The Ford Focus RS is the most lustworthy European hot hatch forbidden to us Yanks. No journalist has dared put all 305 hp of its front-wheel-drive madness down on red, white, and blue soil. Until now.
[gallery 5535210]Like all great journeys into uncharted territory, the arrival of a privately owned '11 Ford Focus RS on Texas soil began with a series of circumstances worthy of Jules Verne. In honor of its having sold cars in Mexico for a century, Ford decided to bless the country with five examples of the German-built RS. An enterprising dealer posted the car on eBay, and we immediately reposted the listing here. Less than 48 hours later, a member of the Jalop faithful made an offer on the car, and in doing so, made history. Here's the story of an enterprising car guy, an international journey, and one crazy green car.
To understand a man who buys a car so rare in North America that it makes a Bugatti Veyron seem like a Toyota Corolla, you have to understand his car collection. Pete doesn't collect cars for status or show. An engineer by trade and training, he collects cars that "at the time [of their production,] stood out from the crowd for their superlative engineering, design, and performance."
This translates into a 1967 Firebird with a supercharged 455, a 1964 Mini Cooper S, a 1996 Porsche 911 Turbo, a 2005 Lotus Exige S2, and a host of other wonderful performance cars. As soon as he saw our posting, he felt what he calls "a bloodlust" and called Monterrey's CarOne dealership. Many doubted the car even existed, and most people know that you can't certify a Focus RS for use on stateside public roads.
"If I'd had an ounce of skepticism," he says, "I probably wouldn't have bought it."
This guy could sell Dos Equis, though all we saw him drink was Budweiser.
Pete and his buddy Aldo landed in Monterrey late last Friday to claim the car. There's a long history of Americans invading Mexico and running off their resources, though it's doubtful most had such a warm welcome. Waiting in the back of the Focus RS was a collection of the city's finest treats and a bottle of tequila, a gift of Jorge, the dealership's manager.
The happy new owner, his friend, and a couple of dealership employees then hit the town for dinner and drinks. A good way to spend the evening, for sure, but a bit of a detriment considering that they have to drive from Monterrey to a border crossing in Laredo the next day.
The following morning, Pete decides to recover from the festivities. He lets Aldo take over driving duties, flying easily up the toll road to the border. To cap off the best car buying story we've ever heard (OK, the best we've heard that didn't involve steaming up the windows of a Lincoln Town Car), they had a dealership escort to the border to make sure that all went smoothly. The federales at the checkpoint were pleased to see the car and didn't seem to grasp what they were losing. They commented on the car's odd color, and Pete restrained himself from mentioning how it's a reference to Ford racing colors of the past. "I didn't want to argue with someone so heavily armed," he says.
Once safely into the United States, they head straight for San Antonio and a Chili's parking lot full of Focus and Mazda enthusiasts from the local chapters of the Focus Fanatics and Focaljet online communities. That's where Jalopnik joins the crew.
Everyone stands around in the conspicuously cool and overcast morning talking about their Focus or Mazdaspeed and anxiously awaiting the arrival of the RS. No one here has met Pete or has any idea what to expect. When Pete pulls into the parking lot, Focus faithful turn into paparazzi. The car is a celebrity.
After a bit of photography, a few of us make our way along the highway and then through the back roads of central Texas toward our ultimate goal: a barbecue joint called the Salt Lick in the tiny town of Driftwood. Famous for its spicy lean brisket, the Lick is another accomplishment Pete wants to cross off his list.
We arrive just in time for a 45-minute wait. That's when Pete pulls a key out of his pocket and tosses it to yours truly.
Is this guy crazy? When he kindly agreed to let Jalopnik drive the car, I assumed there would be a certain level of supervision. Nope. As I walk away, Kevin, the photographer, looks over and whispers "Let's not high five until we're around the corner."
The Focus RS isn't a car you drive; it's a car you dream of driving. As a result, climbing behind the wheel of one requires transcending the boundary between fantasy and reality. Thankfully, the car's physical appearance is enough to jar anyone awake.
We're in the final hours of some sort of municipal election in Driftwood, and I pass the same (and perhaps only) polling location a few times while Kevin shoots. There are plenty of brightly colored cars and trucks with wild body kits all over Texas — and, for that matter, anywhere else — but the Focus is clearly different. The expression on the poll workers's faces can only be described as the physical manifestation of the interrobang.
