By on July 7, 2017

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“It’s been a long time. I shouldn’t have left you.”

-Rakim, I Know You Got Soul

Anybody who was thinking Aaliyah when they read that quote, feel free to click “X” in the top corner of your browser. To everybody else, it’s good to be home at TTAC. Since my last post here, people across social media have been asking me three questions:

  1. Whatever happened to your Focus RS? Do you still have it?
  2. So, how about that Focus, huh? Are you ever going to update us on it?
  3. ????

Okay, so it’s really only been one question. Fear not, friends. I’m back like a rebel making trouble to tell you all about my first nine months of FoRS ownership. Also, my thoughts on Maxine Waters. No, just kidding. We’ll stick to the Focus thing.

Let’s start off by stepping into the wayback machine. If you’ll recall, I was looking for something that would be capable of handling family-of-four duties, comfortable for daily driving, and also fun to drive on the track. As such, I’ll break down my time with the car into those three categories and how the Focus has managed to fulfill my expectations of it.

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Family-hauling Hatchback

Sadly, despite being approximately five million times faster than your regular old Ford Focus SE, it’s not actually any larger inside than any other Focus. I know, completely and totally shocking. In comparison to the Fiesta ST I had for two years, the available interior space might be larger on a spec sheet, but in the real world, it’s not any better. The Recaros are not super comfortable, even after 8,000 miles of break-in.

But for my family, which includes a not-quite-on-the-growth-chart nine-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, the space is more than adequate. I can easily load a week’s worth of groceries into it and not have to fold down any seats to do it. Soccer gear and ballerina outfits are easily transported, and trips as long as an hour can be done with little to no “quit touching me! Dad, he’s in my space!” complaining.

After owning a Boss 302 for several years, I must say that the practicality of four doors cannot be overstated. Yes, it’s incredibly easy to compare the Focus RS to the Mustang GT, thanks to the similarity of their price points, but for the 99 percent of the time that you’re not tracking it, the Focus is just easier to live with. Can you have your kids climb in and out of the backseat of a Mustang? Sure. Do you really want to have to? Probably not. There’s no denying that, for all the Nitrous Blue paint and the 15 different RS logos placed all over the exterior and interior of the car, it’s still just a Focus underneath, and it’s good at doing Focusy kinds of stuff. This is both admirable and regrettable.

And yet, while its Focusness can’t be ignored, there’s still something intrinsically cool about the RS. While there can be no doubt that a Mustang is more suitable to this nearly-40-year-old’s mid-life crisis status, the Focus RS carries a certain cachet that a regular old Mustang GT just…doesn’t. In the nine months I’ve owned the RS, I have seen exactly none of them on the road. I’ve been car spotted several times on various Kentucky car forums, tagged in several Instagram posts, and had Focus ST and Fiesta ST drivers chase me down for photo opps.

My kids, who admittedly still shout “Mustang!” each and every time we pass anything from a Shelby GT350R to a six-cylinder New Edge on the street, like the fact that Dad picks them up from school in something that nobody else has. “This is the only Nitrous Blue one in Kentucky,” my son proudly states whenever the subject is raised. And while I’m pretty sure that’s not as true as it was the day I brought it home, he’s still very proud of being squired around in it.

So as far as family-hauling duties go, I’ll give it a passing grade, as it’s undeniably better than both the Boss 302 and Fiesta ST that preceded it.

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Spine-Crunching, Completely Blah, Or Somewhere In The Middle

As a daily driver, the Focus RS is a plain old-fashioned hoot — or at least it is once you press the Drive Mode button twice, which switches the RS from “Normal” to “Sport” driving modes. Sport keeps the dampers softened, but it tightens up the steering significantly and puts the exhaust into “pops and burbles” mode. This has been my preferred driving mode for driving around town, as it prevents the dampers from going into “ow, my back” mode, but still allows me to feel like I’m being a tad sporty. Throttle response is also improved, making the hot hatch actually feel somewhat toasty.

Track mode is fun, but it’s best saved for the autocross or even the aforementioned track. The shock settings are just too stiff to be enjoyable on Kentucky roads, and the AWD system gets super-aggressive.

Normal mode, however, is best for long stretches of highway driving. The steering loosens up a bit, the exhaust quiets down, and throttle response is slowed. But this doesn’t mean the Focus RS can’t still entice the driver into felonious speeds in Normal mode. In fact, I got my first ticket in a long time on the way to Road Atlanta back in February — and then I got another one in Kentucky about a month ago. The RS in Normal mode feels quite calm, cool, and collected, even at speeds up to and exceeding 100 miles per hour. This is good for my driving enjoyment level, but very, very bad for my wallet.

