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Ford Focus RS 2002 review

Show star, cover model and dream machine. Few cars have enjoyed the limelight like Ford's Focus RS.

It's been two years in the making, but the Focus RS is finally here - and has definitely been worth the wait. The hot Ford is guaranteed a place in the hearts of driving enthusiasts. The price is competitive and the build quality exceptional. We can't think of another performance car that we would rather own.

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Show star, cover model and dream machine. Few cars have enjoyed the limelight like Ford's Focus RS. Two years of development have seen it grace the cover of Auto Express at least twice, but no one has ever driven the car... until now!

Finally, the legendary turbocharged RS is on the road and ready for test. The engine is idling and the driver's door is open, exposing the distinctive blue-striped leather interior. Thankfully, all those production delays that followed the car's announcement now seem only a distant memory.

Expected to cost less than £20,000 when it goes on sale in October, the Focus RS sports an exhaust note that is soft but purposeful. Aimed at the heart of the performance car market, it sits between the likes of the £15,995 Honda Civic Type R and the Subaru Impreza WRX costing £21,495. Heavily inspired by the fire-breathing Focus WRC, the machine makes an instant visual impact with its 18-inch alloys, flared wheelarches, massive air intakes and trademark blue paintwork.

Inside, there's a unique-look instrument panel, complete with turbo boost gauge, as well as a carbon fibre gearlever surround and bright green starter button. As a final touch, the shifter and handbrake are trimmed with alloy. But the RS's humble Focus origins are still clear, particularly when you look at the dash and revamped steering wheel. However, build quality is first rate and the interior seems as well put together as any rival in this class.

When you dip the clutch and slot first gear, the RS has a robust feel and needs a firmer hand than the standard model. The steering is heavier, as is the gearbox, but that doesn't mean the car is difficult to drive. The clutch is progressive, and thanks to the engine's smooth power delivery, you won't need the skill of Ford rally ace Colin McRae to pull away from the line smoothly.

Developing 212bhp and 310Nm of torque from its four-cylinder unit, the RS accelerates quickly, sprinting from standstill to 60mph in only 6.4 seconds. The top speed is 144mph, which engineers say is 500rpm shy of maximum revs in fifth gear. This figure may not sound particularly relevant, but it proves that the Focus's power and gear ratios are near perfectly matched. Despite the performance, Ford claims the RS is capable of returning a combined fuel economy of 28mpg with a theoretical range of around 330 miles.

Although our test model seemed to get through its petrol a little quicker than that, the combined CO2 figure of 237g/km is better than the Impreza's claimed 242g/km, and should impress drivers of fast company cars. Floor the throttle and the engine growls through its stainless steel exhaust as it heads for the 7,000rpm limit. Change gear swiftly, and the turbo chirrups noisily before it responds again to the throttle, hissing as it forces air into the engine.

But it's not until you tackle a series of demanding bends that the powerplant serves up some real treats. The Duratec RS unit and sensational chassis combine to create a car with such spectacular cross-country pace that it's difficult to believe the Focus is front rather than four-wheel drive. Turn in to a corner hard, even in the wet, and the grip is astonishing. While mild understeer develops towards the limits of the car's handling, the RS sets a standard that we feel has all the potential to challenge the supremacy of established fast machine favourites, including the Civic Type R and Impreza WRX.

Even though the ride is firm, the RS seems to smooth over smaller surface imperfections, while still following the contours of the road. There is not much that causes the tyres to spin away power, and helped by the presence of a limited-slip differential, torque steer is kept to a minimum. While the steering is a touch heavier than that of the standard Focus, it's just as sharp. With 2.9 turns lock-to-lock, only hairpin bends force you to move your hands from the quarter-to-three position.

The Ford's poise over challenging roads is helped by a combination of careful suspension work, a smooth-acting front differential and specially designed 225/40 Michelin Pilot Sport tyres. Although based on the set-up of a standard Focus, the RS has a 65mm wider track, uprated bushes and more aggressive camber angles. The springs and dampers have also been reworked, as have the anti-roll bars.

High-speed stability is equally as impressive, too. While rapid changes in direction cause the Focus to oversteer, you can carry the braking all the way into a corner without unsettling the chassis. The Brembo system is very powerful, and offers feel and progression in equal measure, allowing you to slow the car extremely quickly, without triggering the ABS system.

Even after repeatedly hard use, the brakes are virtually fade-free thanks to the size and specification of the discs and calipers. And it's not until you stop that it becomes clear how much fun it is behind the wheel of the RS. It's the kind of machine that absorbs a person, making him drive more smoothly than might be expected out of respect for the impressive engine and chassis.

Anyone lucky enough to have spent time behind the wheel of Ford's Racing Puma will recognise at least part of the newcomer's character... but the RS is a step ahead. The price is keener and the machine's more user-friendly. Quite simply, the RS is back. Performance car fans and fast Ford enthusiasts can start getting excited again at last!

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