On Autos: RS version transforms Ford Focus into performance machine

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The Focus RS is the high-performance version of Ford's compact hatchback. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The last time The Current reviewed a Ford Focus, the tested vehicle came with one of the smallest engines available in the U.S.: a 1.0-liter three-cylinder. Yet even with so little power, this compact car delivered a respectable degree of driving enjoyment, thanks to its responsive steering and agile handling.

Though it’s priced near $40,000, the Ford Focus RS interior generally looks and feels like an ordinary economy car’s. (Brady Holt/The Current)

From that already capable starting point, Ford created a ferocious performance machine: the Focus RS. The RS is injected with 350 horsepower, and an all-wheel-drive system (not offered on other Focus models) ensures that all four wheels can help deliver that power to the road. The cost can be steep: At $36,995 base, it’s more than twice the starting price of an ordinary Focus. On the other hand, its high level of acceleration and handling performance can match many higher-priced sports cars.

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The driving experience of the Focus RS perhaps benefits from its humble roots. Unlike in many sporty cars — including the competing Volkswagen Golf R — you don’t have to drive the car hard to have fun. The Golf R has similar potential, but Volkswagen keeps its abilities hidden until you draw them out. The Focus is always eager, and remains capable as you push it farther and farther beyond the limits of ordinary compact cars.

This Ford’s economy-car origins don’t do it any favors for curb appeal compared to a sleek, stylish sports coupe, but they do give it an extra measure of practicality. The Focus RS is a five-door, five-seat hatchback with respectable cargo volume. Note, however, that no Focus has a roomy rear seat, and the RS is further constrained by racing-style front seats that just barely fit inside.

The Ford Focus RS is more practical but less stylish than a traditional sports coupe. (Brady Holt/The Current)

On the other hand, the Focus RS lacks the Golf R’s refinement. The Volkswagen has subtle, elegant styling; the RS is defined by a gaping mouth and large rear spoiler. The Golf has an upscale interior for an economy car, while the Focus’ cabin is on the drab side. The Golf R feels natural even when it’s driven gently in stop-and-go traffic; the Focus RS prefers to keep moving. The Volkswagen offers a choice of manual and automatic transmissions; the Ford is manual-only. Although the Focus RS demonstrated livable ride quality, the Golf was smoother. Choose accordingly.

Both of these models are built to excel on a racetrack, and accordingly their capabilities far exceed what any driver could experience on D.C. streets without running afoul of the law. Both the Focus and the Golf are also available in toned-down performance models: the ST and the GTI, respectively.