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Ford Focus RS

Click to view picture galleryHow on earth can Ford make
  a 163mph front-wheel drive car
  with 305bhp and 324lb ft of
  torque that doesn
t suffer torque-
  steer? The simple answer is:
  it hasn
t...

HERE'S AN ANORAK QUESTION FOR YOU: what's the most powerful front-wheel drive car ever made? When asked this, most people recall the Saab Viggen. Sorry wrong answer. Its 230bhp is way off the real record.

Actually, a Yank holds that record — on paper at least. The 1970 Oldsmobile Toronado and 1970 Cadillac Eldorado both had 400bhp from a huge V8 engine driving the front wheels. But that figure was measured as a gross SAE number, and was probably more like 300bhp net. And having to haul around over two tons of metal certainly didn't make these pre-fuel-crisis behemoths remotely performance-orientated.

I recall that, not so long ago, engineers were widely stating that anything above 250bhp was absolutely impossible in a standard-sized hatchback. Then Mazda put a 265bhp engine in the Mazda3 — basically the same platform as a Ford Focus — and some cogs started whirring.

Perhaps this provided the kick that Ford needed to create the new Focus RS. It clearly had to have much more power than the existing Focus ST (which stands at 225bhp). It would also be good to have more grunt than the 2.3-litre four-cylinder Mazda3 — not so much of a challenge, perhaps, when you're starting with a 2.5-litre five-cylinder template.

It certainly is difficult, however, when your car is front-wheel drive only. Ford decided against four-wheel drive (as used by Audi, Mitsubishi, Subaru and others in their performance hatchbacks) at an early stage, when development masterminds reported back that the Focus chassis could be engineered to deliver very high outputs.

Through the development process, these outputs got progressively higher until the Focus RS emerged with no less than 305bhp — and all going through the front wheels. Ford says that not only is the RS the fastest Ford ever made in Europe, it is also the most powerful front-wheel drive car currently on sale — I reckon it may actually be the most muscle-bound front-driver ever.

Any Ford fan will tell you that there was a Focus RS before — the 215bhp version which left production six years ago. I well remember driving this original RS around Mondello Park circuit in the wet and suffering so much torque-steer that where the car eventually ended up as you were powering out of a corner was utterly random.

So how on earth can Ford make a front-wheel drive car with 305bhp and 324lb ft of torque that doesn't suffer torque-steer? The simple answer is: it hasn't. Despite claims to the contrary, the RS does like to turn its own steering wheel under full power.

It’s bucking like
a bronco, thanks to
very stiff suspension,
but it sticks
to its guns
...”
My first 'moment' occured on a straight section of A-road. I get an opportunity to pass a slow-moving car in front: Mirror, signal, manoeuvre — and Whoa! Rather than simply pulling out and going past, the RS darts this way and that, like a wild horse pulling on unwanted reins for the first time.

The steering wheel is physically pulling my hands to the right, even though I'm not really keen on making friends with the grass verge on the opposite side of the road. This sort of passing manoeuvre is a core test for high-powered front-wheel drive cars, which tend to want to steer more than you do as you edge out to overtake. The RS is torque-steering big time.

That means I'm more than a little circumspect when it comes to my first corner. But here, the RS doesn't bite. Yes, it's bucking like a bronco, thanks to very stiff suspension, but it sticks to its guns. In fact, it's incredibly grippy, with very little body movement (you could say it rocks, but it doesn't roll).

And once it's into its stride, it finally reins in the torque-steer, giving you confidence to push very hard through sweeping bends — and even bumpy ones. Speaking of bumps, you do feel every single one: the suspension's take-no-prisoners settings make it as hard as nails.

A quick aside on the suspension. As well as a wider track than the Focus ST, the RS's main whizz-bang is something called a 'RevoKnuckle' — a clever piece of kit that allows part of the front suspension to turn with the steering. It combines effectively with a Quaife limited-slip differential to keep the RS on the straight and narrow — well, in most circumstances it does.

Helping the driver maintain control is the tight-gripping — as in extremely — Recaro seat. And there's more support for rear seat passengers than in any other hot hatch I've come across: the RS's heavily bolstered rear seats match the front ones.

While we're on the subject of the interior, it all feels, if you'll pardon the pun, focused. The centre console is carbon-look with metallic highlights for details like the air vents, door handles, switches, gearshift surround and door sills. The three-spoke RS steering wheel looks and feels chunkily 'motorsport', the aluminium pedals are authentic and three extra gauges include, among other things, info on the turbo pressure.

You can order your cabin in green or blue to match the exterior paintwork. Speaking of which, there are just three colours available: Performance Blue, Ultimate Green and Frozen White (in order of advance order popularity). Ultimate Green is a particularly virulent shade; if you thought the ST's Electric Orange paint option was bright, you'll need a nuclear protection suit to cope with this über-Kermit colour.

In contrast, finished in blue, the RS is surprisingly understated to look at — surprising because almost every body panel has been altered to create the RS. The trapezoidal front air intake evokes the Focus WRC, and there are new bumpers, side skirts, wider wheel arches, extra vents, bonnet louvres and smart 19-inch alloy wheels. At the rear end, again inspired by the WRC rally car, is a venturi-effect 'tunnel' and twin-blade rear spoiler.

I've described how the RS corners, but what about its delivery of power in a straight line? In short, it's very, very impressive. My steed for getting to the launch venue was a Subaru Impreza STi — easily the closest rival to the Focus RS — and it didn't take long to appreciate the big difference between the two of them.

While the Impreza explodes in the upper reaches but feels a tad languid at lower revs, the RS is on the case much lower down the rev band thanks to the maximum torque of 324lb ft arriving at just 2,300rpm and staying full and flat up to 4,500rpm. The RS's five-cylinder Volvo engine has been treated to a chunky Borg Warner K16 turbocharger with a relatively pressure-cooker-like 1.4bar of boost — and it really works.

The RS might not have the outright straight-line performance of an Impreza STi but it's certainly got more usable power for everyday driving. And it's all accompanied by a fiery soundtrack: off-beat five-cylinder bass end and whooshing, hurricane-like turbo treble. The six-speed gearbox is to be praised too: ultra-quick, thanks to a short-throw gear lever. And precise with it.

At £25,740, this is pricey for a Ford and smack bang in the middle of the kind of serious performance territory occupied by the Impreza STi and Evo X.

Having only sampled the RS on the roads of Sussex, I'm going to reserve final judgement until I've driven an RS on a circuit. That's where its true strengths will shine, I suspect, just like the Focus ST (a car that simply gets better the harder you push it). Most owners will also be keen to try their RS on track at least once. In all likelihood, as often as their budget for new tyres will allow. — Chris Rees

Ford Focus RS
| £25,740
Maximum speed: 163mph | 0-62mph: 5.9 seconds | Overall MPG: 30.5mpg
Power: 305bhp | Torque: 324lb ft | CO2 225g/km