You need only spend a few brief moments talking to Tyrone Johnson, Vehicle Engineering Manager for the new Focus RS, to understand just how much effort has gone into creating this latest fast Ford.

To say he’s a man who knows what he wants is putting it mildly, and he certainly wasn’t willing to compromise to get it.

Take the all-wheel-drive system in the new RS.  Haldex systems were tried and rejected as they didn’t offer the degree of flexibility the team were looking for, but when component supplier GKN launched their Twinster system, it looked like Tyrone’s team had a winner.

Except they broke it – a development mule with a unit borrowed from a Range Rover Evoque soon showed GKN and the team where they would need to modify the system to handle the unique demands of the RS.

Unique because the team wanted the Focus RS to behave almost like a rear-wheel-drive car.  To achieve that, the system actually runs a 2% over-speed through the rear wheels – the rear of the car is always fighting to overtake the front.

It sounds like a recipe for disaster, probably one involving a hedge, but in an approach that’s not unlike the way today’s fighter jets are designed with a deliberately unstable airframe, only to be reined in by some fearsome electronic intelligence, the performance of the RS stems from the way the system was calibrated.

Thousands of miles of testing in development mules by a whole fleet of drivers saw the system being exposed to countless complex circumstances; when the system encountered a new situation, the calibration was optimised and its responses retested.  It’s almost empirical in its development.

…it was almost empirical in its development…

The result is a fully dynamic torque vectoring set-up that doesn’t rely on the brakes, but can divert torque to individual wheels to achieve the desired balance.

The often-quoted figure of ‘up to 70%’ of engine torque sent to the rear wheels is – says Tyrone – more of an average.  Rather than set a hard numerical target, the team kept tweaking and optimising until the car behaved the way they wanted.  It turns out that involves sending an average of 70% to the rear, but in some situations it can peak as high 90%.  Of that, up to 100% can be sent to either left or right wheel, with the transition from one to the other taking no more than 0.06 of a second.

A similar approach was taken with nearly every aspect of this car.

The team set a target of zero aerodynamic lift, both front and rear, and didn’t rest until they’d achieved it.  Yet this isn’t a car adorned with spoilers and aerodynamic devices – instead, every part of it exists for a reason.  Where there’s a vent or a grille, it’s there to do a job.

While the 2.3-litre Ecoboost unit is lifted wholesale from the Mustang, for the RS it gains substantial modifications in the form of a new twin-scroll turbocharger, a giant intercooler, a new cylinder head, the largest radiator ever fitted to a Focus, and an exhaust system that was redesigned at least three times to make it as straight as possible.

Yet the result of all of this had to be a car that could still be built on the same production line as a standard 1.0-litre Focus.

There could be no special treatment; while the rear of the car benefits from an additional cross member and additional strengthening around the rear sub-frame, this had to be designed to be installed on the existing assembly line like any other component.

Ford Focus RS Sales Breakdown (as of April 2016)
Orders taken: over 3,100
Top Colours: Nitrous Blue (61%), Frozen White (15%), Shadow Black (10%)
Popular Options: Luxury Pack (91%), Satnav (89%), Blue calipers (85%), Recaro seats (>50%)
Source: Ford UK

So has all this engineering effort translated into real world performance?

Listening to Tyrone and looking at the specs – 0-62mph in 4.7 seconds, for instance – I was ready for a typically savage RS driving experience.

But the new Focus isn’t like that.

While driving a Subaru WRX STI makes you feel like you’ve just spent time at the gym, by comparison the RS is surprisingly docile.

There’s no huge surge as the turbo comes on boost.  Instead, power is delivered in a very linear fashion, although it does tail off noticeably towards the upper reaches of the rev range.

Stuffing the RS into a series of corners, you can feel the AWD system reacting to changes in vehicle attitude.  There’s an admirable lack of torque steer, but the wheel still squirms about in your hands when you’re really on it.

However, there isn’t the same throttle adjustability as you’d get in, say, a Mazda MX-5 or a Subaru BRZ.

…the RS is all about covering ground as quickly as possible…

In those two, the focus is on having fun at any speed, whereas the RS is more about going as quickly as possible over the same ground.  Certainly it isn’t difficult to glance down at the speedo and be greeted by licence-losing numbers.

Steering is quick, at just two turns lock-to-lock, and while the ride is definitely firm, in Normal and Sport modes the dual-mode dampers seem well judged.  A Track mode selects a 40% stiffer set-up (also accessible from a button on the end of the left column stalk), but even Tyrone says this isn’t designed for use on the road.

The RS is undoubtedly a desperately quick car.  And for £31,000 (as it will be after 1st May), it’s difficult to argue with.

However, for all the hard-won engineering achievements by Tyrone and his team, the RS doesn’t offer the face-tearing experience I was expecting.

Despite their assertions that everything exists for a reason, some elements still feel a contrivance: Drift Mode is something you’ll use once to show off to your mates, and appealing as the pops and bangs from the exhaust are (more a deliberately-triggered over-fuelling than the result of a deep-seated fire-spitting nature), much of the engine sound is piped in through the speakers.

Perhaps the RS’s new, less ASBO exterior is an indication that Ford aimed for a more mature experience with their third generation model.

Certainly now you could take your mother to lunch in the RS and, other than the fact you’d probably arrive in half the time, she wouldn’t notice anything unusual.

For my money, though, I’d prefer my passengers to climb out of an RS-badged car in a deep sweat.  Perhaps even bleeding.

So while on that count it left me wanting, the Focus RS is still an impressive piece of engineering that delivers on so many fronts.

Tester’s Notes

  • Surprisingly docile
  • Linear power delivery, but does tail off towards higher revs
  • Torque steer well controlled, but wheel still squirms about when pressing on
  • Not as throttle-adjustable as benchmark rivals
  • 2.3 unit lacks character; sound piped into cabin through speakers; exhaust pops are overfuel conditions triggered deliberately by ECU
  • RS feels more about covering ground at speed rather than engagement
  • Damping very well judged; track mode not for road use
  • Drift mode bit of a gimmick
  • Admirable engineering achievements, but not the raw driving experience I was hoping for
Entry-level Price £30,995 Price as tested £33,130
Engine 2.3-litre 4-cyl turbo Transmission 6-speed manual
Power 350PS @ 6,000rpm Torque 440Nm @ 2,000-4,500rpm
0-62 4.7 secs Top speed 165 mph
Economy 36.7 mpg CO2 175 g/km
Dimensions 4390 x 1858 x 1472 (LxWxH) Kerb Weight 1599 kg

Alex Kefford

Editor

Freelance journalist, ex-offroad driving instructor and long distance road-tripper. If you have any questions about this piece, feel free to hit me up on Twitter.