The 2017 Ford Focus RS epitomizes ongoing revolutions in the worldwide automobile industry. The biggest current change in consumer preferences is the move away from traditional sedans and toward compact and mid-size crossover sport utility vehicles. Many crossovers are little more than jacked-up four-door hatchbacks with all-wheel drive.
The Focus RS is a four-door hatchback that also has all-wheel drive, though it’s more of a performance feature than a utilitarian, all-weather enhancement.
Another revolution is happening under the hood as manufacturers extract ever more power from smaller engines, thanks to creative computer software.
Four-cylinder engines, including the one in the new Focus RS, are becoming the norm. Often with turbocharging, they deliver sporty horsepower and torque along with fuel economy that only could be imagined even a decade ago.
The RS four-banger has a displacement of 2.3 liters. That’s not much more than a two-liter soft drink bottle at the supermarket. Yet it delivers a whopping 350 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque. With its six-speed manual gearbox and curb weight of 3,460 pounds, it can rocket to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds.
That sort of performance doesn’t come cheap. Basically, the standard Ford Focus is a compact economy car with a starting price of about $18,000. The RS, with its high power, all-wheel drive and handling refinements, starts at $36,995. The test car, with options, had a suggested retail price of $40,475.
Base equipment includes Brembo high-performance brakes, selectable drive modes, push-button starting, launch control, satellite radio with Ford’s Sync system, dual-zone automatic climate control, fog lights and a rear spoiler.
Except for the custom 19-inch wheels and a few other styling cues, the Focus RS does not betray its economy compact origin, which makes it something of a stealth bomber on the highway.
Even the interior does not depart much from the base car except for the aftermarket Recaro bucket seats with their generous side bolsters and high-friction cloth upholstery with leather trim to grip the torso in spirited driving. They feel terrific but take a bit of extra effort to settle into.
The RS’s standard launch control minimizes wheel spin in acceleration runs. It also comes with four different drive modes: normal, sport, track and drift.
The last is a bit questionable because the all-wheel drive mitigates real drift. It features a standard torque vectoring system that can send about 70 percent of the power to the rear wheels.
The sport, track and drift modes deliver a rock-hard ride, so most owners likely will engage normal for everyday driving. Everything about this so-called “hot hatch” — the steering, shifter, clutch, ride and seating — is tight and stiff. It’s a characteristic well loved by enthusiasts but not endearing to commuters.
This obviously is not a casual car. Many drivers likely would reject it out of hand after one test drive. The Focus RS requires skill and effort to bring out its considerable qualities. But in time, it can deliver the automotive equivalent of a teenage crush.