Conveniently located off Old Telegraph Road in Clarkston, Waterford Hills Raceway is one of Metro Detroit’s hidden gems.
Bordered by woods, its 11 turns spilling over grassy knolls offer some of the best road racing in Michigan. For 58 years Detroiters have enjoyed this great American racetrack next door.
Buyers of the ferocious, 2017 Ford Focus RS will want to get to know it.
And Grattan Raceway in Grand Rapids. And South Haven’s Gingerman Raceway. And M1 Concourse’s Champion Motor Speedway in Pontiac. Because the RS is as track-focused a production car you’ll find this side of a Camaro Z28 or Porsche 911 GT3. Yet for just $36,775 it’s within reach of the average motorhead.
In this Second Golden Age of motoring the RS joins the formidable Volkswagen Golf R and Subaru STI as all-wheel-drive, $35K-something hot rods with back seats. The STI is a legend with its Sopwith Camel rear-wing and nice-Subie-gone-bad swagger, while the classy V-dub boasts divine German engineering and hatchback utility.
Previous performance versions of the Focus haven’t been in the class of the Golf, the undisputed hatch benchmark for four decades. Compared to VW’s 210-horse Golf GTI, for example, the front-wheel drive, 250-horsepower 2016 Focus ST that I recently drove is a dinosaur, its torque steer so violent when under the whip it wants to rip the wheel out of my hands.
Like ST, the RS’s power dwarfs the Golf R on paper — but this time Ford harnesses it with appropriate engineering.
Engineered in Germany and assembled in Spain alongside other Focuses on Ford’s global C-platform, the RS (Rally Sport) initials are revered in Europe. The badge has graced off-road rally contenders — from Escort to Sierra to Focus — for years. Its appearance on these shores is a long-overdue first.
Detroit News auto critic Payne takes the pocket rocket rally sport Focus out on the track at Waterford Hills. Henry Payne, The Detroit News
Golf R is the ultimate stealth hatch, its conservative lines not betraying my predatory intentions until I’m on top of you. Focus RS, on the other hand, looks like I bought it from Darth Vader Automotive.
Check out those gaping, shark-like jaws. RS alters three body panels from its brother Focus: front fascia, roof winglet and rear diffuser. The facial Extreme Makeover satisfies the little beasty’s ravenous appetite for air. Engines, a wag once said, are simply air machines. Apropos the RS with every front crevice devoted to ramming more oxygen down its 2.3-liter turbo’s neck. It bumper is thinned for more air through the grille. An enlarged lower opening feeds a turbo intercooler the size of Manhattan. What, no hood scoop?
We’ve seen this turbo 4-banger before in the current Mustang. Despite making a healthy 310 ponies, the four seems out of place in the muscle car but not the hot hatch. Not only does the RS mill produce a staggering 40 more horsepower than the Mustang, but it gains 58 horses on the Golf R. Mercy.
The wing adds downforce — and a big “ticket me” billboard — on top of the car. It’s not as outrageous as the STI’s aerofoil, which looks like it came off a World War I fighter plane. But it will make anyone over 30 wince.
The Golf R laughs at such bling, preferring more modest duds. That civility translates to the ride as well.
Take RS on the Michigan roads and you’ll want a mouth guard. Toggle the shock-stiffener button on the left stalk and the thing becomes positively violent. Roaring across Michigan’s concrete roads, the RS bobbed and pitched like a rodeo bull.
And if a bull needs a ring, the RS needs a track.
On Waterford’s smooth asphalt, I eased down the pit lane, selected Track mode (which automatically stiffens the shocks 40 percent), turned off traction control and the washboard-stiff RS was in its element. Like any small-displacement turbo, the meat of the rev band is over 3,000 rpms — but then it keeps pulling to its 6,500 redline. Acceleration (0-60 mph in a retina-flattening 4.7 seconds) is so quick I repeatedly hit the rev-limiter in second gear. Grabbing fourth gear on the short back straight, I briefly touched 100 mph before stomping the big Brembo brakes.
If the Focus body mods look aggressive, the chassis upgrades lash the car to the ground. RS gets a front sub-frame cross brace, rear cross brace, sway-bar bushing braces, “lion’s foot” suspension-tower braces, rear toe-link reinforcement, rocker foam and anabolic steroids injected into the hydraulics (just kidding about that last one). Then Ford really got serious.
Where Subie and VW use traditional all-wheel drive torque-vectoring systems that brake the inside wheels to help the rear rotate through corners, RS is equipped with twin rear-clutches that can accelerate the outside tires.
As a result the RS is a rocket through the twisties, its chassis rotating on a dime. I threw the hatch around like a rag doll, its Michelin Super Sports sticking like taffy. To show off its bonkers AWD, engineers gave the RS “drift mode” so you can easily induce four-wheel oversteer. This was especially fun in Michigan turns on Woodward — spinning the car like a top with a quick dab of gas — but on track the quick way around is Track mode.
Only in the fast, Turn 5 “Big Bend” did I feel the RS’s porky 3,459 pounds — 120 more than Golf R. For all of the stiffening and bigger turbos, the RS gets no body panel light-weighting over the base, steel Focus.
That base Focus design is apparent inside as well, contrasting with the Golf’s more-premium Audi-like look. But I’m a sucker for Ford’s’ clever console buttons and dials. RS temperature gauges and bear-hugging, blue-stitched Recaro seats give it character. Stash your phone in the shallow console cubby and it’ll fly out on the floor in hard turns. Those bolstered seats are there so you don’t get chucked on the floor too.
If you want a daily driver, buy the Golf R. Buy the RS if you want junior version of the Nissan GT-R, a race car in production clothing. After my Waterford Hills jaunt, I trolled Woodward for victims. I drag-raced two 420-horsepower M3s from a stoplight, the RS’s superior AWD traction hanging tough despite giving up 70 horses. Our thirst for blood slaked, RS and I headed home. On the way, I came up on a GT-R.
The driver recognized the beast in his mirrors and threw me an enthusiastic thumbs up as if to say: “Welcome stateside, RS. See you at the track!”
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2016 Ford Focus RS
Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger, five-door hatchback
Price: $36,775 base ($39,560 as tested)
Power plant: 2.3-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder
Power: 350 horsepower, 350 pound-feet torque
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.7 seconds (manufacturer); top speed: 165 mph
Weight: 3,459 lbs.
Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/29 mpg highway/25 mpg combined
Highs: Hatchback utility; AWD OMG
Lows: Boy-toy styling; bucking bronco daily-driver
Excellent ★★★★ Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★