Before we get a little light-headed, it’s worth stating what the RS isn’t. In the field of usable, fast, indulgent hot hatchbacks, headed by the Volkswagen Golf R, it is an also-ran.

The weighty, camber-addled steering is a little too arduous at low speeds for the casual user, and its stiffened ride, while respectably compliant given the level of intent, is nevertheless too firm and percussive to be thought of as genuinely comfortable.

Matt Saunders Autocar

Matt Saunders

Road test editor
My main concern was for the RS’s B-road ride — but it’s actually no more yobbish than that of a Fiesta ST

It is also not, perhaps more surprisingly, an entirely natural or appealing track tool, its substantial weight, power and (very clever) stability control all contributing to what we’d assume is a reasonably voracious appetite for brake components and tyres.

The space it slots into somewhere in between, however, is terrific. Road-focused, immersive, ostensibly barmy and tremendously engaging, the Focus delivers a chassis dynamic cut from the same rear-drive-biased cloth as the Nissan GT-R and Audi R8, yet it manages to be arguably more accessible and entertaining than either.

High praise indeed, but the RS earns it repeatedly, sauntering into every constant-radius turn with the transparent aim of moving progressively from being dependably front-driven to bullishly neutral to gratifyingly tail-happy.

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The throttle-induced exploits of its back end are not the limit of the RS’s talent, but they are what sets it dramatically apart from the current crop of stability-biased rivals.

Ford’s objective (both in marketing and chassis tuning) is clearly to convey the sensation of driving a Group B rally car – or at least how one imagines it might feel, having watched endless videos on YouTube. Using the leeway offered by tailored driving modes and a bubble of ESP-related safety, the RS comes brilliantly close to achieving this aim.

Its secret is less in the all-wheel drive system than it is in the assertiveness of the rear axle’s torque split. The pre-emptive build-up of drive on the outside wheel propels the car into corners and then briefly beyond the limit of traction when you encourage it to do so.

In Sport and Track modes, this happens about as intuitively as it’s possible to imagine, with the stability control working neatly enough in tandem with efforts to correct the slide at the steering wheel.

The already infamous Drift mode has its place, too, although given the bung required to get it started and the ESP’s reluctance to develop a suitably prodigious slip angle, the name is slightly misleading.

In any mode, it’s possible to overwhelm the front tyres on the way into a corner. Turn in too fast and you’ll get mild understeer, but even then there’s the option of working through it, which can’t be said of many rivals.

Lift, or brake gently, and the front comes into line. Then, after a brief pause while everything works itself up, lots of power will unstick the rear. The BMW M140i is the only other hot hatch to do that.

In any mode — Drift or not — what then follows is a brief spell of sidewaysness while the 4WD system apportions power to the front and drags itself out.

It’s more WRC or GT-R drift than Ken Block or RWD drift, and all the modes do likewise, just with gradually more slip and less electronic interference. It’s ferocious and rapid, not full-on dramatic and smokey.

The RS’s foibles, though, have a habit of disappearing to the distant peripheries of the experience; this is a formidable and magnificently fun car to drive fast, easily deserving of full marks.

To unearth the secrets of the Focus RS, you really need to be on a circuit.

Sadly, the day we set aside to do it started out wet and got even wetter, but that still gives half an idea, at more sensible speeds, of what the RS is capable of.

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