My wallet also feels the pain at the pumps, unfortunately. Since the Focus requires 91-plus octane, and with the rising cost of premium fuel, the RS can be punitive to drive at times. Granted, I have a heavy foot, but I’ve never seen anything over 19 miles per gallon in the Focus for any extended period of time, regardless of drive mode. If I have a trip of any significant distance to take, I always select my Ford Flex instead.

Therefore, it’s difficult to recommend the Focus RS over the Focus ST for everyday driving. If I were never going to track it, I’d probably stick with the ST and save half (!!!) of the $43,000 sticker price of the RS. But, since I do track it…

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Brakes, Brakes, Needs More Brakes!

My first track session in the RS was at Road Atlanta back in February, during the practice for the opening race of the American Endurance Racing season. If you’re not familiar with Road Atlanta, it’s an excellent track for exposing the weaknesses of a car — long straights, high-speed sweepers, climbing esses, and tight radius turns.

The Focus RS likes three of these four things.

I had no problem gobbling up nearly every car on track in the long back straight. The aggressive AWD of “Track” mode means the RS digs hard out of corners, getting a jump on anybody who dares to drag race it for position. The nature of the AWD means mid-corner speed is easy to maintain and modulate if needed. And it’s very difficult to upset, because the optional Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires mean that you’ve always got more grip than you need.

That brings us to the slow corners. That powerful combination of AWD and Michelin means the RS does not, cannot, and will not rotate at slow speeds. The 60/40 weight balance makes the Focus RS just as likely to plow through a pokey corner as little brother ST — in order to make the thing rotate, serious throttle needs to be applied at just the right time. Too early, and you end up early apexing and pointed in the wrong direction. Too late, and you watch RWD cars slide right by your windows. It’s a delicate art, and one that my limited track time in the car has not given me enough time to perfect.

None of this matters, though, when you can’t brake, and the Focus RS has a tendency to cook brakes nearly immediately. When this happens, you don’t just experience fade. No, you experience a quick vibration, followed by the pedal falling to the floor. When this happened to me in Turn 1 at Utah Motorsports Park, I thought I might be taking a trip to the ER. It’s unpredictable, and it doesn’t happen each successive time. The only thing that solves the problem is a cooling off period, and if there’s not enough time for that, a complete flush of the front brakes.

Doesn’t mean it’s not a hell of a lot of fun, though. And when you look at the clock at the end of the day, it ends up being a lot faster than cars you wouldn’t expect it to beat — like the aforementioned Mustang GT.

So what’s the verdict?

Given the chance to buy the RS again… I would. This is a case where the total of the car is clearly more than the sum of its parts. It’s not perfect at any one task — it needs more space and better fuel economy to be a great DD, and it needs more brake cooling to be a track rat — but it’s a unique car, one that is deserving of all the hype it gets. And you’ll notice that I didn’t say “Drift Mode” once in my review of it, because, frankly, it’s a stupid, worthless gimmick.

So, if you can find a dealer who’s not still holding on to the $10,000 markup fantasy, the Focus RS is worth your consideration. And if you don’t like Nitrous Blue, they’ll even sell it to you in white, black, or gray.

Of course, those colors are all wrong. Just ask my son.

[Images: ©2017 Mark Baruth/The Truth About Cars]

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51 Comments on “Long-term Tester Review: The FoRS Is Strong With This One (and the Return of the Bark)...”


  • avatar
    kvndoom

    Paid in Full. 30 years later, still one of the best rap albums ever.

    Bonus: sing out the lyrics to “Move the Crowd” while listening to Kool & the Gang’s “Summer Madness”. If you time it just right, it’s fascinating. Based on the lyrics of that song, it might even be intentional.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    Mark—it’s good to have you back. My taste in cars is seriously all over the map. I don’t know what my next car will be, but that MKS probably has to go by the end of the year…and I have thought of going the AWD hot-hatch route. As a serious track rat, and not someone who was just paid to drive a car and write an article, how do you think the FoRS compare to the Golf R and WRX STi (the last of which isn’t a hatch, but should be)?

    And as far as the brake overheating, are you committed to keeping the car bone-stock or could you perform an upgrade to mitigate it?

