Design | ★★★★☆
Performance | ★★★★★
Practicality | ★★★★
Value | ★★★★☆
A working class hero is something to be,” declared John Lennon in 1971. Was it mere coincidence that Ford had just launched the Escort RS1600, a road-legal rally car that brought power-slides to the masses?
OK, so, yes, it definitely was a coincidence, but I’m sure Lennon would have approved of this people’s performance car.
Forty five years and 30 models later, the Ford RS (Rallye Sport) brand is still going strong. From Group B RS200s charging through Welsh forests to modified Escort RS Turbos outside McDonald’s, it has become a mainstay of UK car culture.
The latest iteration of this fastest of Focuses, then, has pretty big tyre tracks to fill. And at first glance you wonder if it’s up to the job.
It’s the first without any custom body panels; there are no steroid-swollen wheel-arches and no whale-tail wing. Recaro sports seats aside, even the interior looks like a typical family Focus.
Beneath the skin, however, the new RS is still a full-fat fast Ford. It has a tuned 350hp version of the 2.3litre four-cylinder engine from the Mustang, along with beefed-up Brembo brakes and super-sticky Michelin tyres.
Crucially, it also has four-wheel drive, with a trick differential to transfer torque between the rear wheels.
Try the Focus RS in Launch Control mode – which holds the revs, then dumps the clutch for a full-bore getaway – and you’ll need Whiplash-Lawyers4U on speed dial. Acceleration is savage (0-62mph in 4.7 seconds), and keeps going all the way to 165mph.
Switch to Sport mode and the two drainpipe-sized exhausts spit and pop on the overrun, just like a rally car. Speaking of drive modes, scroll past Normal and Sport and you’ll discover Track and Drift. Yes, the Focus RS really does have a button to make it go sideways.
Thankfully, rather than taking me to the nearest McDonald’s car park, Ford rented a race track near Valencia, and threw in stunt driver and YouTube phenomenon Ken Block to show me how it’s done.
Of course, even The Hooligan himself couldn’t transform a humble motoring hack into a drift king in one morning. Luckily for me, the car does most of the work.
Selecting Drift Mode gives the 4WD system a rearward bias, softening the dampers and steering response for easier control at the limit. It’s laugh-out-loud fun – especially if somebody else picks up the tab for new tyres.
However, let’s not forget this is a hot hatch, not a trackday toy. As such, it needs to perform in the real world – on roads with potholes, off-camber corners and oncoming tractors. And it does.
Throw the RS into a bend and it grips and goes, with layers of fine-tuned feedback fizzing through the steering wheel. Push harder and, instead of under-steering (running wide), the tail-end will nudge progressively sideways – just like an old rear wheel-drive Escort.
Ride comfort, while undoubtedly firm, is perfectly acceptable for a car of this type (and positively limo-like compared to a Fiesta ST). And the RS is a refined motorway cruiser, too. Close your eyes at 70mph and you’d struggle to tell it apart from a bogstandard 1.6 Focus. Actually, don’t close your eyes – bad idea.
The Volkswagen Golf R was our firm favourite in this sector, but the new Focus RS leaves a trail of tyre smoke through the Wolfsburg company’s boardroom.
It may look relatively innocuous, but this fast Ford is still a hooligan with a hatchback – and we love it for that. At £29,995, it’s also impressive value. Little else this side of £50,000 offers such a brilliant blend of performance, practicality and visceral driving excitement.