The RS is internationally lauded for being one of the performance bargains of the year; does that hold sway in the SA market?

In a South African market with a fondness for fast Fords, the long wait for the new Focus RS has been a tantalising one. Fuelled by the likes of Ken Block's sideways antics and many an enthusiastic adjective penned by the world's motoring media, we've been very eager to get behind the wheel and experience the fastest Ford hatch of our time. Indeed, having road tested both previous-generation Focus RS models (January 2004 and November 2010), the knowledge gleaned from those experiences is that Ford's Rallye Sport division is a master at harnessing the (not always obvious) performance potential offered by the respective Focus platforms.

Created on the same production line as the models on which they are based, a common theme throughout Focus RS lineage has been the cost-conscious way each model has been developed, ensuring that, no matter the potency of the end product, the model remains relatively affordable. Specifically on the Focus' United Kingdom home turf, the RS badge, past and present, has been widely lauded as much for its impressive bang-for-buck value as its giant-slaying dynamic ability.

Continuing to share its (Germanic) production line with lesser Focus derivatives, the third-generation RS gains a bespoke rear subframe that not only grants the new uber-Focus 23% greater rigidity compared with the standard car, but also accommodates the bulk of this model's greatest party trick – all-wheel drive.

While the decision to shift power to all four wheels and thereby eliminating the need for clever torque-steer countering measures, including the previous car's RevoKnuckle system, not only adds higher levels of dynamic ability to the package, it also thrusts the Focus RS into the path of some equally sure-footed competition. Based on price, in our market that would take the form of the highly regarded Audi RS3 Sportback and mighty Mercedes-AMG A45.

Design

Ignoring (if possible) the Mercedes-AMG Petronas 2015 World Champion Edition livery and corresponding aero kit fitted to this limited-edition A45, the standard styling packages on these three hyper hatches err on the side of quiet confidence. The trouble is, based on our experience with a lime-green second-generation RS and, before that, a wide-bodied first-generation example, we were hoping the new RS might offer more in-your-face visual appeal.

While the Nitrous Blue paint colour shown in Ford's launch media is particularly distinctive, the other colour options (white, grey, silver and black) are less so, and we were surprised at the ease with which we piloted one of the first examples of such a highly anticipated hot hatch unnoticed through traffic. It's only the (optional) blue Brembo brake callipers, modified front and rear bumpers and, of course, massive roof spoiler that distinguish the RS from its equally subtle (unless painted orange) ST sibling.

Packaging

If there's little exterior styling distinction between the ST and RS model, disappointingly, there's even less separation between the two inside. Indeed, optional full-bucket Recaro seats and blue detailing aside, the cabin of the most expensive Focus to date is a mirror image of its more affordable hot-hatch relation. It's here where an RS owner is likely to feel short-changed when comparing materials, detailing, equipment and levels of sophistication against that offered by the Mercedes-AMG and the current class-leader in this regard, the Audi. It doesn't help the Ford that satellite navigation and a reverse-view camera aren't even optional in our market.

While we'd definitely opt for the RS' figure-hugging bucket seats (especially considering how cheap they are), their height is fixed (too high for the taller CAR staffers) and they negatively impact rear legroom. That said, the standard seats in the A45, while offering more adjustment than the Ford, have a similar impact on rear-passenger comfort. If you require optimal space for all passengers, the RS3 Sportback is the hatch to go for.

Similarly, it's the Audi that comfortably offers the largest luggage area, with the Ford's bay significantly compromised in order to accommodate the all-wheel-drive system.

Drivetrain

The pressure continues to mount on the Focus RS when comparing its Mustang-sourced turbocharged 2,3-litre engine with two reigning World Engine of the Year titleholders in their respective categories: Mercedes-AMG's turbocharged 2,0-litre and Ingolstadt's alluring force-fed 2,5-litre, five-cylinder unit.

By upgrading the turbocharger and cylinder head, as well as reconfiguring the cooling system to suit an adjusted transverse layout, Ford engineers eked out an additional 24 kW and 10 N.m from this inline four-cylinder engine. Unlike its Mustang cousin, which offers the option of an automatic transmission, the Focus RS comes exclusively with a six-speed manual gearbox.

Under normal driving conditions, the Focus RS is FWD, but Ford's Twinster AWD system can channel 70% of its 440 N.m of torque to the rear axle. Once there, 100% of this grunt can then be directed to either aft wheel via an active rear diff.

By comparison, the AMG system adjusts its torque delivery to a 50:50 front-to-rear split should slip be detected, while the RS3 can dump all 465 N.m of its available torque onto the rear axle under extreme circumstances. Both German rivals make use of seven-speed dual-clutch transmissions.

Dynamics

Three different ways of transferring power to all four wheels and, consequently, three different results in terms of dynamic ability.