    Oh, and to the Aaliyah song, I did *not* know that line was borrowed because it was a bit before my time, but a visit to Who Sampled It’s website confirms it. From my perspective, though, it’s weird to hear 90s R&B songs by groups like Boyz II Men, Mint Condition, and Blackstreet (that I heard as a little kid) get sampled, especially when those groups used a lot of samples themselves…well, maybe not so much Mint Condition…

    • 0 avatar

      For track rats, it’s a no-brainer. The FoRS is much faster in both real life and on the track than the Golf R, and it’s more refined than the STi. However, if I were to only be driving the car on the street, I’d probably get the Golf R DSG. Man, that’s a nice car to drive. Doesn’t inspire a lot of hoon, but it’s a pleasant, well-composed car. And the DSG really is better than the stick.

      I’m not opposed to upgrading it. There are already folks who have solved for the brakes issue with improved cooling ducts.

      • 0 avatar
        ReturnOfTheMack

        Good to see you back!

        Does the R justify the price premium over the GTI as a daily?

      • 0 avatar
        rpn453

        Glad you’re back, Bark.

        Is this brake fade happening even with a high performance brake fluid?

        Does your RS have a front LSD? It appears that may have just been made available on 2018 Limited Edition models. If it’s using the brakes to impersonate an LSD, that can’t be helping the situation. Hard to imagine there would be a better upgrade for the car than a Quaife unit.

        • 0 avatar

          I wish I had waited a bit for that front LSD. Better brake fluid helps, but doesn’t eliminate the problem. I had the same issue with the RS Adrenaline Academy cars in Utah, and they have braided lines and racing fluid.

        • 0 avatar
          stuki

          “If it’s using the brakes to impersonate an LSD, that can’t be helping the situation.”

          +1.

          Limit braking with super sticky tires on street cars, is hard on brakes to begin with. If the poor things has to fight 300HP worth of Baruth aggression on the way out of the corners as well…… No wonder they give up fast.

      • 0 avatar
        jkross22

        “And the DSG really is better than the stick.”

        I want to hear more about this. I’ve only done one stick vs DSG comparison and it was 8 years ago and the stick was better.

    • 0 avatar
      davefromcalgary

      Hi Mark.

      I second Kyree’s notion. Curious as to whether bolt ons can mitigate this issue. It sounds fairly serious. If the car is under braked from the factory that seems an oversite given its otherwise stellar track performance.

      • 0 avatar
        stuki

        Really sticky tires, combined with a heavy car and an aggressive driver, generates an absolutely enormous amount of heat. Which is hard to get rid of in a car where the front bodywork closely wraps the wheel, and the basic shape is designed to direct airflow (for low drag) around the wheel arches, rather than get to them.

        As @rpn453 mentioned above, if the car tries emulating an LSD by dragging the inside brake as Bark stands on the gas as soon as he hits the Apex, that sure isn’t doing already overworked brakes any favors. But it sounds like Ford has fixed that now.

        Beyond that, at some point you have to start flowing more cooling air to the brakes if you insist on ever stickier tires. Which means more extensive mods to the front of a car, that at it’s core is still a designed-for-mpg-and-practicality Focus. Or, water spray setups, if those are still available and legal for track use.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Good to see you back.

    And I had to think that car would be a first class cop magnet. Civic Type R might be worse.

  • avatar
    JimZ

    “the Focus RS carries a certain cachet that a regular old Mustang GT just…doesn’t.”

    a “W” VIN?

  • avatar
    2drsedanman

    This is the type of review I like to see and would like to see more often. Frankly, most new car reviews are basically all the same. It’s not until you get some miles under the belt and use it in real world scenarios till you see flaws or attributes. Seat comfort, ride quality, real-world gas mileage, and general livability all take some time to flesh out. I seek out these type of reviews when I am in the market for a different vehicle since there is a lot to be gained.

    Well done and welcome back.

  • avatar
    kosmo

    Welcome!

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Hey, great to see you back! Missed reading you (here, the green still worked.)

  • avatar
    jack4x

    Good review.

    Not a car I’d seriously consider owning for myself (my blend of fun to drive and family practicality is better served by my SS at a similar price point) but I’m glad it exists. The sheer variety of excellent performance oriented cars available under $50k is really remarkable.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    “you experience a quick vibration, followed by the pedal falling to the floor.”
    “Doesn’t mean it’s not a hell of a lot of fun, though.”

