As impressive as it is on the road, if you’re really going to stretch the legs of the new Ford Focus RS you’re going to need a racetrack.
It’s an environment Ford doesn’t shy away from. Before the Focus RS was signed-off it had to complete 30mins of non-stop track work with no thermal degradation (power drop, brake fade etc.) and there’s the much-publicised Track and Drift modes designed specifically for circuit use.
Our test venue is the Circuito Ricardo Tormo, host of the Valencia MotoGP round, a smooth, flowing 4km circuit consisting of 14 turns. We’re instructed to cruise through the pits each time to avoid catching other cars, but apart from that we have free rein to drive as we please.
Track mode adjusts the steering, engine, dampers and all-wheel drive system to their most focused settings, while slackening the ESP safety net. Despite this, Track mode is not intended for hooliganism - step forward Drift mode - but to help the car achieve the lowest possible lap time.
Accelerating out of the pits, the 257kW/440Nm 2.3-litre turbo four easily spins to its 6500rpm redline, the wider expanses of a racetrack failing to soften its punch. Circuito Ricardo Tormo is primarily a mix of long third-gear corners with a handful of tighter second-gear turns and these longer-radius corners show off the Focus’s clever all-wheel drive system to good effect.
Braking is strong and if you judge your entry speed right the nose peels into turns beautifully thanks to tenacious front end grip. Pick up the throttle at the apex, the power shuffles rearward and more often than not the car will exit a corner in a beautiful four-wheel drift.
Overly ambitious entry speeds will cause the nose to run wide, but even then you can just nail the throttle and the car will claw its way into the tarmac to get you pointing the right way - it’s not pretty, but the Focus RS always seems to be doing its best to make sure you get through the corner unscathed.
Track ESP is lenient and subtle in its intervention, but based on experience with the Focus and Fiesta ST there’s a suspicion there’s another layer of agility hidden within the RS, one that can only be uncovered by driving unaided.
Interestingly, Focus RS chief engineer Tyrone Johnson claims Ford is the only manufacturer that allows drivers to completely disengage ESP. Free of any electronic shackles, the Focus displays its playful side, adopting a variety of angles depending on your level of finesse.
Get it right and the rear will slide slightly wide, helping the front turn in and allowing you to pour on the power earlier. Be more aggressive and it’ll oversteer like it’s possessed, but the combination of quick steering, that all-wheel drive system and plenty of innate balance means it’s usually quickly recovered.
Arguably the Focus’s best trick, however, is the ease with which it can be driven hard; after only a handful of laps tyres are melting and brakes are smoking thanks to the confidence it gives to the driver. It’s maybe not quite as sharp as Renault’s Megane RS275 Trophy-R, but it’s faster and gives you more cornering options.
Continually sliding the car through corners can overheat the all-wheel drive system, but it quickly recovers and the rest of the car feels like it could go forever - or at least until it needs new tyres.
We'll have to wait until the car arrives in Australia to see how to does against the stopwatch, but when it's this much fun does it really matter?