Friday, November 12, 2010

RS'ted Development

On Test: Ford Focus RS (as appeared on

We had a difficult first few days, the Focus RS and me. Fear was the factor. Tootling around town and the 'burbs was easy enough, but stamp on the throttle and the RS had me pushing beads in a matter seconds. Ja. A sphincter-clenching first couple of days...

In my defence, this was hardly surprising given both the car's reputation as the most potent production front-wheel-drive hatch ever made, and the words spoken by The Ford Guy when he handed me the keys. "This one's properly quick mate. Be careful. Do your self a favour and before you bullet around the corners, test its acceleration abilities in a straight line first."

Now this is an unusual thing for The Ford Guy -- or any guy from any of the car brands, for that matter -- to say. These people never hand over a car with an attached warning. I've been given keys to Aston Martins, Maseratis, and Audi R8s with little more in the way of parting words than "have fun!" Suddenly The Ford Guy is telling me to watch it? This car must be something.

God, you see, originally planned for a car's front wheels to do one thing -- steer. Back then, when He created the universe, He obviously had a helluva lot to do and hence keeping it simple was a priority. So … rear wheels were for the power … and the front for steering. And it all worked well enough. Then, some smart-arse engineers in the 1930s decided to transmit power through the front wheels. Which was an OK idea from a safety point of view. Suddenly there was a whole lot less uncontrolled sideways action as cars were being pulled through corners rather than pushed.

There's always a "but" though, isn't there …

God, being God, saw this "but" coming from a long way off. In this case the "but" is "but you can't transmit too much power through those front wheels". Asking them to both steer and lay down a gazillion kWs at the same time is one physics lesson too far. We've all seen the Top Gear episodes with Jeremy Clarkson gleefully inducing some or other Opel/Vauxhall Astra OPC to understeer its way off the track in a weather system of rubber smoke.

Torque steer demon
And that was the root of my fear … what would happen if I attempted a little Sarel v/d Merwe action through the corners with the RS's 224kW under foot? One doesn't a) want to write off a R487 000 test car, and b) die. Having experienced powerful FWD cars like the Mini Cooper S and the Renault Megane Sport, I know them to be inhabited by the torque steer demon -- a little fella who likes to yank the steering wheel in random directions when you put foot. Ford, of course, claimed to have exorcised this naughty imp from the RS thanks to its race-developed RevoKnuckle front suspension system and a very trick limited-slip diff. But still. That Ford Guy …

So for the first day and a half I drove the Focus RS in a decidedly conservative manner. Only when the car was pointing straight did I accelerate with any conviction, allowing the 2,5-litre, five-cylinder turbo to red-line its way up the freeway. This, by the way is the same Volvo-sourced engine you'll find in the Volvo C30 T5 and Focus ST. Well … sort of the same. This one has new pistons, intercooler and turbo -- all of which will propel the RS to a 100km/h in 5,9 secs and to a top end of a little more than 260km/h.

One has to remember that the RS is a pretty big car too. The Focus bodyshell -- even in three-door form -- is sizey and it's not exactly light either, weighing in at 1 860kg. The weight is partly the result of Ford's desire to give the car an up-market speccing. Inside you'll find leather Recaro seats, a powerful sound system with steering-mounted controls, Bluetooth, trip computer, dual zone climate control, power windows, park aid sensors and, for added safety, side curtain airbags to compliment the standard driver and passenger ones. All fancy, but heavy, stuff.

Funny thing happened at the end of day two, though. By carefully exploring the limits, I discovered all the RevoKnuckle/limited-slip diff wizardry actually works. There is torque steer, sure, but it's nothing dramatic and completely handle-able. Not elbow-leaning-on-the-window, one-hand-on-the-steering stuff, but with both hands on the wheel, you hardly notice any untoward attempts at directional change. Thanks to those beautifully purposeful, multi-spoked 19-inch mags and ultra-low profile shoes, the RS is endowed with massive levels of grip. And crucially, when they do let go, it's in a progressive and fairly catch-able way.

By day three I was plugged in. Corners required an early-but-purposeful-turn-in to get the optimal front-wheel drive tow through the apex. It was a fine line though. Late-but-purposeful-turn-in, for example, was very bad and the portal to Understeer World, but get it right and the RS slingshots through the twisty like … well … a slingshot. There was the odd moment or two when the car nipped me on the arse to remind me my name was not, in fact, Sarel, but on the whole I discovered it to be an eminently drivable super-hatch. It's a hooligan, make no mistake, wearing the black roof spoiler like a hoodie, but learn its habits and the misunderstood youth persona dissipates. Turns out hooligans know how to have a good time.

Ja, nearly R500k is a lot for a hatch, and it pitches it right up against the sublime handling Scooby Impreza WRX STi, but in the automotive scheme of things, this fast, this lux, and this amount of fun normally costs a lot more.

"Lovely little car innit?" said The Ford Guy when I handed back the keys. Dead right. I was even beginning to like that pearlescent lime green paint job.

Vital stats: Ford Focus RS
Price R487 900
Engine 2500cc five-cylinder turbo
Power 224kW at 6500rpm
Gearbox 6-speed manual
Torque 440Nm from 2300-4500rpm
0-100km/h (claimed) 5,9 seconds
Top Speed (claimed) 263km/h
Fuel Consumption 9,4/100km (claimed combined)
Service Plan 5 year/90 000km
Roadside Assistance three year/unlimited km
Comprehensive Warranty four year/120 000km