I Have High Hopes for the Civic Type-R, but I Drove the Focus RS and it is Amazing
I was invited to drive the Focus RS, the hottest of the hot hatchbacks.
Make no mistake, this car is the hot hatch benchmark right now. You better believe that Honda has had the Focus RS set squarely in it’s sights when setting up the Civic Type R for the North American market. The Mazdaspeed3 is dead, the Mitsubishi EVO is dead, and with the ancient EJ257 engine still in it, the Subaru STi may as well be dead. The Golf R? A nice car, but too hushed and anonymous for the intended audience. Yes, right now, all eyes are on Ford and the Focus RS.
Ford invited me to drive several of their latest vehicles, including the RS. At first, I was doubtful of the car. It has received heaps of praise and admiration across the board from the automotive media. However, some digging reveals issues when the RS hits the track. In short, the engine overheats, and the “rear drive unit” (don’t call it a diff) also overheats, effectively reverting the RS into a front-driver. Hmm. Unfortunately, this event was held in South LA, so track testing would have to wait for another day.
Tell us about the powertrain. Is it good?
In a word, yes. The FoRS uses a 2.3L EcoBoost inline-four that is also found in the EcoBoost Mustang. However, among other things, the RS has a different turbocharger. The emphasis is on a wide powerband and tractability. In that way, it delivers massively. The engine is urgent from about 2,000RPM all the way to redline, which is a good thing. It’s all too common that modern turbo-fours trade top end power for low RPM grunt. This car rewards those who chase the redline, making it really fun to wring out. It definitely feels like 350 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque.
The 6-speed manual transmission is nicely weighted, with well-defined gates. It’s not as slick as a Honda 6-speed, but I have no qualms with it. You can shift quickly and be assured that you won’t miss a gear or grind ’em. As is the way with a lot of modern cars, the clutch is a featherweight and seems a bit out of step with the rest of the car. It feels insubstantial compared to the weight of the steering, firm suspension and sharp engine. If the pedal was a bit firmer, and offered a bit more feedback, no one would complain.
How does it handle?
The RS I drove was fitted with the optional Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, which, with their 180 treadwear rating, are basically cheater tires. the MPSC2 isn’t the fastest tire out there by any stretch, but it’s still got a lot more grip than factory-equipped tires on just about any other car out there. Tires are one of the most important aspects of a car’s handling, and in that way, the Michelin rubber works with the Focus RS to make for a surefooted ride.
Driving around town, the car is firm. I personally find it acceptable for a daily driver, but I can accept that others may not share my viewpoint on this. It doesn’t really mellow out on the freeway either, the ride is busy. However, the Recaro seats are fantastic, and excellent at damping the driver and kept me from getting tossed around and beaten up. For a factory effort seat, they work wonders.
In terms of handling, low speed understeer seems to be the name of the game. Around the tighter corners, the front end wanted to wash out a bit. However, I could feel the rear tires being given power coming out of the corner. The car gave the impression that it would lean a little bit towards oversteer in higher speed cornering. There is a big asterisk with the handling and ride quality of the Focus RS, which brings up the important question:
What about the driving modes?
I’m ready to weather the storm of hatred that the dozen or so Focus RS fanbois who find this review unfurl upon me, but here it goes. The Focus RS has different “driving modes” that are controlled by a dial in the center stack. These driving modes: Normal; Sport; Track and Drift, are a big talking point about the RS, especially that last one. They control the AWD system (bias), the electronically-adjusted dampers, electric power steering, throttle mapping, stability and traction control, as well as the bi-modal exhaust.
Normal, is well, normal. I know, top-tier investigative journalism happening here. This is the default setting. Sport is the next setting from there. Going purely by feel, it seemed to firm up the steering, sharpen the throttle response and make the car sound better. The stiffened steering was hit and miss with me, and same with the throttle calibration. If I want more speed, I can use my accelerator. The love for things like “Sprint Boosters” is lost on me. The Sport’s exhaust setting is a MUST. Pops, burbles and occasional backfire, it’s fantastic. This car sounds great, like a little rally car, and leaving the dial in Normal muffles too much of this goodness. This is your daily driver mode. Set it and forget it right here, and please don’t turn that dial.
I say that because “Track” mode is where things take a turn for the worse. The appreciable change here is the damping firms up big time. It feels as is the rebound of the shocks is cranked up to the max. At first, I didn’t mind it. Sure, it was very firm, but livable, at least for my masochistic tastes. Then, I hit a few corners and the issues arose. Even with those super sticky tires and wide wheels, it seems like the dampers are too nervous and actually cause the car to lose grip more quickly. Making the suspension too stiff actually reduces grip if the tires aren’t kept in contact with the pavement. A lot of chassis setup in motorsport revolves around the least amount of something necessary to get the job done. This reminds me of a quote I heard from racing driver Randy Pobst, “Soft is fast, if you can handle the roll.” For comparison, the roads I was driving on were definitely smoother than Willow Springs International Raceway, outside of LA, so I can’t imagine “Track” mode actually being faster unless you’re running a really smooth track.
Swing the dial all the way over to “Drift” mode, and everything is alleviated. Funnily enough, the dampers are switched back to their standard setting in drift mode. Here is the oversteer inclination I was feeling before. It’s not snappy or scary, it just works. Of course, doing donuts on the public streets would be bad, so I don’t have video of that. However, take my word for it: drift mode works.
Wrap it up. What is the conclusion here?
Yeah, I do need to wrap it up, this review is over 1,300 words! To those of you who made it all the way to the end, thank you. In any case, for under $40,000 ($36,120 starting MSRP), this is the fun daily driver to buy. The Focus RS wipes the floor with everything else even near the hot hatch marketplace right now.
That said, having recently driven the tenth gen Civic Turbo, I know that Honda can put together a great turbocharged powertrain. The upcoming Civic Type R cedes some 50 horsepower and two driven wheels to the RS. However, having owned and driven other hot Hondas, I know that they can punch above their weight. If the CTR comes into the market swinging hard at about $32,000, it’ll be a damn good battle. Honda can’t do any half-measures, because the competition is stiff, and that’s a good thing. Competition in the marketplace drives innovation, and innovation is what has made Honda the company it is today.
We will be driving the Civic Type R this Summer when it lands here in the states. Hopefully, we can take it on track and see what it can really do.