The Ford Focus RS has a second electronic brain in its butt, which it needs to control its new all-wheel-drive system. Sometimes this brain gets confused, and this has some consequences.
(Full Disclosure: Team O’Neil Rally School let me drive their Ford Focus RS on their snowy, gravely facility up in New Hampshire. I will say that their car is largely stock but it has a few modifications: it has a Mountune tune on it for a bit more power, it has aftermarket Bilstein shocks and it has no ABS for reasons I will explain shortly. I thank Team O’Neil for letting me drive their baby.)
For instance: every time I tried to left-foot brake the Ford Focus RS, it would go from all-wheel drive to front-wheel drive. I was up at Team O’Neil Rally School, driving their Mountune-tuned, Bilstein-shocked demo car. We were there flinging the car around in snow and gravel, trying, among other things, to figure out just how fast its Drift Mode is.
I was instinctively left-foot braking around some gravel turns and zing the car was putting 350 horsepower to the front tires until I stopped two-footing. This is not a great sensation from behind the wheel.
For instance again: the same thing would happen with the handbrake.
For instance again again: the car had the power and the traction to get up to colossal speeds on snow and gravel, but the ABS cut in like it was on pavement.
This is a problem, because since you can’t left-foot brake, you have to drive the Focus RS on the throttle, and that means you have to commit to a corner and you can’t really adjust if you’ve misjudged anything. And if you misjudge anything, then you have to get on the brakes alone, and since the ABS cuts in too hard on any loose surface, the car will just drive you into a tree.
The only solution to this is to disconnect the ABS if you’re driving fast in snow or dirt, as Team O’Neil has done.
What I mean to say is that the Ford Focus RS is a very computerized car. (It has two brains, as I said: one electronic control unit lives up front as any Focus would have and a second one for the new all-wheel drive system sits mounted in a little box on the rear differential itself.) The Focus RS works very well in the situations that it’s comfortable in. When you try to do anything else it starts acting like a robot that asked what the definition of “love” is. It falls apart.
So it’s great in its element, confused outside of it, kind of heavy, probably too fast for driving on the street, a little remote, very complicated and totally computerized. Worse still, the Focus RS has been totally overhyped.
So then it’s a usual cliché new car that’s fast but not fun, typical, and something in-the-know enthusiasts shouldn’t care about, right?
Not at all. The Focus RS is insanely good.
But to understand why, you need to understand how the car’s all-wheel-drive system functions. Rather, it’s important to understand how the system wants to function. Yes, that’s a weird thought. The Focus RS has desires. It has preferences. It has optimal operating parameters.
Better said, it is not a dumb machine. It is a robot that is designed to perform perfectly under specific certain circumstances and inputs.
Now would be a fine time for a short digression on how drift mode works:
Those two brains I mentioned? This is the super secret magic that makes the Ford Focus RS the car that it is. There’s another little computer that sits on the rear diff from outside supplier GKN. The rear diff has magnets and clutches that do the physical job of transferring engine power to the rear wheels, but it’s the brain in the box that tells the diff what to do. And there’s a larger system at play. The Focus brain talks to the differential brain, the diff brain talks back to the car brain, and that’s how the Ford Focus RS works its all-wheel drive. In its standard and sport modes, the Focus RS’s intra-car conversations have it behave like just about any other modern all-wheel-drive compact car.
Things get interesting when you engage drift mode.
Again, in something like sport or track mode, the car feels fast but unexceptional. Like a Golf R or something. Driving it is like driving any other Focus, only with less drama and the numbers on the speedometer are higher than usual.
But in drift mode the car takes on a new character. Technically, what happens when you engage drift mode is that the shocks soften up, the steering lightens, and the rear differential punches a mirror.
It’s not only that the car begins to send more power to the rear wheels; the electronic brain in the car’s butt sends extra power specifically to the outside rear wheel. It overdrives itself. The car pushes itself harder into a turn the more gas you give it. The RS’s brains work together to actively create powerslides. That’s their combined strategy.
This is the digital nature of the car. It is set up to work best when the driver acts in the most irresponsible manner possible. In drift mode, the Focus RS is technically and electronically designed for hooliganism.
See the corner ahead of you, huck it in, remember not to left-foot brake, big lift off the throttle, feel the car rotate, goose the throttle and start countersteering for the next turn.
It’s not like driving a typical all-wheel drive car. It’s like driving a rear-wheel drive car with cheats unlocked.
A better way to put it might be that you can drive it like a good front-wheel drive car, only you can use the throttle to guide you down the road. The chassis itself is amazingly friendly. Ford is genuinely good in this regard, building its hatchbacks with extremely accommodating balance. Drive like a moron—that’s my specialty!—and the car is totally happy.
Is this a serious experience? No, not at all. But it’s entertaining and oddly satisfying and totally unlike so many other ‘performance’ cars on sale today. People are spending $60, $70, $100+ grand on cars that aren’t as playful as this.
I get why Ford made the Focus RS all-wheel drive. Most of the time, the Focus RS behaves like other modern all-wheel drive performance cars. It plods a bit because it’s heavy, but it totally hooks up with all of its power. This is how most people want a fast car to act: it’s not complicated, it’s fast. It’s why seemingly every performance car since the Veyron has gone AWD.
And I also get why someone might not be a huge fan of the Focus RS’s built-in hooliganism. Not everyone wants to act like an idiot. In a way, the Focus RS is like a robot that’s programmed to drink beer. It’s in the garage with everyone else, doing keg stands, cheering everyone else on. Is it actually having fun? Of course not! It’s a robot. It has only been designed this way to fit in with all of us dumb and fleshy humans, trying making us comfortable. But is it actually? This robot is like really good at keg stands, but isn’t this kind of weird?
When you’re in the moment, high on speed and oversteer, drift mode is addictive and wonderful. Step away from it, and it starts to feel kind of strange. Maybe you don’t want a car that’s been taught to party. Maybe all those pops and bangs from the exhaust sound kind of fake when you know they’ve been optimized in a lab somewhere.
The Focus RS isn’t the only car to do this. All carmakers now are trying to program in some of the quirks and oddities of older automobiles into their lab-grown supercars. The Jaguar F-Type, a car I’ve driven that never got under my skin, is famously programmed to dump extra gas into the exhaust so it pops and bangs like a vintage race car. Current BMW M cars have so much sound deadening and insulation that they have to pipe engine noise through the speakers so you feel some excitement. You get similar built-in quirks and gimmicks in just about every self-designated fun car on sale today, but I’ve never driven one that seemed quite as deliberately goofy as the Focus RS.
Is this something I want? Is it any worse than more straightforward and stern sports cars? Cars that don’t make driving easy, cars that don’t give a shit about how much fun you’re having, cars that are simply designed to work as opposed to entertain? I don’t know. That’s a thought for a different time. For now I’m just going to think back on how good the Focus RS was sliding on the throttle, fast and competent and fun.