Testing the new diesel-engined Ford Focus on British roads
Launched in 2016, the third-generation Ford Focus RS lasted little more than two years. During that brief tenure, it made a huge impact, upping the ante for hot hatchbacks and becoming the class benchmark to boot. It burned fast and bright.
A future classic, then? Widespread critical acclaim, our collective love of fast Fords and the upward trajectory of Mk2 Focus RS prices suggests so. And don’t delay – now is the time to buy. We know someone who’s already sealed his Mk3 RS in an air-conditioned cocoon, ready to be unwrapped as a retirement nest-egg.
We look back at the now-departed Focus RS and its legacy, including our thoughts on the run-out Heritage Edition. Will we see its like again?
Why the Focus RS matters
Enthusiasm for performance Fords has always been high, but in recent years it’s become stratospheric. Classic Sierra RS Cosworths have sold for in excess of £100,000 at auction, while even relatively unloved models like the Escort XR3i generate high bids at auction.
The Mk3 Focus RS instantly fed into the fast Ford cult, with more than 2,300 deposits placed by UK buyers following its reveal at the 2015 Frankfurt Motor Show. An initial list price of £29,995 made the RS look competitive against rivals such as the Volkswagen Golf R, and substantially cheaper than the Audi RS3 or Mercedes-AMG A45.
The previous two generations of the Focus RS had been front-drive only and, while Ford had developed solutions like a Quaife limited-slip differential for the Mk1 and Revoknuckle suspension for the Mk2, these still had limitations when it came to managing torque.
So, for the latest Focus RS, Ford finally acceded to the pleas of enthusiasts (and journalists), who demanded four-wheel drive.
The Mk3 RS didn’t just get any old 4WD system, though: this was a thoroughly modern set-up with torque vectoring to increase agility. That it could send up to 70% of thrust from the 2.3-litre Ecoboost engine to the rear axle also created controversy, thanks to a new ‘Drift Mode’.
Despite its name, Drift Mode would not instantly turn those behind the wheel into Ken Block. Instead, it used the flexibility of the 4WD system to help start slides, then make managing them easier with changes to the suspension damping.
It also helped the Focus RS grab headlines, with some even calling for Drift Mode to be banned for inciting risky driving.
Ford Focus RS then and now – Tim Pitt
I was the man charged with the enviable job of testing the Focus RS on both road and track in 2016. Excitement among the assembled hacks was palpable, the weight of expectation heavy. I wanted – we all wanted – this car to be great.
We needn’t have been worried. On the mountain roads of our test route, the Focus excelled:
“Throw it into a corner and it simply grips, with layers of fine-tuned feedback fizzing through the steering wheel and awesome 4WD traction as it slingshots you away.”
Performance was also never in doubt:
“And boy, is it fast. Use the Launch Control function – which holds the revs, then dumps the clutch for a full-bore getaway – and it literally thumps you in the back.”
I awarded the Focus a full five stars and, as the reviews rolled in, it became clear many of my colleagues had done the same:
“Ford has kept us waiting a long time for this car, but it doesn’t disappoint. It’s something quite special, a genuinely five-star hot hatch that takes its place alongside the Fiesta ST, Escort Cosworth and other notable fast Fords in the pantheon of greats.”
We’re currently in the midst of a second golden age for hot hatches, and much has happened since 2016. New faces at the party include the Hyundai i30 N, FK8 Honda Civic Type R and Renault Megane RS 280. Is the Focus RS still top dog? I borrowed Ford’s last-of-the-line Heritage Edition to find out. Any excuse, right?
For the uninitiated, the Heritage Edition was a one-of-50 last hurrah for the RS, with a 375hp Mountune powerkit, Quaife diff, leather interior and Tief Orange paint. Oh, and a price tag of nigh-on £40k.
It still looks gobsmackingly great (that colour!), but the interior has dated badly. This was a car first revealed in 2010, remember. Also, the Recaro seats are mounted too high and the ride feels very firm on broken British bitumen.
Find the right road, though, and such gripes dissolve faster than a tooth in Coke. The RS is as good as I remembered – perhaps even better with that limited-slip diff to haul it around apices. It’s brutally quick point-to-point, but wonderfully engaging. Despite its in-yer-face image, this is a car with finesse and feel.
No doubt, the Mk3 Focus RS deserves its place in the – ever-expanding – canon of great fast Fords. Many rivals are more rounded, but few offer the driver such rich rewards.
- Focus RS Mk3 unveiled at 2015 Frankfurt Motor Show, and 1,500 UK orders made within a month. First cars reach customers in Spring 2016, with prices starting at £29,995.
- August 2016: Official Ford Performance by Mountune upgrade announced. The £899 dealer-fitted kit boosts power to 375hp, with 376lb ft of torque.
- September 2017: RS Edition launched, priced at £35,795, featuring Nitrous Blue paintwork, matte black roof, and Recaro leather seats. A Quaife limited-slip differential is also standard.