    Wow, that doesn’t sound like any fun to me at all. That would be an absolute deal breaker for me if I were expecting to drive it that aggressively. I’ve always said, I can live with just about anything failing on a car except the brakes. If I am constantly worried I won’t be able to slow in a turn, I’m not going to go out on the track.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    Welcome back man. Please continue to report on how the sausage is made (new/used auto retail shenanigans).

    Very hard to fault the hot hatch formula, especially new and at that price point. I think my pick would be the GTI with the 6MT and LSD. I’d put the extra money into tires/brakes/coilovers. I do wish something in this segment offered something besides a turbo 4. The Golf R would be a scintillating proposition with the 3.6. To hell with gas mileage and all that nonsense.

  • avatar
    TOTitan

    Regarding the speeding tickets get a good programmable radar detector like a escort or beltronics and set it to ignore nuisance bands like X and K. When we first got our BMW 335d I wanted to buy one the first day but my wife said “I dont need one of those damn things”. After her first 70 mile commute on the 101 between Thousand Oaks and Ventura she came up to me with a sheepish look and said ” pleas go buy me a radar detector. That thing wants to run triple digits all the time”. I bought her a Beltronics V10 and in the 80,000 miles we have driven the torque monster BMW neither of us have had a ticket even though it makes a minimum of 425 lb ft at 1700 rpm. Best road trip car Ive ever owned.

  • avatar
    PRNDLOL

    I won’t rehash what exactly took place that resulted in your absence from this site less than six months ago. However I do hope that some of your ‘defiant’ characteristics will have moderated since then, and your future writings here will reflect that.

  • avatar
    pmirp1

    Let me be one of the first to welcome you back. Jack desperately needs you, he is on a anti-Corvette and GM rant, and keeps driving Lotus. Bark, can you do us a review of a StringRay or Grand Sport and make Jack see the light?

    I think you are mistaken thinking Focus RS has more mass appeal than a Mustang GT. Perhaps with a very small small segment of car enthusiasts. But for 99% of public, a Mustang with V8 is where its at. The Focus of any type is still a Focus.

    For you and your needs, it works, but I wonder if just a regular Focus ST may be the way to go. The ST gives you the practicality, and is still relatively fast without being too aggressive. We can agree the RS is not a track tool so let’s not include that in the merits column.

    • 0 avatar

      No, we absolutely cannot agree on that. There’s not many cars south of $60k that the RS won’t beat on a track, and all of them will need additional braking help, as well.

      • 0 avatar
        tnk479

        But the Mustang GT is one of them. The Camaro SS is another.

        • 0 avatar

          No, it’s not. The FoRS is faster around most tracks, including Utah Motorsports Park. I have video of myself driving the FoRS and the Boss 302 on the same course. FoRS is three seconds faster.

          • 0 avatar
            tnk479

            Well then, I stand corrected. I suspect that will be a new race with a 2018 Mustang GT with added horsepower.

            I am genuinely interested in this segment and considering a purchase later this year. I previously owned a 2011 WRX hatch and that was decent fun for the price. A white FoRS or a silver Golf R are both cars I would like to test. Last year I stopped by a local Ford dealer and there was an absurd markup on the FoRS and I walked out. Stellar performance aside, these are still hopped up economy cars at root and I am not paying BMW 440i money for one.

          • 0 avatar
            JimZ

            Yabbut the Boss 302 was still the old live-axle S197.

          • 0 avatar
            ltskinol

            Car and Driver puts the 2015 Mustang GT a second behind the FS, the Boss 302 (Laguna Seca) a second ahead and the 2017 Camaro SS 1LE almost 10 seconds ahead in their Lightning Lap challenge (at VIR). Thoughts on this? Does VIR’s Grand West course have a bunch of long straights that could explain it?

            I drove a friend’s RS for two days when it first came out and just wasn’t excited by it. Straight-line didn’t seem any faster than my 12 year old almost-stock EVO (1/4 mile times bear this out), and while the cornering seemed amazing, the ride was a gawd-awful mess, even in normal mode. I found the front seats to be fairly uncomfortable, the rears to be blah, and the styling (IMO) was much worse than the Focus ST with those giant-ass wheels and rubber-band tires. I wanted to love it, but I just couldn’t.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      If one looks at “mass appeal” then yes, the Mustang wins hands down. I’ve seen 2 Focus RS’s in my town. Unless you are a hardcore car dude, you won’t notice them. Last weekend I saw 2 Mustang GT350’s. One parked in front of the restaurant where my son works and the other passed me on the highway. Kinda hard not to notice one of those, especially the music played by that 5.2 Voodoo.

