ing missile. Shame the stuff is like nine bucks a gallon in Los Angeles, because I’d love to be able to run 100 all the time. The engine absolutely loves it, and rewards you with incredible power: 385 horsepower to the wheels and nearly 450 lb/ft of torque.
Then there’s the ride: you see, Ford has a habit of doing things that didn’t necessarily need doing, and accidentally making the car worse to drive. For example, see the 2013-14 Shelby GT500, which, in pursuit of magazine cover-seeking 0-60 and top speed numbers, came out with funky gearing, making the car worse to drive than its 2012 predecessor, even with 100 extra horsepower.
The Focus RS has 19-inch wheels and adaptive shocks. The problem with this is that the adaptive shocks Ford uses don’t offer the dynamic range you get from, say, one of GM’s magnetic shocks. The springs are very stiff. The car is over sprung and under damped in normal mode and unusably stiff in track mode, leading to a punishing, bouncy ride, which, when combined with that poor seating position, means drives on anything but perfect roads for any real length of time require long stretching sessions at best, deep tissue massages or chiropractor visits at worst. You can tell in the first 10 minutes this kit was tuned in Germany and not in Michigan; it’s only bearable on German-spec, glass-smooth tarmac.
While I understand an adaptive shock makes “Drift Mode” easier to program (the rear gets softer than the front for this mode), I really feel that, in order to build the car to a price point, Ford went cheap on the shocks. They are simply terrible.
For a fix, I worked with KW Suspension and installed their DDC, or Dynamic Damper Control adaptive coilovers ($3,500 + Installation), which features very high-quality adaptive shocks and matched springs. They are height adjustable, but I set them to “stock.” After all, this is a rally car, and almost never benefits from being lowered.
I don’t use the word “transformative” lightly, but the body control and ride quality offered by this package was shocking. Before, a bump would cause the whole car to bounce two or three times. Now, the desired “one up, one down” was all you got. The dampers clearly were “dampening,” or slowing down the oscillations, far better than the stock system. I don’t know how much it would have cost Ford to do this from the factory, but it would have been worth it. Still, it wasn’t quite good enough. While the coil-overs managed bumps in the road with aplomb, the hard edges of LA’s concrete freeways, driveways, and potholes jarred through the cabin far more than they should have. I pointed my finger, correctly, at the 19 inch forged wheels, which, while sufficiently blingy (and, to Ford’s credit, reasonably light for the size) are simply too big for a hatchback.
Fifteen52 Wheels, a partner and shop-mate of Mountune USA’s in Carson, CA, helped me make one last ditch effort to improve the RS’s ride by downsizing to an 18-inch Integrale-style wheel with a set of UHP Pirelli PZero tires. It was the right move. The smaller wheels and coil-over suspension made all the difference in the world, and it rode and handled like a performance car should. They also looked rad in white with the Nitrous Blue paint and blue calipers. Out in the canyons, combined with the 100-octane tune, the RS absolutely came alive, and was laugh-inducingly brilliant to drive, able to carry near supercar speeds in the uneven, high-speed bends of Big Tujunga Canyon Road up to Angeles Crest. I never went back to the track, but even if the cast Fifteen52’s were a bit heavier than the stock, forged 19s, I saw no drawbacks to installing them.
After a host of go-fast power upgrades (though, to be fair, nothing internal and no moving parts), a complete suspension overhaul, and a proper set of wheels and tires, I finally had the Focus RS I expected to be delivered to me from the factory. What’s the retail cost of all this stuff installed? A hair over $11,000. Yikes. For those counting pennies, that the car’s $41,500 sticker price and tax will get you damn near into a BMW M2, which is a vastly superior vehicle.
Since, in theory at least, this is a consumer advice piece, I should mention that I had no serious reliability issues with my Focus RS. That doesn’t mean nothing went wrong; to the contrary. Along with between 50 and 100 other cars, my RS was assembled using the incorrect head gasket–one from the Lincoln MKZ, which looks the same but has different coolant flow channels. A box of them was mislabeled at the factory, and they ended up in the wrong engines. Ford did the right thing, took responsibility, and issued a recall. A combination of luck and mechanical sympathy meant that I was able to get it fixed under warranty before any long-term damage occurred. The cylinder head showed no damage, and a Blackstone oil analysis indicated all was well.
The HVAC system developed a mildew smell in mid-2017, which is highly unusual for a dry climate like California, and took two full cleanouts and cabin filter changes to eliminate. And the drivers seat rail came loose twice, requiring first an adjustment, and then a full replacement. The modifications, being completely unrelated to the issues claimed under warranty, did not affect the dealer’s willingness to address the repairs at no cost to me.
Ultimately, after two years and five months with the Focus RS, 12,600 miles covered, and all those modifications to improve the driving experience, the car had to go. It’s not that the RS didn’t do what it was promoted as being able to do; it did. It is the fastest, sharpest, most exciting hatchback on the market right now. It’s the only hot-hatch I ever found myself looking back over my shoulder at as I walked away from it in a parking lot. And, suspension foibles aside, the AWD system and its trick rear differential do work, exactly as advertised, and you can oversteer the car on power, something you genuinely cannot do with any other hatchback. When you’re going fast, it feels alive, competent, planted, and like a motorsport-grade product, especially once it’s been tweaked by Mountune.
But there was nothing I could do about the seats, and it simply became too painful to drive. Frankly, I’ve tested hundreds of cars over the last few years, and I have never driven any brand new car that had such a poor seating position. You can’t change the seats, because they have airbags, and it will throw an error code, and if it throws an error code, the car won’t go into sport mode. It has to be driven in sport mode, otherwise it feels like a turd. The seating position was honestly something I probably should have noticed on the test drive, although it does take 15 to 20 minutes before you realize, “hang on, this is a disaster.” Had I gone on the press launch or gotten one as a demo vehicle before buying, I would have figured this out before spending my own money.
But that Nitrous Blue paint, glowing on that turntable after eighteen months of waiting for “God’s Hatchback,” got me, hook, line, and sinker. Sometimes, sanity and objectivity goes right out the window, and you have to look at yourself in the mirror asking, “Why did I do this?” and if you’re honest, you can come out with it–I just liked the color.