Welcome to the Yorkshire Dales, home to villages like Hardraw and Blubberhouses, valleys called Gardsdale and Ribbleshead, and spot heights such as Wether Fell and Lovely Seat. Welcome to a rugged, beautiful chunk of England thats a world away from the synthetic reality of Fords Lommel test track in Belgium. Roads like those at Lommel do exist but co-ed Meaden has already described how stunning the feisty Focus is on such smooth tarmac. We have other, harder questions to ask in pursuit of a definitive verdict, and the process involves the Dales at their most demanding and three key adversaries.
With 212bhp, the RS is the most powerful front-drive hatch on sale today, eclipsing the SEAT Leon Cupra R (by just 2bhp) and the Civic Type-R, while its 229lb ft torque peak is fractionally more than even the last Ford to wear the RS badge, the 4wd Escort Cosworth. A lot rests on the Focuss ability to deploy its firepower, though given the talent weve lined up, getting it to the road is only the start.
If the RS wants to call itself the most accomplished and rewarding front-drive fast hatch you can buy, it will have to overcome the brand new Renault Sport Clio Cup (£13K) and Mini Cooper S (£14.5K), two little funsters which have their own score to settle. Then theres the small matter of the £21,495, 215bhp Subaru Impreza WRX, the car that must have loomed largest in Fords cross-hairs.
The Focus RS will cost a fraction under £20K, which presents it with some clear objectives - to press home an appreciable performance advantage over the Clio and Cooper, and also to prove that the Imprezas 4wd is an unnecessary sophistication.
Thatll be no mean feat. Traction simply isnt an issue in the Impreza, but its not just that its turbocharged thrust is shared between all four wheels. Unlike some 4wd cars that understeer as doggedly as the front-drive models theyre based on, the dedicated 4wd Subarus handling is set up to exploit the distribution, enhancing its ground-covering ability. And this particular example feels like a good one.
Fords solution for maximizing the grip at the RSs front wheels is a Quaife torque-biasing differential. The last generation Integra Type-R used one to brilliant effect, though the Focuss spiky turbocharged delivery presents more of a challenge, which is why boost is limited in first and second gears.
The Clio Cup has totally organic traction control - your brain and right foot - but it wont be a pushover. Compared with the regular 172 it makes do without air conditioning and anti-lock brakes, has plainer trim and weighs a useful 80kg less. What you wont immediately notice is that in pursuit of reduced weight the glass is thinner, the Xenon lamps have gone, and the spare wheel has been replaced by a couple of cans of foam. All this effort boosts its power to weight ratio - already high thanks to that gutsy 170bhp 2-litre engine - and there are promising chassis tweaks too, notably wider front and rear tracks, firmer springs and dampers and specially developed Continental tyres on multi-spoke Speedline alloys. All for just £12,995. Bargain hunters queue here.
The giant-slaying ability of the Cooper S has been well documented in these pages and it will relish the chance to scalp the Focus, but the Clio Cups price should have it looking over its shoulder. Its rivalry with the Renault began when it met the cooking 172 back in evo 43, and although the almost mundane delivery of its supercharged, 161bhp 1.6 was no match for the straight-line fizz of the ballsy Renault, it scored highly with its unfazeable chuckability, integrity, style and conspicuous value for money. With the latter reversed, an intriguing in-fight is on the cards.
The Focus eases into a comfortable lead even before its left the car park, oozing restrained menace with its chiselled jaw and cap sleeve arches bulging with no-nonsense 18-inch alloys. You wouldnt want to spill its pint. Alongside it the Clio looks plain, the Cooper contrived and the Impreza gawky. And it doesnt take long to discover that the RSs looks are matched in deed. On the run north up the M6, every surface elicits a vocal response from the stiff chassis, from general hubbub on regular black- top to Lancaster bomber drone on washboard concrete, while bridge expansion joints bring a sharp jolt. This Ford isnt messing around.
Inside, the steering wheel is nicely proportioned and shaped but the choice of blue leather highlights for the rim and the seat- facings makes a dubious style statement. The regular Focus cockpit may be a bit dull but this smacks of trying too hard. The seats carry Sparco branding (as used in the WRC Focus) but the name doesnt add value like Recaro and most of our testers wanted the height adjuster on the drivers seat to go lower.
Off the motorway and hacking across country to the first photo location reveals more of the Focuss character. Off boost, its throttle has that turbo engine sponginess, but once the Garrett has spooled up, the delivery is urgent and hard edged, accompanied by a hungry, throaty blare from the exhaust. The roads are still quite smooth yet even here snap overtakes induce a little writhe at the wheel, as if the camber beneath the front wheels is changing significantly as you steer out and round.
Its been a while since evo sought out these roads but I dont remember them being quite this choppy. The Focus becomes more agitated the deeper we head into the Dales National Park, taking particular exception to sharp ridges. Thing is, the pace isnt that rapid.
I hop into the Impreza for a re-run and its as if the road has been resurfaced. The WRX glides over the same stretch. Its steering feels soft after the RSs but it flows, it flatters, it inspires confidence. Instead of trying to spot the bumps Im looking at lines, and although the Imprezas flat-four feels just that - flat - after the explosive delivery of the Ford, its so much easier to dial up the same pace.
