The screenshot in the photo at the top of this article comes from the video clip above, which was posted by YouTuber maschoff69, and appears to depict a relatively new Focus RS spewing white steam from its exhaust pipe. The video, titled “FORS MK3 BLOWN HEAD GASKET,” says in its description: “Build date 4/20/2016 10,770 miles No tune.”

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That’s not the only YouTube clip showing a Focus RS spitting white gas from its tailpipes, either. Here’s a look at just one of the six RS head gasket-related videos YouTuber wnerjeo2 has uploaded:

The video’s description mentions the error codes set off by the apparent failure, including “P0302 - Cylinder #2 Misfire detected” and “P0316 - Misfire Detected on Startup (First 1000 Revolutions).” These are similar codes that others on forums have reported.

And then there’s the 12.5-minute vlog above by Paul (screen name vIcEZz 1), who clearly has no qualms with voicing his displeasure with Ford for having built his Focus RS, a vehicle that has allegedly suffered engine problems after only about 10,000 miles. His video’s description reads:

My RS got recalled in February for an update to the PCM module, 6 weeks later it went in for an oil change (the PCM monitors oil quality so the oil light came on as a result!). A week later and after about 50 miles my engine blew. Head gasket and cylinder head AND a wiring loom. 8 weeks Ford had my car and they pretty much treated me like a second class citizen for the whole time! Sorry Ford you’ve lost me as a customer and my RS is going up for sale soon and I’m going to another manufacturer. One loyal Ford customer ruined with your RS cars which are supposed to be your flagship vehicles!

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How Widespread Is The Issue?

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Despite having read posts and watched videos from a number of owners claiming to have had head gasket problems, I can’t really say how widespread this issue is. I’ve seen a number of people on the internet throw out figures for what percentage of all Ford Focus RS owners have reported head gasket failures, but I haven’t come across any numbers that I trust.

And even if there were some accurate failure statistics out there, I don’t have failure rates for other vehicles in the segment, so I wouldn’t have much to compare to. (Consumer Reports does list the Focus as one of the least reliable cars, but the study appears to include all Focus variants).

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It’s also worth mentioning that owners of enthusiast’s cars tend to be the more vocal than any other owner groups. The number of emails I have received over the years from sports car buyers claiming to have bought a car with a design flaw is staggering.

With that said, it appears that failing head gaskets are affecting more than just one or two MK3 Focus RS owners. That screengrab above, for example, comes from a spreadsheet compiled by the original poster of the aforementioned 211 page “Failed/Leaking Head Gasket Resource Thread.”

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The document includes 43 forum members who have confirmed head gasket failures, and it also contains descriptions of the cars’ symptoms, their dealers’ diagnoses, and the outcomes/resolutions.

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A similar tally exists on the German Focus RS Forum in a post titled “Anzahl Motorschäden hier im Forum,” (Number of motor failures here on the forum). The most updated post (shown above translated to English) is on page 15, and includes 48 people who have allegedly had issues with their Ford Focus RS engines; the vast majority of the issue descriptions—as you can see in the image above—mention coolant loss.

What’s Going On?

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That image above is an inside look at the Focus RS’s 2.3-liter EcoBoost inline-four, essentially a more powerful version of the 2.3-liter turbo that’s been in the Ford Mustang since the 2015 model year.

When it launched the Focus RS in 2015, Ford wrote in its press release that the 40 additional horsepower over the pony car come thanks to a twin-scroll turbo with a bigger compressor and intercooler, a less restrictive intake, and a “large-bore” high performance exhaust. Also in that initial press release was this:

The cylinder head is produced from an upgraded alloy material capable of withstanding higher temperatures, and is mounted on a more robust head gasket with improved thermal capability. The cylinder block employs stronger high-tensile cast iron liners.

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A number of folks suspect that it’s this change in the cylinder head that may be contributing to the RS’s head gasket issues, whereas the Mustang seems to have been thus far unaffected. Among these folks is a guy named Alex, an engineer at British Columbia-based tuning company Stratified, and also the original poster of that enormous thread on FocusRS.org.

Last month, he took a deep dive into what he thinks might be causing the head gasket failures, writing a now widely-circulated blog post titled “Focus RS Head Gasket Failure Mechanism,” in which he actually shows what a failed gasket looks like (shown below).

