by Frank A. Aukofer

Though not widely lauded, the 2017 Ford Focus RS epitomizes the ongoing revolution in the world-wide automobile industry.

First, it’s a four-door hatchback, a body style that American buyers rejected but now is getting new respect because of the way manufacturers reconfigured and renamed hatchbacks as crossovers.

A crossover generally is defined as a tall utility vehicle that is built with a unit body like a car, instead of with a body on frame, like a traditional pickup truck.

The biggest current change in consumer preferences is away from traditional sedans and toward compact and mid-size crossover sport utility vehicles. They are now setting sales records across the board, from popular priced to luxury. Even a high-altitude luxury brand like Bentley weighs in with its $229,000 mid-size Bentayga.

_42a1075_hrMany crossovers are little more than jacked-up four-door hatchbacks with all-wheel drive. They demonstrate the ingenuity of automotive designers and engineers, who took an orphan design and turned it into a star.

The Focus RS also has all-wheel drive, though it’s more of a performance feature than a utilitarian, all-weather enhancement. That, too, is a trend with no end in sight.

Most of all, however, the revolution is under the hood as manufacturers, thanks to creative computer software, extract ever more power from smaller engines.

No longer do people repeat the old mantra that “there’s no replacement for displacement.” That was once true. Muscle cars of the last half of the 20th century, despite poor handling and brakes but with big V8 engines, now are history though avidly sought by collectors.

16fordfocusrs_11_hrFour-cylinder engines, including the one in the new Focus RS, are becoming the norm. Often with turbocharging, they deliver horsepower and torque, along with fuel economy that only could be imagined even a decade ago.

The RS four-banger has a displacement—the total volume inside the cylinders—of 2.3 liters. That’s not much more than that two-liter soft drink bottle at the supermarket. Yet it delivers a whopping 350 horsepower and 350 pounds-feet of torque. With its six-speed manual gearbox and curb weight of 3,460 pounds, it can rocket to 60 miles an hour in less than five seconds.

That sort of performance doesn’t come cheap. Basically, the Ford Focus is a compact economy car with a starting price of about $18,000. The RS, with its high-zoot power, all-wheel drive and handling refinements, starts at $36,995. The test car, with options, had a suggested retail price at $40,475.

Base equipment includes Brembo high-performance brakes, selectable drive modes, pushbutton starting, launch control, satellite radio with Ford’s Sync system, dual-zone automatic climate control, fog lights and a rear spoiler.

focus-rs_12An options package on the test car included a navigation system, performance summer tires on painted alloy wheels, heated front seats, heated leather-wrapped steering wheel and heated outside mirrors.

Except for the custom 19-inch wheels and a few other styling fillips, the Focus RS does not betray its economy compact origin, which makes it something of a stealth bomber on the highway.

Even the interior does not depart much from the base car except for the aftermarket Recaro bucket seats with their generous side bolsters and high friction cloth upholstery with leather trim to grip the torso in spirited driving. They feel terrific but take a bit of extra effort to settle into.

focus_rs_09The RS’s standard launch control minimizes wheel spin in acceleration runs. It also comes with four different drive modes: normal, sport, track and drift. The last is a bit questionable because the motor sport of drifting involves busting the rear end loose around a corner in a display of tire burning smoke.

The RS all-wheel drive mitigates the drift. It features a standard torque vectoring system that can send about 70% of the power to the rear wheels.

The operative description of the Focus RS is “tight.” The steering, shifter, clutch, ride, seating—everything about this so-called “hot hatch” is tight and stiff. It’s a characteristic well loved by enthusiasts but not endearing to commuters. Despite that, however, the shift linkage is direct and intuitive.

The sport, track and drift modes deliver a rock hard ride so most owners likely will engage normal for everyday driving. The different modes adjust the suspension system.

This obviously is not a casual car. Many drivers likely would reject it out of hand after one test drive. The Focus RS requires skill and effort to bring out its considerable qualities. But over time it can deliver the automotive equivalent of a teenage crush.

_p9a2215_hrSpecifications

  • Model: 2017 Ford Focus RS four-door hatchback.
  • Engine:3-liter four cylinder, turbocharged, 350 hp, 350 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Six-speed manual.
  • Overall length: 14 feet 5 inches.
  • EPA passenger/cargo volume: 91/20 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,460 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 19/25/22 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $36,995.
  • Price as tested: $40,475.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) Ford.