Dressed in its violent lime green warpaint, our Focus RS is hard to miss. Even in its two other colours (white and blue), it's a pretty formidable-looking car with its massive black rear wing, flared wheel arches, bonnet vents, black wing mirrors and highlights, revised front bumper with its integral gaping mouth, body kit and racing-style 19-inch alloy wheels. Fog lights are fitted at front and rear, and the rear brake lights are actually an array of LED lights.
Thanks to its three-door hatchback shape, the desk-size rear wing doesn't impede on the driver's rearward vision. Although it does clatter about like a cheap aftermarket item when the boot is slammed shut. Similarly, the doors have a tinny ring to them, although this has probably been done in the interest of shedding a few kilos.
The boot is a handy size, but just don't expect to carry any large or long items. Despite the rear seats being blessed with the ability to split-fold 60/40, the seats feature high side bolsters, meaning that the backrests lie at about 35 degrees when released. Should a tyre go flat there's no spare wheel to help you out, only a temporary tyre repair and inflation kit.
The highly sculpted rear seats may impede load carrying and keep overall seating capacity to four, but they do ensure that passengers in the back aren't thrown around like yachts in a storm. Up front there are two tight-fitting Recaro sports bucket seats. Only the wings of the seats are clad in leather, with the rest covered in a grippy microfibre material that not only feels wonderfully technical, but adds an extra element of grip.
A word of caution to guys when they first step into the RS, though: be mindful of the seats' tall, almost rock solid bolsters. Drop yourself into them with too much violence or not enough vigilance and you may not have the option of having children. Mind you, those same said bolsters do a fantastic job of cradling you as you do your best impersonation of Ken Block and are surprisingly comfortable on long journeys.
Finding a comfortable seating position is easy to do as the steering wheel can be adjusted for both height and reach. To keep the car's weight down, seat and steering adjustments are made manually. Being the most hard-core Focus ever, the RS features plenty of faux carbon fibre and metal trim pieces, as well as a lovely dimpled leather steering wheel and metal pedals with rubber studs.
The rest of the interior, especially the dashboard, tries its best to mimic the Volkswagen Golf, but with only middling results. While the dashboard top is as soft and pliable as the Golf's, the switches don't have the same precision feel and the presentation lacks the VW's professionalism.
Whilst most of the car's headline features are geared towards performance, the RS doesn't make you feel like you're driving a track-only special. There's a dual-zone climate control air-con, puddle lights under the wing mirrors, keyless entry and start, and electric mirrors and windows.
The car's standard xenon headlights can switch themselves on automatically depending on light levels and ensure that the view forward at night is brightly lit, but unfortunately the lamp units don't swivel in unison with the steering wheel. The windscreen wipers are of the rain-sensing variety and, like the Jaguar XJ, the RS features demisting elements built into the front windscreen. In some situations these heating coils are invisible, but in others, such as night-time, lights and reflections have odd, hazy and distracting halos around them.
Although there's no reversing camera, there are sensors placed on the rear bumper, so reverse parking isn't too much of a hassle. The rear-vision mirror dims itself if the lights coming from behind are causing too much glare. Key features missing on the RS include cruise control, sat nav and a reversing camera.
In the middle of the instrument panel is a monochromatic trip computer that also allows you to tweak various car settings. This is complemented by an RS-exclusive set of gauges in the middle of the dashboard with readouts for oil pressure and temperature, as well as turbo boost.
Generally, when we review cars, the sound system is high on our list of items to play with. In the RS, however, it fell well down the pecking order. Indeed, between our addiction to the engine's mechanical symphony and the tyre roar generated on anything other than ultra-smooth bitumen, the sound system felt almost superfluous.
The audio system is driven by a Sony digital radio head unit, but because it just complies with DAB, as opposed to the DAB+ standard used in Australia, you'll only be able to listen to regular analog radio stations down under. This system is also able to receive traffic and news announcements, but again this feature works in Europe, not Australia.
Thankfully, the system is equipped with Bluetooth hands-free and audio streaming, a six CD in-dash stacker, and auxiliary and USB ports. The latter works with both flash memory drives, as well as iPods and iPhones, but for direct connectivity and control over Apple products, you'll need a special combined USB and auxiliary cable.
Sound quality is OK when you're playing CDs, although heavy bass is ruined by buzz from the speakers and most of the music's detail is drowned out by sounds from beyond the cabin. Additionally, this noise intrusion is also the success rate of the car's voice control system, which is let down by the fact that available commands aren't displayed on a screen anywhere, forcing fish-brained auto reviewers to grope around hopelessly until the long-winded help system kicks in.
