There are two letters which above all others are guaranteed to get Ford fans excited: RS. These letter stand for Rallye Sport, and since the 1970's, when it debuted on the Ford Escort RS1600, it's been kept back only for the hottest and most crazy cars produced by the brand.
The latest addition to the family is the new Focus RS. This go-faster family hatchback is the most powerful ever, thanks to a thumping 345bhp turbocharged 2.3-litre engine. It’s also the first RS since the rally-bred Escort RS Cosworth to feature a four-wheel-drive system, although this trick transmission has been designed to boost driver fun, not just to improve grip and traction.
Yet despite the incredible power and hi-tech hardware, the new Focus RS hasn’t forgotten its blue-collar roots. With a price that’s a whisker under £30,000, it promises plenty of performance per pound.
Here, it faces two fierce rivals. The Audi RS3 was used as a benchmark by Ford’s engineers when developing the Focus, and its 362bhp looks good on paper. It also has plenty of upmarket appeal, albeit with a price to match.
The Volkswagen Golf R doesn’t shout nearly as loudly as its rivals here, plus it’s a little down on outright power. However, it’s competitively priced and is recognised as the handling benchmark for four-wheel-drive hot hatches. Until this point, at least.
So which of our heavy-hitting pocket rockets will land the knock-out punch? We hit the tortuous mountain roads above Barcelona in Spain to find out.
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The Ford and VW borrow their engines from other models. So the 2.3-litre in the Focus is also used in the Mustang, but tweaks to the internals and turbo boost power to 345bhp. Under the Golf’s bonnet is a GTI engine, with power increased from 217bhp to 296bhp.
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Ford has toned down the Focus’s styling in an attempt to rival the premium brands, but there are still plenty of RS cues, including the gaping grille and large tailgate spoiler. The Audi’s potential is equally obvious, but its additions aren’t as aggressive. By comparison, the Volkswagen is low key and could be confused with a cheaper R-Line model.
The Golf comes with a choice of either a six-speed manual gearbox or a £1,415 twin-clutch DSG automatic. All RS3s feature Audi’s seven-speed twin-clutch S tronic, while the Focus is only offered with a six-speed manual – although Ford hasn’t ruled out introducing its PowerShift auto box to the RS at a later date.
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With its eye-catching price tag and blistering performance, the Focus RS is a fast Ford in the finest tradition. Yet it’s the car’s trick four-wheel-drive system and honed suspension that star, giving the Focus incredible agility and delivering more than enough driver involvement. It also looks and sounds the part. The only black marks are reserved for the small boot and firm low-speed ride.
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The Golf misses out by the narrowest of margins in this encounter. It’s faster than its power deficit would suggest and it attacks twisting back roads with incredible composure. It’s also the easiest car to live with day to day and has the most versatile interior. Yet it just lacks the excitement and involvement of the Focus – and in this class, that counts for a lot.
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If this test was based purely on engine sound and straight-line performance, then the Audi RS3 would carry off the spoils. It also benefits from having easily the best cabin here and comes with most standard equipment. However, its handling feels a little lead-footed in this company, and there’s no getting away from that hefty price tag.
Price: £29,995 Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl, 302bhp
Flagship Civic looks even wilder than the Ford, and was tuned at the hallowed Nürburgring race track in Germany. It also has a more practical cabin. But it’s neither as fast nor as fun as the Focus, while the boy racer styling won’t suit all.
Price: £28,995 Engine: 2.5-litre flat-four, 296bhp
With its rich motorsport pedigree and characterful flat-four engine, the WRX STi has plenty of appeal. It’s also cheaper than the Ford and packed with kit. It’s let down by its cheap-looking cabin and firm ride, but on the right road it’s a blast.
|Ford Focus RS||Volkswagen Golf R||Audi RS3|
|On-the-road price/total as tested||£29,995/£32,900||£31,775/£38,685||£40,795/£51,185|
|Residual value (after 3yrs/30,000)||£15,027/50.1%||£16,873/53.1%||£23,539/57.7%|
|Annual tax liability std/higher rate||£1,779/£3,557||£1,766/£3,533||£2,576/£5,152|
|Annual fuel cost (12k/20k miles)||£2,474/£4,123||£2,280/£3,800||£2,600/£4,333|
|Ins. group/quote/road tax band/cost||40/£644/H/£205||34/£542/G/£180||40/£689/J/£265|
|Cost of 1st/2nd/3rd service||TBC||£287^^||£295/£394/£295|
|Engine||4cyl in-line/2,300cc||4cyl in-line/1,984cc||5cyl in-line/2,480cc|
|Peak power||345/6,000 bhp/rpm||296/5,500 bhp/rpm||362/5,550 bhp/rpm|
|Peak torque||440/2,000 Nm/rpm||380/1,800 Nm/rpm||465/1,625 Nm/rpm|
|Transmission||6-spd manual/4wd||6-spd manual/4wd||7-spd auto/4wd|
|Fuel tank capacity/spare wheel||62 litres/sealant||55 litres/space-saver||55 litres/sealant|
|Boot capacity (seats up/down)||260/1,045 litres||343/1,233 litres||280/1,120 litres|
|Turning circle||11.9 metres||10.9 metres||10.9 metres|
|Basic warranty (miles)/recovery||3yrs (60,000)/1yr||3yrs (60,000)/1yr||3yrs (60,000)/3yrs|
|Service intervals/UK dealers||10,000 miles/781||Variable/223||Variable/121|
|Driver Power manufacturer/dealer pos.||25th/26th||22nd/30th||13th/25th|
|Euro NCAP: Adult/child/ped./stars||92/82/72/5||94/89/65/5||95/87/74/5|
|0-60/30-70mph||5.0/4.3 secs||5.6/4.6 secs||3.8/3.1 secs|
|30-50mph in 3rd/4th||2.4/3.0 secs||2.3/3.1 secs||2.2/3.1 secs|
|50-70mph in 5th/6th/7th||3.7/4.6 secs/N/A||4.1/5.1 secs/N/A||3.9/4.8/6.6 secs|
|Top speed/rpm at 70mph||165mph/2,400rpm||155mph/2,700rpm||155mph/2,000rpm|
|Noise levels outside/idle/30/70mph||65/48/65/73dB||60/43/59/67dB||63/45/63/71dB|
|Auto Express econ (mpg/mpl)/range||24.7/5.4/337 miles||26.8/5.9/324 miles||23.5/5.2/284 miles|
|Actual/claimed CO2/tax bracket||264/175g/km/30%||243/165g/km/28%||278/189g/km/32%|
|Auto box/launch control/cruise ctrl||No/yes/£1,000*||£1,415/no/yes||Yes/no/£255|
|Climate control/leather/heated seats||Yes/part/no||Yes/£1,720/£275||Yes/yes/yes|
|Metallic paint/xenon lights/AEB^||£525/yes/£200||£545/yes/yes||£550/no/no|