Same goes for the Clio, which feels a mite stiffer than the regular 172 initially and a fraction crisper on turn-in, too, though once its flowing it reveals that familiar long-legged suppleness and its every bit as effective at ironing out bumps as the Scooby. If the weight reduction has sharpened up engine reactions itll take the test gear to quantify it, but that doesnt matter because if the Clios throttle response was any sharper itd have your foot off.
As ever, it takes a little while to adjust to the peculiarly unhurried nature of the Mini. Straight after the Clio, you wonder where the get up and go has gone, the supercharged engine droning its way through the rev range with what sounds like mechanical boredom. Its as if Marvin the paranoid android from The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy has been recycled as the Cooper Ss engine. Yet while it isnt as instantly gratifying as the Clio or Focus, show it some corners and the package starts to sparkle. Turn-in is tack sharp, grip seemingly inexhaustible and although its ride is resilient, it never runs short of travel, even through the most wicked of compressions.
Its only the Focus that feels wrong-footed by these roads, a point thats made clear when the quartet sets off at a lick with the Clio up front and me playing tail gunner in the RS. I can keep up, but only with gritted teeth. I reckon if the data from this ribbon of bucking asphalt that is the Buttertubs Pass had been loaded into a suspension test rig at Lommel, the engineers would have been running for the kill switch. The Fords chassis is feeling overwhelmed. It hasnt dealt with one bump before the next one hits, sharp little crests put air under the wheels, devilish little dips thud the front struts hard into their bumpstops and the steering writhes as the topography beneath the front wheels climbs and falls rapidly. Its a wild ride.
Ford has thrown us a curve ball, says Meaden over dinner. Weve got so used to supple, fluid handling Fords that the stiff, noisy, thuggish demeanour of the RS comes as a complete culture shock. He adds that in fairness we probably couldnt have chosen less flattering roads for this car, but Im not the only one whos a bit disappointed.
Next day the roads are sheened by a light drizzle. Not that the Mini seems to have noticed. Its hanging onto the tail of the Impreza with remarkable ease, slicing into quick corners with solid grip and hauling out of tighter turns with only the occasional flicker from the ASR warning light. The Impreza feels more on tip-toes, fuzzy turn-in progressing into mild, cautioning understeer if you press the issue. Better to wait for the apex before gassing it, settling the WRX onto its rear wheels for maximum traction.
With no artificial aids, the Clio demands gentle handling. In the dry it only breaks traction if you use the throttle like an on/off switch, and grip peaks and then falls away so progressively that you can play it on the edge quite happily. With water under the wheels it gets quite ragged if you take liberties. Instant throttle response helps to modulate slip but its easy to break traction and spin up the inside wheel, and with no anti-lock to fall back on, you have to be considerably more circumspect.
The Focuss diff gets a real work-out, and so do you as the RSs fat front tyres hunt for grip, dragging the steering wheel left and right out of junctions. Even in a straight line on these undulating, slippery roads you have to tread the throttle warily or slot a higher gear and brush the lower edge of the power band.
Away from the nadgety moorland roads, the Focus feels a different car. On our final day with it, the marvellous B660 leads me to Bedford and the RS clicks with the smooth surface, slicing razor-sharp from apex to apex, hooking into deeply cambered turns with rock- solid conviction and firing out onto the straights hard and true, all power in harness. Its superb. From Bedford its a short run to the Millbrook proving ground, where the RS reels off a set of better-than-claimed figures that leave the others gasping - 0-60mph in 5.9sec, 0-100 in 14.9 - though the Clio Cup turns in a sparkling 6.5sec for the 60mph dash.
When it works, the Focus RS does so truly brilliantly. On most roads, though, its suspension is just too stiff. That and the loud interior apart, the rest of the RS is spot on. Its handsome, theres a satisfyingly consistent weight to its controls, the engine is a blast and the Brembo brakes are strong and easily modulated. When the road is smooth enough you can appreciate the steerings fine weight and accuracy and the Quaife diff delivers sensational slip-free traction. Its such a shame that the RS cant take the fight to the Japanese rally replicas on roads theyve made their own.
The WRX never scales the same heights as the RS, never feels as much of an event, isnt as sharp, but unless your neck of the woods is paved with smooth, dry asphalt straight out of a car ad, its a much more effective and satisfying way of enjoying over 200bhp. The imminent facelift is a step in the right direction but, as ever, you buy an Impreza for what it does, not how it looks.
Neither car, however, can shrug off those two pesky hot hatches, the Cooper S and Clio Cup, both of which prove that serious fun can be had at a susbtantially lower price-point.
Can a car be too good for its own good? The Cooper S irritates the hell out of those who dont buy into its chunky, toy-like looks, and for them its sheer competence only rubs salt in the wound. But theres no denying that it is a very effective tool with which to take apart the most difficult of roads. Its special, too, even if the aural delights arent (Cant afford a Cooper S? says Meaden in the style of Viz Top Tips, simply drive your own car everywhere in reverse and itll sound the same!). And its a bargain - if you resist the options list.
The Cooper isnt quite as much of a bargain as the Clio Cup, though. Comparing the two is like comparing digital with analogue; the Mini offers the super clean resolution of a CD, the Clio the warmth and character of vinyl. Driving the Clio briskly is much more involving because it has just enough grip and you have to feel for it rather than assume its there, using that big-hearted engine to adjust the balance right through a corner. The lack of ABS is a dubious cost and weight saving and the trim is low rent, but there isnt another hot hatch that gets you closer to the action or delivers so much of it for so little outlay. If theres a moral victor here, the Clio Cup is it.