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 Focus RS 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.