  • avatar
    JMII

    I sat in an RS and the Recaros are tight, even for a thin guy, I assume most average US males will hate them. They would be great – for THE track however I can’t imagine trying to daily with them due how tight and lightly padded they were compared to normal seats.

    VS the Golf R – my brother has one and after some minor mods I don’t see any RS being able to catch it. Those VW turbos respond well to tuning and the Golf can swap parts with Audi TT RS. A few items later and the Golf R shames many cars.

    Brakes – kinds of surprised to hear the RS suffers from fade that badly. I thought it came with upsized brakes or did they just put some Brembo calipers on the stock size rotors? I assume you have swapped fluid and pads. Does the RS have any cooling ducts? My (non-Brembo) Z suffered from pathetic brake performance on track until I upgraded to the Akebonos from the G35 / 370Z with EBC Blue pads. I am currently running Hawk HPS+ pads because while the EBC where great they only lasted about 3 track days. So far the Hawks are noisier but seem to dust less.

  • avatar
    omer333

    I’m actually curious about the cost of insurance; before I traded in my Accord for my used GTI I looked into what the premium was for the ST twins, and it was a significant amount more for them versus a GTI or a used Civic Si. However the WRX also carries a higher premium, but I expected that.

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    Interesting review and one thing I always like about the “truth about cars” is the truth. I also find it interesting that unlike your unqualified praise of the the FiST, the FoSt praise is qualified. Is the FiST more practical or just more fun?

  • avatar
    OzCop

    Hi Mark, glad you are back…

    We have several FoRS’s in the DFW Metroplex, and at least two that regularly attend SCCA autocrosses, and participate in track days. Vorshlag even built some camber plates and other pieces for the car, and did a couple of track day tests with one at Motor Sports Ranch south of Fort Worth. They too had mixed feelings about the brakes, and a couple other issues. I wish I could have purchased one, and indeed, I have seen them advertised locally for as little as 38K. I did buy the FoST, and so far have been impressed, particularly after driving it to KY and back a few days after purchase. I averaged 31 mpg overall on that trip, driving 2500 miles from start to finish. I bought the base model, with base seats and have been quite impressed with the comfort.
    I must say, that trip gave me a new appreciation for the car, particularly after getting out of a John Cooper Works Mini and all that offers in terms of comfort, fit and finish, and overall road feel. It was like getting out of a BMW and climbing into Dodge Omni GLH difference at first, but that 7 days of driving took care of that and I haven’t looked back. It does a lot of things very well, even though the plastic look and feel wants to tell me otherwise. New tires are here, wheels on order, as well as rear bar and bushings…the only mods I will make prior to the SCCA Solo Nationals in Lincoln, NE in September. But, I would prefer to be driving a FoRS in B Street rather than the FoST in G Street…

  • avatar
    pb35

    Welcome back, Bark! Good to read you again.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Glad you’re back Bark!

  • avatar
    22_RE_Speedwagon

    Did you drive it in the snow at all?

  • avatar
    ncwalls

    Hey Bark, don’t tell your son, but 3 days a week during business hours you don’t have the only blue RS in Kentucky. :)

    Have you tracked it at NCM park yet? I did a TrackX event there and it was a lot of fun. I did have minor brake issues (stock pads and fluid) but not as bad as what you described. Just a soft pedal. I’ve bought some motul 600 fluid to try for next time. Hopefully I’ll get in a real track day this fall before the Cup 2 tires are done.

  • avatar
    SnarkyRichard

    Hmmm. No they are called Harbulary Batteries !

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVx8L7a3MuE

  • avatar

    Glad to have you back Bark, also enjoyed the review.

    I’ll looking for something similar to this, because I want something fun that my even-more-car-obsessed-than-me son can enjoy and build memories with, similar to how I can reminisce every time I see a late 70’s Lincoln Mark V in the wild.

  • avatar
    VaderSS

    So glad to see you back. I’ve been loving my RS, though I shake my head at how much more comfortable my 2007 Focus ST is than the RS. 8000 miles on mine, and though the seats are no longer too tight, they are just plain uncomfortable.

    For driving on the street, my preferred mode is track with the dampers set back to “soft” and the traction nanny turned back on.


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