Long a European cult car, the Ford Focus RS has finally made its U.S. debut as a redesigned 2016 model - and proved well worth the wait. This high-performance compact hatchback has to be the ultimate wolf clothed in sheepskin.
Even with the sporty styling cues, it still looks like what it is: a small four-door with a liftgate. But this is a remarkably sophisticated, all-wheel-drive athlete that corners exquisitely and gets from zero to 60 in a Corvette-like 4.6 seconds. And that spells fun, fun, fun till your mommy takes the RS away.
What's also eyebrow-elevating is the extent to which the designers were able to bake some civility into a hot-rodded economy car.
Not that this guy's window sticker has much to do with its economical roots. Like its competitors, the Subaru WRX STI and the Volkswagen Golf R, this compact hot hatch starts in the mid-30s ($35,900 to be exact).
But when you factor in features like those wonderful Recaro bucket seats, the four-caliper Brembo high-performance front brakes, and electronics that do everything but comb your hair, the tag isn't that outrageous.
The kicks start with this car's engine. The RS responds to motivation speeches delivered by a massaged Mustang 2.3-liter turbo.
The 'Stang's version of that direct-injected turbocharged four develops 310 horsepower. The RS variant, which regularly tests positive for performance-enhancing hardware, metes out 350. That's a lot of horses for a vehicle weighing in at just a bit more than 3,000 pounds.
The PEHs start with the largest intercooler the engineers could stuff under the Focus' hood. The colder, denser air engendered by the intercooler is then fed into another PEH: a larger, more powerful twin-scroll turbocharger that rams air down the engine's throat at a hefty pressure of 23 psi. Finally, internal engine modifications were made to handle the increased boost.
In addition to letting the RS pocket rocket leave the gantry rather rapidly, the turbo manages a delightful engine note.
Except for that note (some of which is imported through the stereo speakers), the cabin is a quiet place.
The turbo is teamed with a six-speed manual gearbox. I really enjoyed employing this smooth, precise, close-ratio manual. Those who don't like to shift are out of luck, since the manual is the only game in town.
The RS has selectable drive modes and suspension damping. The drive modes electronically tailor elements like steering assistance and stability control to driving conditions.
The "normal" setting is for street driving. The stiffer-riding "sport" is for performance street driving, and delights with a crackling exhaust note when you let it back off by abandoning the throttle.
"Track" and "drift" are for really intense workouts. "Track," as the owner's manual suggests, "is for track use only." It's misery on real roads. And "drift" is quite useful if you want to get your tires smoking doing doughnuts in somebody's parking lot.
The RS's AWD is typical of the car's sophistication. It can, for example, dispatch up to 70 percent of the engine's power to the "smart" rear axles, which can then divide that power up among the rear wheels for optimum utility.
The AWD system can also feed the rear wheels a bit more power during serious cornering, thus helping you maintain the line you are trying to follow.
The RS offers a reasonable ride in "normal" mode and boasts comfortable seating. There is a nifty array of instruments, three of which are mounted atop the dash. Soft-touch surfaces abound inside the upmarket interior.
But despite the evidence of civility, the RS is really about thrills and smiles.