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Alex points out a few things about that failed cylinder head gasket, writing:

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Alex then delves into typical failure modes for head gaskets like the multilayer, elastomer-enchanced one found on the Focus RS, saying he thinks it’s not vertical movement of the head that’s likely the issue, but rather lateral movement, which could be causing “fretting/scrubbing” of the gasket. Alex talks about two mechanisms that can allow a cylinder head to move laterally, writing:

  1. Thermal deformation. As the engine is brought through a range of temperatures (within normal operation), the expansion and contraction of the head and block cause this lateral movement between the two interfaces. The movement caused by this is however low cycle, as the engine is warmed up and cooled down relatively few times compared to the next mechanism.
  2. The most relevant mechanism for lateral movement is due to cylinder firing. When a cylinder fires, it applies pressure on the open deck cylinder structure. This in turn causes this minute movement between the two interfaces scrubbing them at a high rate.
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What Alex is talking about when he says “open deck” is a design in which the tops of the cylinder sleeves are not supported by the engine’s deck. Notice how there’s open space all the way around the tops of the cylinders. While many like this setup for cooling efficiency and ease of manufacturing, it’s not as popular among tuners, who fear that too much boost can cause the cylinders to deform under high loads. (By contrast, here’s what a Toyota 2JZ-GTE’s closed-deck setup looks like).

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Alex told me over the phone that there’s nothing inherently wrong with an open-deck design; plenty of engines with open decks seal up just fine, but he does think the setup “contributes to vibration and shifts in the cylinders” in the Focus RS.

The result of such shifts, he writes in his blog post, is “material loss from the head gasket, block, or head,” and with time, this can cause the head gasket—the interface between the block and head—to falter.

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Alex cites an SAE paper titled “Cylinder Head Gasket Fretting/Scrub Mechanism Investigation and Analysis Procedure Developments,” (a paper that just happens to be affiliated with Ford Motor Company) showing what appear to be Computer Assisted Engineering images of strain, load and wear on an engine deck.

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These images show maximum contact pressure on the edges of the cylinders, and—crucially—maximum lateral movement and maximum wear just between the cylinders. So it’s not surprising that Alex noticed Focus RS head gasket failures occurring between the bores. Alex summarizes his takeaways from the paper, writing:

The area that will inevitably experience the highest wear rate will be between the cylinders. Manufacturing discrepancies, vehicle use, temperature fluctuations and other factors will influence whether a failure will occur on a vehicle and if so when.

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He shows the cylinder head above, describing what he sees:

Once again, the head shows that coolant was found in the area between the cylinders but this was a closed path. Overall the cylinder sealing area was very narrow and the head gasket failed after a number of miles.

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Alex admitted over the phone that, while his article doesn’t provide any conclusive information on the root cause of the failures, it does at least indicate where the wear points are.

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He says he’s heard of people having full engines replaced, cylinder heads replaced, and head gaskets swapped with new, revised ones like the one above, whose changes he describes in his blog post:

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A note on the second bullet point: Alex says the original gasket had a narrow opening in the elastomer between the cylinders—this is no longer present, as elastomer now covers the entire area.

Alex told me: “The most recent fix is that people are getting heads and gaskets, not just gaskets,” a comment I’ve heard echoed across forums, and over the phone from Brett, the Redditer whose RS was in the shop in Roanoke for 10 weeks.

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Alex—who wanted me to make clear that he’s a huge fan of what Ford has done with the RS (he considers it an excellent vehicle)—says he’s hearing about 2017 model-year RSs failing, so whatever is going on doesn’t appear to only apply to early models. He told me that somewhere between five to 10 percent of his approximately 100 Focus RS customers have reported having had a head gasket problem.

“There’s obviously a sealing problem there,” Alex told me, “I don’t think it’s a simple problem; I think it’s a complex problem...If it was a simple problem, it would have been addressed.”

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Alex isn’t the only one to have done his own investigating into the head gasket issue. FocusRS.org forum member Regulated used a Vividi VA-400 borescope to film the inside their engine, particularly the interface between the head and block. The videos above and below are what he or she found.

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You can see Regulated’s summaries of the borescope footage here and here, but in short, it’s the dark coloring of the head gasket on the right side of cylinder one and the left side of cylinder two that has Regulated concerned:

The scopes paint an ugly picture with clear gasket damage and erosion occurring between cylinders 1 and 2. 2-3 and 3-4 are fine. All other contact surface seen appears in great shape.

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Then there’s the video below by YouTuber MK3 Focus RS Club, who thinks the main reason why cars are having coolant and head gasket issues could very well deal with high stresses around a head bolt, which can cause a cracked block (it’s worth noting that there are also mentions on Forums and YouTube of people having cracked blocks). Here’s what he has to say:

Clearly, there are lots of theories out there on why Ford Focus RS head gaskets are failing, and while none seem to be conclusive, there seems to be enough commotion from Focus RS owners around the world for this issue to warrant attention.

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It’s important to acknowledge that we still don’t really know exactly how many Focus RSs have been affected by these apparent head gasket issues. But the outcry from owners all around the world makes it hard not to wonder if God In Hatchback Form really does suffer from a design flaw.

From here, ideally, Ford will officially identify the scale of the issue and come up with a plan to rectify it. Until then, we’ll have our eyes and ears open for updates on the situation.

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If you have a Focus RS and have had any issues like what you’re reading about here, drop us a line at tips@jalopnik.com.