2016 Ford Focus RS first drive review: The hottest of the hatches

Ford couldn’t have released the Focus RS at a better time. The Mitsubishi Evo is officially dead, and the Subaru WRX STI is getting long in the tooth. The most recent generation of the STI is only offered as a sedan, and an Evo hatchback was never offered in the U.S. 

While other automakers are giving up on hot hatches, Ford has just released the hottest of the hatches. The Focus RS makes more power than any hot hatch ever released, including its only current direct competitor, the 292-horsepower Volkswagen Golf R. It also uses some impressive hardware, highlighted by an advanced all-wheel-drive system, 23 pounds of turbo boost, adjustable dampers, and four mode settings that include a Drift mode.

Still, this generation of Focus was released for the 2011 model year, and that could mean that Ford is just putting lipstick on a pig.

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I spent this past week in a Focus RS to find out if it can meet or exceed the expectations of buyers who have come to love the Evo, STI, and Golf R.

The car I drove was a 2016 model with the $2,785 RS2 package that includes an 8-way power driver’s seat, leather upholstery with synthetic suede inserts, heated front seats and steering wheel, and navigation. It also had the best go-fast parts, a set of Michelin Sport Cup 2 tires on forged 19-inch wheels for $1,990. Those options, plus the $35,900 starting price and $875 destination charge brought the total to $41,550.

First impressions

My first impressions of the Focus RS weren’t all that positive. I took one look at that interior and thought, “Boy, that looks old.”

That’s because it is old. The basic design is the same as it’s been since 2011, but Ford has added thickly bolstered Recaro sport seats, a flat-bottom steering wheel, blue accent stitching, metal pedals, an additional gauge set on top of the dash, and a spate of RS logos.

It may be old, but the interior is functional. Those sport seats have enough adjustments and range of motion to tailor a comfortable driving position for most adults, and their bolstering keeps front seat occupants nice and snug when the road turns twisty. The extra gauges are a welcome sight, and the dark theme and blue stitching provide a sporty enough theme. Plus, the car benefits from the space of a hatchback. Want a car that can pick up a recliner from your mom then go fast on a racetrack? The Focus RS is the choice.

When I hopped in to drive it, I immediately stalled it…twice, due to a hair-trigger clutch. I then drove it around on Chicago’s pockmarked streets and found the ride to be a discouraging mix of bouncy and overly firm. The stiffly sprung car becomes especially bouncy over dips and humps at highway speeds. If anything on your body can jiggle, be it a Santa Claus gut or Buddha earlobes, it’s going to jiggle when you are driving the Focus RS. 

The turbocharged 2.3-liter 4-cylinder also isn’t all that efficient, either. My first 242 miles were spent mostly on the highway and I averaged a modest 21.4 mpg, according to the trip computer.

Bouncy, harsh, inefficient, and with an old interior, I had come to the conclusion that the Focus RS isn’t much of a daily driver after my first weekend behind the wheel. 

My opinion would soon evolve.

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