If there is one particular car in the automotive industry teeming with unmatched hype, it’s the 2016 Ford Focus RS. While it’s certainly up for debate, there hasn’t been this much anticipation surrounding a release since the drawn-out debut of the fifth generation Camaro in the spring of 2009.
Though nobody has had the privilege of sliding behind the wheel of the Focus RS, it is sure to be more than deserving of its high praise. That’s largely due to an exclusive all-wheel drive system and 350 horsepower EcoBoost four-cylinder engine. It’s safe to assume that even if Ford offered this potent combination in a revived Pinto, customers would still be flooding the lots of every dealership in the country.
But that’s not what the Focus RS is. Its aggressive styling, balanced handling, and exhilarating speed is destined to change the hot hatch industry as we know it. For the first time in history, Volkswagen’s reign over the segment could soon end — tipping the scales in favor of the red, white, and blue.
Though it may come as a surprise to many, this isn’t Ford’s first attempt to dethrone the champ. And no, we’re not talking about the Focus ST either. In order to see just how far Ford has come with the release of the maniacal Focus RS, it’s important to trace Ford’s hot hatch roots back to the very beginning.
Built by Ford’s Special Vehicle Team in 2002, the SVT Focus was the brand’s first high-performance hatchback available in the U.S. With a special four-cylinder engine developed in conjunction with Cosworth, the SVT Focus added a domestic presence to the hot hatch segment that is still growing in popularity today.
At first glance, the SVT Focus looks remarkably similar to the standard ZX3 three-door hatchback. But once you get up close, you’ll notice that a revised front bumper, honeycomb grille, and extended side skirts differentiate the two models. Other than 17-inch Cobra R inspired alloys, there was nothing that hinted at SVT’s performance architecture. Undoubtedly, the SVT’s restrained looks allowed it to fly under the radar during its three-year production run — something that can’t be said for the flamboyant RS.
Its subdued styling notwithstanding, the SVT Focus was anything but restrained from a performance standpoint. Ford’s 2.0-liter dual-overhead cam Zetec engine received a major overhaul that resulted in an additional 40 horsepower and 10 pound-feet of torque over the standard ZX3 powerplant. To squeeze more power from the Zetec four-banger, SVT installed lightweight cast-aluminum pistons to raise compression to 10.2:1, changed cam profiles, and added variable intake cam timing. A two-stage intake manifold, revised header, and low restriction muffler were also added to improve air flow.
The SVT’s 170 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque may not seem like much now, but it’s good enough for consistent 7.5-second zero to 60 launches and high 15-second times at the track. In a 2,800-pound go-kart, that’s more than enough power to keep you at the edge of your seat as you shift through the close-spaced gears of the SVT’s exclusive six-speed Getrag manual transmission.
While the SVT Focus is certainly quick in a straight line, its defining trait is its tremendous feel on the open road. Its light curb weight and performance-tuned suspension give the SVT Focus the dexterity of a ballet dancer when maneuvering through S-curves and tight corners. Heavy-duty shock absorbers, larger diameter sway bars, and stiffer 1-inch lowering springs transform the satisfactory handling of the ZX3 into a full-blown autocross assassin.
In 2003, the SVT was introduced in a five-door body style similar to the ZX5. However, very few examples were built as the SVT line was discontinued just a year later. Though the SVT Focus is all but forgotten, it showed that Ford was not afraid to swing for the fences and build a hot hatch capable of disturbing the balance of power in the segment. But it goes without saying that Ford is hoping to do much more with the Focus RS. There’s no doubt about it — this time they’re looking to hit a home run.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.