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LIFE IS TOO SHORT TO NOT DRIVE SIDEWAYS

It’s a magical time, isn’t it? Here is a hatchback with 350 horsepower and 440Nm of torque. Here is an all-wheel-drive system capable of adjusting power distribution rearward and side to side. Here, from a major automaker with an appropriately sized legal department, is a button that if you press it enough times, the word “drift” appears on the center display.

The actual functionality of Drift mode aside, its existence speaks volumes of Ford’s mind-set. This 113-year-old automaker has just won Le Mans with a successor to the GT40, from which a production variant will soon be on public streets. It produces a Mustang with a unique flat-plane-crank V-8 and carbon-fibre wheels that took second place in our 2016 Best Driver’s Car competition. And here’s an all-wheel-drive four-door Focus with a Drift mode. A huge wing on the back of the roof and black 19-inch wheels further ensure the absence of subtlety on the RS. The exhaust pops and burbles, seemingly in an effort of emulating rally cars at the staging lights. The colour is called Nitrous Blue, for crying out loud!

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How does it scamper away from stop, err, staging lights? All-wheel drive plus a rapid, full-throttle clutch dump nets 0–100 in 4.5 seconds and a quarter-mile pass of 13.3 seconds at 166 km per hour. This process also ensures cringes from the test driver, as the brunt of all that power is forced upon the poor driveline—don’t do this too frequently at home, kids.

The tyres are the primary contributor to these performance results, although the all-wheel-drive system helps, too. Because the system can route power rearward and side to side, adding to the gas pedal can adjust the pitch and balance of the car mid-corner. When you’re ready to come out of the corner, you hit the gas harder. The nose tucks, and you exit faster than anticipated.

Sounds fun, right? It is, until you put the Focus RS in Track mode. At that point, the dampers turn into pogo sticks, and the hatchback starts bouncing up and down like an excited Boston terrier. It isn’t like a rough ride that you’d ignore in a sports car, but an unbelievable and constant vertical shake, as if riding a sine wave. It happens both mid-corner and on the straights, no matter how smooth the pavement. It’s enough to unsettle the car when you have it loaded up in a corner.

Switching to Drift mode nearly eliminates the shaking. It also has the benefit of dramatically increasing oversteer. You see, “drift” is a misnomer here, as the Focus RS doesn’t do the real power-on oversteer like a good old-fashioned rear-drive car does. Ain’t physics tough?

Instead, the rear becomes more playful and neutral, allowing you to induce some slide into a corner. But if you try to keep doing this for too long, the tires bite and you start understeering. Drive it tidy, though, and the looseness is enjoyable, if certainly slower. We also worry about the long-term use of this system at track speeds due to the continual clutch work it must be doing.

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Although drift mode is a small disappointment in practice even if its existence in a four-door hatchback wins our nonofficial Corporate Subversive of the Year award, it’s the vertical pogo’ing effect with the Cup tires that we find unacceptable. We suspect the standard tires will eliminate this phenomenon. It would be worth it even at the expense of the amazing performance numbers our test car generated.

This is truly disappointing because the Focus RS’ fundamentals are solid: from chassis to steering response, you feel an unyielding sense of terrific agility. Eliminate the pogo-stick bounce, and the Focus RS will reframe your perception of previous all-wheel-drive sports compacts, such as the Subaru WRX STI and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. It’s much, much faster and more fun to drive.

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The biggest problem becomes price. From a pure performance standpoint, the Focus RS gets uncomfortably close to better driving rear-drive coupes that are faster and capable of real honest-to-goodness drifts without the need of special modes.

With a base price of R699,900, the Focus RS equals that of a Mustang GT with the optional Performance pack and Recaro bucket seats.

 

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