To make matters worse, this Focus isn't fitted with audio controls on the steering wheel. Instead, there's a football-field-sized control stalk living underneath the indicator wand. As it has two sets of up and down controls (one for track selection, the other volume control), and the control labels are nigh on invisible when driving, it's often easier to make a stretch for the head unit.
On the road
If experiencing driving nirvana isn't one of your priorities, then you should forget about this Focus, because like any path to enlightenment there are plenty of compromises to be made. On the RS's path, you'll be faced with constant attention from other road users, harsh uncompromising ride, and the temptation to go hard and fast all the time.
And it's in the inner city that the RS is at its most challenging. The heavy clutch, with its high pick-up point and surprising lack of feel, means that if you drive this Ford in stop-start traffic for long enough, you'll end up with a Hulk-sized left leg. And on Sydney's pockmarked streets, the seemingly concrete-filled suspension transforms every divot into a pothole and every expansion joint into a speed hump. The 12m turning circle makes navigating some inner city streets a real pickle — for example, a miniature roundabout near this writer's abode requires a rather embarrassing three-point turn.
Counteracting this is the wonderful rock opera generated by the turbocharged 2.5-litre five-cylinder petrol engine, which makes even pottering around at low speeds an aural delight. The engine's basic design comes from Volvo (once a part of the Ford empire) and is similar to the motor used in the fast-but-rather-more-mainstream XR5. Hit the start button — rather mischievously labelled Ford Power — and the engine kicks into life with a rasping growl. Lift off the throttle abruptly and the engine whistles while the exhaust crackles delightfully.
At your right foot's discretion there's 224kW of power and 440Nm of torque to be exploited. This allows the 1.5-tonne RS to race from zero to 100km/h in 5.9 seconds. Unlike its chief rivals, the Subaru Impreza WRX STI and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, only the front wheels are driven. Normally, this would lead to a lot of wasted effort, not to mention rubber. Not only that, the RS's front wheels should be so overwhelmed by the available torque that steering becomes impossible and a date with the hedges inevitable.
The boffins in the Ford's engineering department, though, have come up with a two-pronged solution. Firstly, they fitted a Quaife automatic torque-biasing limited-slip differential that smoothly and progressively sends more power and torque to the front wheel with the most traction. Secondly, they came up with a RevoKnuckle for bottom of the front MacPherson strut suspension, allowing the engineers much greater freedom in configuring the car's dynamics.
Between these two pieces of tech and the specially developed Continental tyres, the RS just grips like a leech and goes where it's pointed. We were only able to extract a bit of the dreaded torque steer under severe provocation on a motley, extremely damp road. Most of the time the only hint that you're driving a high power front-wheel drive car is a slight tug at the wheel when you floor the gas.
Thrown into a corner at speed, the car stays almost perfectly flat. Hit the apex, floor the throttle and the 2.5-litre engine warps space-time with a delightful growl and woosh. Nail the throttle when you're stuck in the wrong gear or the engine is off-boost, and there's still plenty of power and torque available. Naturally, a six-speed manual gearbox is the only transmission on offer and while it's easy to shift accurately, we do wish that the physical distance between gears are shorter and that heel-toe shifts are easier to perform.
There are three power steering modes: Standard, Sport and Comfort. In Sport, power assistance is almost non-existent and there's actually a level of communication from the road through the tyres to the steering wheel, which makes it the perfect choice when you're flinging the car around a deserted country road. It's utterly unsuited to the city, though, unless your arms are as thick as a gum tree. Standard and Comfort offer considerably more power assistance, but are still on the heavy side of well-weighted.
Considering the amount of performance at one's disposal, the RS is actually rather efficient. In the inner city, the hard-core Focus drank 17.5L/100km. As we headed out into the suburbs, economy improved to 11L/100km. Out on a multi-lane highway we achieved an average rating of 7.1L/100km. And on almost deserted country roads where the engine, tyres and suspension were made to earn their keep, the RS consumed premium unleaded at the rate of 11.5L/100km. Naturally, the greater your enthusiasm, the greater the fuel consumption.
That this high performance front-wheel drive hatch works at all is engineering genius. That it delights (almost) all our senses makes it truly great. Only 315 RS models have been earmarked for Australia and most will already have homes.