This is our first chance to assess how the much-awaited 2016 Ford Focus RS hot hatch drives. Sadly we have to wait a few more weeks before we're allowed behind the steering wheel so for now we have to content ourselves with a high-speed ride from the passenger side of the car. This RS promises to be a very different beast to its predecessor. For starters, it is a five-door hatchback (its forerunners were both three-door body styles), but more importantly, it features all-wheel drive. Some purists may be upset, but with the torque vectoring hardware capable of distributing power front or rear according to driving style, we reckon it sounds promising. As does the fact that the 2.3-litre EcoBoost petrol engine packs a convincing 350hp punch. Forget everything you think you know about the Focus.
In the metal
While the previous generation Ford Focus RS could be described as something of a sledgehammer, design-wise, this new car has altogether a more appealing and even relatively subtle look. Few will mistake it for its standard relation, and the blue RS logo neatly integrated into the front bumper serves to remind anyone that might be in doubt. This time around the RS is only a five-door, and if anything that adds to its kerbside appeal.
The last generation did look somewhat like a caricature with its three-door body style, massive wheel arches and an enormous rear wing. Then there were the lurid exterior hues. This time around there is still a rear spoiler, but it now looks more purposeful rather than screaming "look at me!", and the widened track gives the car real presence when viewed in the metal - photos don't quite do it justice. In fact 'purposeful' is the best way of describing the look of the new RS - from the larger intakes at the front to the bulging yet detailed rear diffuser that houses a central fog light and two substantial exhaust outlets. Alloy wheels fill the enlarged arches but it doesn't look over-wheeled at all.
Inside, Ford has once again erred on the side of caution when it comes to interior design. With the exception of some supportive (but not tight) sports seats and an additional instrument cluster on top of the dashboard housing boost gauges and oil temperatures, there isn't a great deal else to remind you that you're sitting in the Blue Oval's ultimate Focus. It could be argued that the car can do all the talking, but considering that the Focus RS is likely to cost north of the €50,000 mark when it arrives in Ireland later in 2016 we think some potential buyers may want a more lavishly appointed cabin.
Our time in the Focus RS would be limited to just a handful of laps around Ford's Lommel Proving Ground in Belgium, with one of its 'Level 3' drivers. It soon became clear that means Ford's most skilled (or insane, depending on your perspective) drivers. This wasn't going to be one of those seven tenths passenger rides. For the purpose of the demonstration it was deemed that 'Drift' would be the best choice of driving mode. In total there are four settings to choose from, but Drift allows for the most slip before the driver aids kick in. If you're feeling braver you can fully deactivate these.
As we tear away from the line two things immediately become clear: this is one seriously rapid car; and it feels rear-wheel drive. The car's all-wheel drive transmission includes twin electronically-controlled clutch packs on each side of the rear axle. This is managed by a control unit that monitors an array of sensors in order to vary the front/rear and side-to-side distribution of torque. It is capable of sending up to 70 per cent of torque to the rear axle, and from there 100 per cent of that can be sent to just one wheel depending on grip levels.
The all-wheel drive transmission also allows for some impressive corner entry speeds and from the passenger seat it's clear that our driver shows no signs of having to fight the steering or make any mid-corner adjustments. Through the apex of the corner there is a degree of body roll but never enough to make the car feel less composed. If anything it adds to the impression of speed being carried through the corner. Even over a cobbled section of the test track the car feels well damped, which bodes well for driving in everyday conditions.
A well-insulated cabin proves the RS to be a deceptively quick car. There's a sonorous tone from the engine, especially in the upper reaches of the rev range, but don't expect a cacophony of sound when you're driving it less than very hard. It actually sounds even better from the outside.
The overriding impressions - after a few laps over the tight, fast and undulating Lommel track - is just how sublime the chassis feels even from the passenger seat. The RS appears incredibly easy to place and seems to telegraph its movements clearly to the driver. Line changes mid-corner never once upset the car and as much as it seems to reward the more skilful driver it does appear to be a forgiving car for those who push that bit too hard. Carry too much speed into a corner or lift off in the middle of an apex and the rear end will break away, but in what appears to be a very gradual manner. We can't wait to get behind the wheel and find all of this out in more detail for ourselves.
What you get for your money
Exact pricing has yet to be confirmed for Ireland, but expect the Focus RS to start well over the €50,000 mark. In comparison to the likes of the 300hp Volkswagen Golf R it sounds pricey, though it still looks like good value next to the Audi RS 3 Sportback, which starts at just under €66,000.
They say first impressions are crucial and in this particular case Ford has made an incredible one. Ford's chassis engineers seem to have honed this new Focus RS to a very high standard, which, from the passenger seat at least, feels nothing short of incredible. Roll on 2016.