Test Drive: 2016 Ford Focus RS

“Well, there goes my wife.”

The Focus RS is demented, vital, raw, boisterous, and extremely fast.

Stuck behind a line of slow-moving traffic in a modestly powered BRZ, all I can do is chuckle as a Nitrous Blue Ford honks past, riding a wave of forced induction thrust. I like the BRZ just fine, but it's a momentum car – getting up to speed takes space and a combination of sluggardly RVs and short passing lanes means you get stuck. The five-door family hatch storms on ahead, leaving the two-plus-two sportscar in its dust. I think I saw one of my kids waving bye-bye out the window.

Welcome to the future, where tarmac ferocity requires next-to-no compromise. The Focus RS is demented, vital, raw, boisterous, and extremely fast. It also is perfectly capable of hauling around two little kids and all the requisite accessories required thereof. Take a crossover on family vacay? Nuts to that.

My family joined me at the launch of the 2017 Subaru's revvy little coupe, as the kickoff to a couple of RS-Focused weeks touring around Vancouver Island. On the wriggling road to Ucluelet, the boosty little Ford showed off its twin sewer-pipe exhausts and then promptly disappeared. When we caught up (much) later, I was both itching for the keys and beaming with pride. Always teach your better half to drive a stick-shift.

As a family that uses an STI hatchback with full rally armour skidplating as a daily driver, the Focus RS is just the bright blue dose of insanity the doctor ordered. The paint is the colour of the flames shooting out of the back of Brian O'Conner's Mitsubishi Eclipse just before the diamond-plate flooring fell out. It has the face of a Sharkticon with rabies. The tires will wear out in months, not years. The giant two-piece rear spoiler is about as subtle as a two-by-four to the face. Also, it costs more than an extremely well-equipped 5.0L Mustang.

Yay! Lord knows the world has enough sensible cars floating around, the brochures promising economy, reliability, sensibility, and fifty shades of dull grey paint. We need these cars like we need toasters and washing machines and microwaves. The RS is like going to Sears and coming home with a portable Tesla coil to electrocute the neighbour's cat that keeps crapping in your front garden.

Power comes from a 2.3L four-cylinder engine, similar to that found in the Ecoboost Mustang. Here though, there's both more character to be found and more power. Total output is 350hp at 6000rpm and 350lb-ft of torque at 3200rpm. The torque peak is relatively low, but the RS feels boostier than the Mustang, requiring a bit more flogging past 4000rpm to get the most out of it.

Packing for a couple of weeks in this thing, it has to be said, required something of a mastery of Tetris. Having fitted a running stroller in the trunk, we built a modular cargo strategy that could be loaded and unloaded in about fifteen minutes. Installing car seats was a cinch, emergency Ziploc bags of Cheerios were secreted around the cabin, and off we went.

In the US, the RS comes with the Recaro seats as an option. Here in Canada, they're standard, and if you're thinking of buying one of these things for yourself, then just stop eating now. There is as much lateral support here as there is in a Global Rally Cross car, with huge side bolsters that can be uncomfortable for shorter drivers. My wife had to adopt an odd, arms-akimbo driving style like she was channelling Tazio Nuvolari. Annoying, but possibly worth it.

First stop after the run to and from Ucluelet was Duncan, home to a multiplicity of totem poles. In the hierarchy of hot hatches, the Focus RS sits most firmly at the top. We got a nod or two from Fiesta ST owners in the know, and an envious staredown from a guy in a battered old GTI.

But if this is a car of the moment, then the thing to do is to take it back in time. On Sunday, I ran the RS down to Victoria, towards the truly epic Northwest Deuce Days show. The largest gathering of '32 Fords on the planet, the event is only held every three years – the blue oval on the front of the RS managed to charm its way past the barriers for a shot or two alongside some of the 1100 '32s circling the inner harbour.

Perched amongst the hot-rods the crowd seemed bemused by the RS, but those who knew, knew. It took a while to get a clear shot of the RS without somebody peering in the window, or scratching their head wondering what a clearly modern machine was doing sitting in a sea of chrome. Still, the honk from the exhaust on ignition was enough to turn heads and make sure no-one walked behind the car when I was backing it down the ramp.

There are four driving modes in the RS's onboard system: Normal, Sport, Track, and Drift. The latter exists by accident, and is really only there for the bragging rights. Just like the Mustang's line-lock system, it's a neat feature that almost anyone who has to pay for their own tires will likely never use.

Track, on the other hand, is something you can use any time you feel the need, especially as Ford has cleverly separated out the switch for the dampers. Simply hit the drive mode button three times, then use the button on the end of the left-hand stalk to put the suspension in the already-firm normal mode. Then exit stage left, as if pursued by bears.

The RS hauled keister back to Duncan to collect the family like I'd just lit a couple of afterburners. Traffic was snarled in one area, so I simply jumped off the highway, slung through a couple of loops on a side-road, and came out about a hundred or so cars ahead. Driven mildly, you can't really see why this car costs any more than a GTI. Provoke it to fury and let the torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive start doing its thing, and even the Smurf-blue paint starts making sense.

The all-wheel-drive system is probably the trickest piece of technology on this car. Up to 70% of that grunty turbo torque can be sent to an outside rear wheel: hammer the RS out of a corner and it feels more Mustang than reworked family hatch. Gather up a few twisties in a row and the pace is only limited by how clear the road is and how far you can see ahead. On a closed course, especially a tight one, the RS doles out the kind of confidence that would have you snapping at the heels of cars with a third more power.

Having hauled the family down to BC's capital, there followed a lazy day or two of puttering about down. The RS did not approve of said puttering, and spent most of the time parked. Stopover done, we next headed up-island to Campbell river via the 120km/h limit highway, the fastest legal speeds in Canada; this, the RS seemed to indicate, was more like it. It zipped along while kids slept in the back, boosting quickly past big rigs and trucks hauling boats, so as to stay out of the danger zone. (Lanaaa... What? Danger zone.)

Are there better hot hatches for this kind of dual duty? Absolutely. While the RS displayed pretty decent manners on the highway, it did tend to hunt a bit, and tramlined into the ruts whenever they appeared. Overall, though, the regular Focus upon which Ford has based their M-80 firecracker shines through. It's just a touch on the small side, but you can make it work if you really want to.

And, after spending a further couple of days zipping around backroads on a pair of Northern and Southern Gulf islands, Really Want is the takeaway lesson here. There are more balanced offerings in the market, and for sheer grins, I'd still tip the flatbill to the Fiesta ST, pretty much the best bang-for-buck out there right now.

But the RS manages to pull off a feat I thought we'd never see again in the market, now that the STI hatch is a thing of the past. All the elements are here to work as your primary car. It has four doors and a useful-if-smallish hatchback, and reasonable infotainment, and a decent stereo, and a sunroof, and just enough passenger space for a small family.

And at the same time, the RS is an utter hooligan's machine, as wild as anything in Ford's lineup. Justifying a GT350 would take some doing, but this wee beastie is still just a hatchback. Aside from the cost, a voracious appetite for tires, and the aggression of the suspension and seats, there's little to complain about. It is both partly sensible and very, very silly. Thank goodness it's here.

Competition:
Subaru STI
VW Golf R

2016 Ford Focus RS
2016 Ford Focus RS
Base Price $47,969
Optional Equipment $995 – Nitrous Blue Paint
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,600
Price as Tested $50,664
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.6
8 Styling
10 Powertrain
6 Quality
7 Comfort
7 Practicality
10 Drivability
7 Usability/Ergonomics
6 Fuel Economy
7 Features
8 Value