The large black grille opening is purposeful, the slotted vents on the hood a proud nod to the power lurking within. The wide body and lowered suspension lend the Focus an aura of credibility, while the giant, hatch-mounted spoiler and rear diffuser are more reminiscent of a super car than an econobox.
Like the comedy of Steve Martin, the RS's cabin is a mixture of high- and low-quality bits. The Recaro seats are fantastic; they're comfortable and well-bolstered. But they're still bolted into a Focus, which means a mile of cheap plastics and a multimedia interface of questionable design. The European Focus almost has a more jarring interior design than its American counterpart — but this is the only thing about the two cars that's even remotely similar.
Shifting into first and cautiously pushing into traffic, the RS feels like any other well-built front-wheel-drive car. At low speed, it's not altogether different from its distant cousin, the Mazda 3. Clearly, I'm not driving it right.
I shift into second, Iean harder on the gas, and everything changes. First, there's the sound: a turbocharged, 305-hp in-line five emits an unholy, unfamiliar noise. It's a Gatling gun firing into a drum factory. A chainsaw ripping through a rock pit. The sound of the engine popping as the turbo lays in is worth the price of admission.
The roads outside of town are mostly empty, so I stop and attempt to test whether the car's magical RevoKnuckle, torque-steer-reducing, MacPherson-plus front suspension actually works. As I plug through the close-ratio six-speed manual, the wheels stay mostly pointed in the right direction. Compared to a torque-steer monster like the Dodge Caliber SRT4, the RS's slight pull towards the equator is barely noticeable.
The lack of antics on a hard launch is probably how the front-wheel-drive Focus manages to make the 60-mph sprint in a claimed 5.9 seconds without a second turbo or other cheap tricks. And then there's that whole front-wheel-drive thing. Why does anyone lust over a "wrong-wheel drive" car? Look to the twisty bits.
Driving a Focus RS quickly around a corner is shockingly different from anything else I've attempted in rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive cars. On turn-in, and with the revs up, you brace yourself for the transfer of weight as the car leans out, and then the hard yank of the differential as it does its job. It never happens.
Instead of a standard differential or hideous e-diff, the RS uses a more complex automatic torque biasing Quaife limited-slip. It gently twitches the car a corner, creating an experience both comforting and exciting. I imagine magical fairy creatures inside the diff making just the right adjustments to keep the car moving.
This is where benchmarking becomes a challenge. The RS outclasses any FWD drive car you can imagine and therefore has to compete with more complex cars like Mitsubishi's Evo and Subaru's WRX STI. But after a few minutes in the Focus, that feels like cheating. Like hitting home runs with a 13-inch novelty bat, the Ford just feels better. The only thing I'd change is power — I want more. I want to see how far you can go before the diff trick stops working.
Just as I start to consider driving back to Mexico, running from the police in order to avoid giving the car back, I get a text message from Pete — the barbecue is almost ready. As good as the brisket is, I'd give it up for the car.
Back at the Salt Lick, Pete and I immediately launch into a discussion about the car. He can't wait to get it on the track with his Exige and see how the two compare. Drinking Budweiser out of a bucket and chewing a piece of sausage in a white Focus RS T-shirt, he's got the same smile I do.
I start talking about the car's weird dichotomy between the cheapo Ford interior parts and the overengineered suspension and engine components. Is it a centaur? A griffin?
He laughs. "It's a fucking Focus!"
This isn't said with derision, but with the same kind of underdog pride that makes anyone cheer for the Chicago Cubs. And this is the key point. Based on his collection — which is stored in an old paint factory that he owns — I'm guessing that Pete could have almost any car he'd ever want. But he wanted a Focus RS. It is one bad-ass Focus.
After some pecan pie and cobbler, the check comes. Pete picks it up for the table — a bunch of strangers who showed up just to see the Ford and talk about it. What a mensch. You can't own this car. Even if you could find one, you'd probably lack the appropriate Mexican work visas and registration that Pete has, and that you need in order to legally keep an RS on American soil.
But that's okay. If someone gets to have a Focus RS in the United States and it's not me, I'm glad that it's someone like Pete. Someone who appreciates it. Someone who will drive it. Someone whose cell-phone number is in my speed dial.
Mexican and BBQ photos courtesy of Pete. All other photos copyright Kevin McCauely.