Even today, few family cars drive better than the original 1998 Ford Focus. With its clever Control Blade rear suspension, this humble hatchback out-handled some sports cars.
Opinions of the first Focus RS, however, are more mixed. Launched in 2002, some rate it as one of the greatest hot hatches ever. Others, meanwhile, dismiss it as a torque-steering tearaway.
We borrowed Focus RS number 0001 of 4,501 cars made – fresh from Ford’s heritage fleet – to discover who is right about this controversial fast Ford.
What are its rivals?
The Focus is a front-wheel-drive hatchback, yet its two most obvious rivals – the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo (pictured) and Subaru Impreza WRX – were four-wheel-drive saloons. Both offer more power and are cheaper to buy second-hand. However, neither will appreciate in value like the limited-edition Ford.
Fancy something more civilised? Consider the Audi S3 or Volkswagen Golf R32. These four-wheel-drive Germans outgun the Focus in terms of horsepower, but not driving excitement.
What engine does it use?
The Ford’s 2.0-litre turbocharged engine drives through a five-speed manual gearbox Peak power of 212hp arrives at 5,500rpm, with torque of 229lb ft from a useful 3,500rpm. The 0-60mph dash takes 5.9sec and top speed is 143mph.
To tame those rampant horses, Ford used a Quaife torque-biasing differential. It works by diverting twist-action to the opposite front wheel if wheelspin is detected, improving traction and agility – at the expense of some refinement. And on that topic…
What’s it like to drive?
That mechanical front diff is essentially a sticking plaster – a solution to the absence of four-wheel drive. But it defines the character of the RS more than any other component, giving it an appetite for corners that’s positively ravenous.
Find a B-road and car turns in with eager immediacy, the wheel writhing between your palms. Then the diff starts to bite, hauling it around radii like an arm hooked around a lamp post. It’s pointy, purposeful and, yes, focused.
In line with its reputation, the RS also quite physical and more than a little unruly. There’s torque steer, some turbo lag and plenty of whooshy wastegate noise. But we’re inclined to see these traits as part of car’s character, rather than faults to be ironed-out
A 212hp output is merely Fiesta ST territory now. But the 1,278kg RS is a fast car and, believe us, it still feels like one.
Reliability and running costs
Fuel economy of 27.9mpg won’t impress your neighbours in their Focus 1.0 Ecoboost. But comments over the garden fence can be rebutted with a gentle reminder that, as your car increases in value, theirs is plummeting into a bottomless pit of depreciation.
Service and maintenance costs should be manageable (this is a Ford, after all), but custom RS-specific body panels mean accident or rust-related repairs can be expensive.
Reliability will largely depend on how the car has been driven. Sounds obvious, but some will have been pampered, while others will have been thrashed (and possibly crashed) by track-day enthusiasts or boy racers.
Could I drive it every day?
Wrestling the RS along a country road can be tiring. If you want to ‘make progress’, the car makes you work for it.
At anything less than eight-tenths, though, it calms down and does a passable impression of an ordinary, vanilla-flavoured Focus. The ride on 18-inch OZ Racing alloys is firm, but not hyperactive like the current Fiesta ST. And practicality is a match for any mid-size hatchback – save for the three-door-only body (ironically, the new Focus RS only comes with five doors).
There are aren’t many classics you could comfortably commute in, but the Focus certainly ticks that box. Shame the number of Mk1 RS daily-drivers is dwindling fast, as owners eye-up the car’s investment potential.
How much should I pay?
Just under half the Mk1s built came to the UK, so you may find cheaper left-hand-drive examples from Europe in the classifieds.
For a RHD UK car, prices currently start at around £7,500, although you should really budget five figures for a good one.
At the top end, the very best cars are nudging £20,000. For that price, you could also consider the Mk2 RS, which is faster and even better to drive. However, it’s also more common (with 11,500 made) and arguably less exciting.
What should I look out for?
If anything, the Mk1 RS is over-engineered. Mechanical components, including the engine and Quaife differential, are tough, but that shouldn’t stop you insisting on a fully-documented service history.
Ensure the cambelt has been changed at least once, preferably well in advance of the recommended 100,000-mile interval, and don’t dismiss cars with an additional non-standard intercooler – it can help prolong the life of the engine. Steer of any mods aiming at boosting power output, though. Winding up the turbo boost is a recipe for lots of lag and lots of trouble.
Check those unique RS body panels carefully, as some are becoming hard to source. Peer under the wheelarches for signs of rust where the bodykit meet the metal and look for uneven panel gaps due to crash-damage.
Don’t forget to check all the RS-specific interior bits, such as the two-tone steering wheel and Sparco gearknob, are present-and-correct, too. That garish blue trim might look a bit Halfords, but it’s an important part of the car’s identity. Remember, originality is key when it comes to value.
Should I buy one?
Speaking of value, fast Fords are always in demand and, in theory, this longer-term gain in the car’s worth can be offset against the cost of running one. Bear in mind, however, that nothing is guaranteed, so we’d buy a Focus RS to drive and enjoy – with any rise in value a welcome bonus.
Despite our initial misgivings, the Focus RS won us over with its old-school hot hatch charm. Handing back the keys, we ached for more time behind the wheel – a sure sign of a great driver’s car.
For our money, the Ford Racing Puma from the same era feels even more special. Look out for an MR Retro Road Test on that car soon. But the added performance and practicality of the Focus would swing it for many.
The Mk1 RS was an effective halo car, but Ford lost money on every one sold. The exact amount is uncertain; internet chat forums (always, ahem, a reliable source) suggest anything between £4,000 and £6,000 per car.
This hole in the balance sheet is one reason the latest Mk3 Focus RS (seen here) doesn’t have custom body panels and shares a higher percentage of parts with the standard car. Ford execs insisted that even the RS must be profitable in its own right.