While it's somewhat unusual to find a launch-control function linked to a manual gearbox, in the Focus RS the result is a pleasing frenzy of exhaust blips as the needle bounces off the 5 000 r/min marker with the throttle pinned to the floor. Sliding your left foot sideways to spring release the clutch, the RS shoots towards the horizon with the faintest of chirps from the 235/35 R19 Michelin rubber. An ignition-cut function allows you to shift gears while keeping the throttle planted, each cog swap acknowledged by a whip-crack emanating from the exhaust. Our cleanest launch resulted in a 4,98-second 0-100 km/h sprint time.

Somewhat less involving, yet just as rewarding, the A45 and RS3 simply ask that you hold on tight as you release your foot from the brake pedal (throttle wide open) after each car's launch control kicks in. While the Mercedes recorded a best time of 4,35-seconds, the RS3 replaces it as the quickest hot hatch we've ever tested on our strip by blasting to 100 km/h in 4,2 seconds, besting the claim by 0,1 seconds. The Audi's five-cylinder sound-track is also the most alluring.

If it appears the Focus RS is somewhat out of its depth in this company, that's because, in everyday terms, it is. Thankfully, though, much, if not all, of the RS' engineering has focused on dynamic ability to create a hyper hatch with similar levels of entertainment and involvement as its Fiesta ST cousin (our current favourite light hot hatch). Indeed, this is likely the reason Ford went to great lengths to give the RS a somewhat gimmicky drift mode. With the torque balance locked into a rear-wheel-biased configuration and the outside wheel targeted with the most power, the car can be coaxed into a four-wheel drift more likely to result in its driver visiting a panel beater rather than bestowing YouTube glory.

Instead, once dialled into either sport or race modes, the RS thrives. The car's systems, including steering and throttle response, as well as the sensitivity of the all-wheel-drive system, are heightened. Probably a consequence of real-world development notes, the firmer damper setting that's triggered in race mode can be cancelled via a stalk-mounted button. Its unyielding stiffness is unsuitable for most public-road surfaces and, as it stands, the RS's default ride quality is on the firm side.

Carry speed into a corner and there's so much front-end grip at the Focus's tyres that the rear becomes light. It's a sensation not usually associated with an AWD hot hatch and, as a result, one that takes a few corners to get used to. Trust that the rear differential will do its job and the result is a pivot action around the car's centre (exactly where you sit), allowing you to pitch the RS into a corner, wait for the rear to settle and then stamp on the throttle once the apex has been passed. While torque steer is no longer an issue, we did note a flexing sensation through the steering wheel under hard acceleration that renders the front wheels sensitive to tramlining on uneven surfaces.

There's no doubt that driving the RS on its limits is a hugely rewarding experience, full of involvement and seat-of-your-pants thrill. Whether you'll ultimately reach your goal faster than an accomplished driver behind the wheel of a front-wheel-drive Honda Civic Type R is, however, questionable.

If driving the relatively nose-heavy RS3 to similar limits as the Ford requires you to change your driving style (a slow-in, fast-out approach suits the quattro system best), the impressive levels of front-end grip and neutral mid-corner balance offered by the A45 allows for Ford-like commitment in attacking corners.

The downside to driving any of these cars hard, of course, is a corresponding increase in fuel consumption. The Ford is the thirstiest of the three, even in everyday driving conditions.



TEST SUMMARY

If you've read the international reviews of the RS (including ones bought by other local motoring magazines), you may be wondering where much of the shine and ceremony that's been showered on the RS have disappeared to.

The fact is that, in our market, much of the appeal of a car such as the Focus RS may appear diluted, either by the fact that our warmer climate simply doesn't warrant an all-wheel-drive setup, or, indeed, by the price-tag compared with those of more mainstream rivals such as the front-wheel-driven Civic Type R.

Certainly in areas like the UK, an AWD hot hatch will generally beat even its most precise FWD rival. In South Africa, however, those occasions will be few and far between. Consider also that the Honda is around R85 000 cheaper than the Ford and suddenly the RS' asking price looks steep.

So dear, in fact, that it is only around R40 000 cheaper than the A45. And this premium hatch includes a maintenance plan (as does the more expensive RS3 Sportback) as opposed to the service plan offered by the Ford.

What was interesting after a full day spent exploring the dynamic capabilities of all three cars is that the Ford proved the most enjoyable and the A45 the most visceral, but it was the Audi's key that was most sought after for the long drive homeward. What the Sportback lacks in outright precision, it compensates with charm, sophistication and comfort.

Ultimately, however, the A45 wins this comparative test because it feels more alive and ready to play than the Audi, and more sophisticated (not to mention substantially quicker) than the Focus RS.

*From the July 2016 issue of CAR magazine