SUBMITTED PHOTO/Courtesy of Kevin NguyenThe Ford Focus RS is sure to capture attention.

SUBMITTED PHOTO/Courtesy of Kevin NguyenThe Ford Focus RS is sure to capture attention.

You know a test vehicle is something special when people know what you’re driving before you do. That’s what happened last week, when a Ford Focus RS was delivered for testing while I was preoccupied with other business.

Within a half-hour, someone called saying they’d spotted the car in the parking lot and wanted to know how I liked it. It couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes later when someone else stopped me in the hallway to ask about it.

 That kind of reaction isn’t a common occurrence. The lot where I park has hundreds of vehicles. A car has to be special to attract attention, and the smoke-gray Focus RS seemed small and nondescript enough to go unnoticed.

Boy was I wrong. The Focus RS attracts as much attention – on the road and in parking lots – as a Donald Trump appearance.

 Why all the fuss? For one thing, the Focus RS is a rarity. Ford’s been making RS (Rally Sport) models in Europe since 1968 but had never exported one to the U.S. until this year. According to a Ford news release, only 1,674 were sold, although the company is currently taking orders for 2017 models. Chances are that demand will outstrip availability.

 The other reason for all the attention and excitement is the vehicle itself. The Focus RS is a relatively affordable and practical compact hatchback with all-wheel drive.

 Yet it delivers the performance of a true sports car. Its engine pumps out 350 horsepower, its suspension is racetrack-ready, and its brakes have the stopping power of a .44 magnum.

 Cars like the Focus RS are commonly referred to as “hot hatches.” Americans in general are not big fans of small cars but Ford’s hot hatches are bucking that trend. Ford says sales of its turbocharged hatchbacks (Fiesta ST, Focus ST and Focus RS) are up 21.3 percent year-over-year in a segment that is down 21 percent industry-wide.

Ford’s hot hatches have little competition, and the Focus RS operates in even more rarified air. Now that the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution has been discontinued, its only direct competitors are Subaru’s WRX STI and Volkswagen’s Golf R.

The Focus RS has a substantial power advantage over both. Ford says its 2.3-liter, turbocharged inline four-cylinder (I-4) can generate 350 horsepower and 350 pounds-feet of torque. Subaru rates the WRX-STI at 305 hp and 290 lb-ft of torque, and Volkswagen credits the Golf R with 292 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque.

According to caranddriver.com, the Focus RS is the quickest of the three. Its zero-to-60 time of 4.6 seconds is one-tenth-second faster than the Subaru and a half-second faster than the Volkswagen. The RS’ 0-110 time was just 14.4 seconds, 1.6 and .9 seconds faster than the Subaru and VW, respectively.

That’s remarkably quick for a well-equipped car whose starting price is just $36,605. And you don’t have to drive like a maniac to appreciate the Focus RS’s power. It doesn’t have the low-end thrust of a high-performance V8, but with no hint of turbo lag and maximum torque arriving at just 3,200 rpm — less than halfway to the engine’s 6,800 rpm redline – the RS is plenty of fun to drive around town even while obeying speed limits.

Its handling contributes to the fun and testifies to the remarkable job Ford engineers did with the Focus RS suspension. Ford says the RS can generate more than 1 g of lateral force while cornering, and I won’t dispute that. At 25-30 miles an hour, the RS will easily navigate a 90-degree street corner without having to brake or even lift off the throttle.

And that’s in normal driving mode. The suspension can be firmed up by pushing a button on the stalk to the left of the steering wheel. But the RS handles so well to begin with, I never felt a need to use the button.

 In “normal” mode, the Focus RS provides a very tolerable ride on all but the roughest roads. Only school bus drivers would ever describe the ride as plush, but I had no complaints about its smoothness or quietness after spending a couple of hours on the highway in the RS.

 A trick AWD system is another attribute that enables Ford’s high-performance hatch to serve double-duty as a daily driver. You wouldn’t want to tackle a Maine winter on its standard high-performance summer tires, but throw four snows on the RS and you should be able to get around pretty well.

That AWD system features four modes: Normal, sport, track and drift. The modes affect suspension and steering settings in addition to power dispersion. Ford says the system can send up to 100 percent of the torque to the rear wheels and then divert that to the left or right side as driving conditions dictate.

I had no inclination to push the Focus RS to its limits in any of those modes. But there are countless online videos of rally driver Ken Block doing just that if you want proof of what Ford’s hot hatch can do. After checking out a few, you too might get excited if you spot a Focus RS on the road or in a parking lot.


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