- December 2017: 300 Race Red RS Edition models offered for sale. Mechanically similar to RS Edition, but prices now start at £36,295.
- February 2018: Limited run of 50 Heritage Edition models to mark the end of Focus RS production. Painted in dramatic Tief Orange, with Mountune performance kit and Quaife differential. Price is £39,895.
Fast future: what next for the Focus RS?
The new 2018 Ford Focus has recently been launched, and once again Tim has driven it:
“Let’s cut to the chase: the 2018 Focus is great to drive. Not overtly sporty, granted, but its chassis has a supple surefootedness – a ‘flow’, for want of a better word – that even disinterested drivers can’t fail to appreciate.”
So, the signs look good for the Mk4 RS, which will arrive further into the model cycle. When, exactly? Well, RS models have only appeared after the mid-life facelift in the past three generations of Focus, but given the popularity of the outgoing car, Ford may well capitalise on demand sooner
Less in doubt is that the Mk4 Focus RS will feature a hybrid powertrain, as Ford Performance has made a commitment to electrification. Expect a 48v mild-hybrid system in conjunction with the existing Ecoboost 2.0-litre petrol engine. A combined output of 400hp seems eminently possible.
Ford Focus RS: epitaph
After years of waiting and expectation, perhaps the greatest legacy of the Mk3 Focus RS was that it lived up to the hype. Magazines and websites had speculated on the specification and abilities of the Focus RS for so long that it seemed impossible for the car to actually deliver against the mass of conjecture. But it did.
It’s also impossible to overlook how adding four-wheel drive transformed the car. It made applying 350hp to the road quicker and easier, offered up attention-grabbing options like Drift Mode, and gave the RS true all-weather ability. It also created a link to models like the Escort RS Cosworth, and to Ford’s WRC history.
The Mk3 RS was also important for being the first version to be sold globally in the same specification. For the first time, buyers in North America had access to the hottest Focus, and one sold with the same powertrain and performance as buyers in Europe and Australia.
Not only did this make the Focus RS more sustainable thanks to a wider number of markets, it also helped spread the cult of fast Ford hatchbacks ever wider.
Specification: 2016 Ford Focus RS
- Price at launch: £29,995
- Engine: 2.3-litre petrol
- Gearbox: Six-speed manual
- Power: 350hp
- Torque: 347lb ft
- 0-62mph: 4.7 seconds
- Top speed: 165mph
- Fuel economy: 36.7mpg
- CO2 emissions: 175g/km
A low mileage Mk2 Focus RS and a Tickford Capri are just a couple of the fun fast cars from the Blue Oval’s past hitting the auction blocks in the September 15th Classic Car Auctions sale.
When the line-up also includes an Escort RS Cosworth, a Brooklands Capri and a bargain Escort XR3i Cabriolet that’s perfect for the 2018 late summer sun, there’s every chance a few new fast Ford record prices could be achieved.
Cheque books (or internet banking dongles) at the ready, fast Ford Fans…
1985 Tickford Ford Capri 2.8
The Tickford Capri was a German Ford factory-built model that was sent to Tickford in the UK for an extensive tart-up. The transformation included a turbo, brake upgrades, a substantial suspension upgrade, a limited-slip diff and a proper bad boy body kit to let you know it’s something special. Think AMG to Mercedes in the ‘80s.
Number 50 of the 88 built is finished in Stratos Silver (recently comprehensively resprayed) with 63,000 miles reading on the odometer. In spite of its rarity, it’s estimated to fetch no more than £30,000 come the sale. Which, by modern Fast Ford standards, almost seems a bargain for something this special.
1987 Ford Capri 280 ‘Brooklands’
Ah, decisions, decisions. Do you go for the cult appeal of the Tickford Capri, or the sheer collectability and recognition factor of the 280 ‘Brooklands’? Tough call, particularly when the run-out special is this divine. With just 15,000 miles on the odo, Classic Car Auctions say it’s one of the best 280s they’ve ever seen.
2011 Ford Focus RS
The Focus comes with a mere 1,200 miles on the odo’ which certainly stacks in favour of a heady valuation. It is, however, not fully original, with H&R lowering springs, a Mountune engine upgrade taking it to 420hp and a Milltek exhaust making this a far-from-pure example. Big power, big impact, but big money…
1995 Ford Escort RS Cosworth
And if you thought the Focus was big money… but this is a fully original Ash Black UK-delivered car that has a mere 22,500 miles on the odo. It’s in peachy overall condition, scoring strongly in Classic Car Auctions’ condition report. The only obvious flaw we can see is that bash on the front splitter. A bargaining point on the auction floor? Dream on…
Oh, and for added rarity points, do note, it’s an ultra-rare non-whale tail model!
1983 Ford Fiesta XR2 Mk1
What about if you don’t quite have enough money to buy that Focus? Try downsizing. The 83hp 52,000-mile 1983 Fiesta XR2 is expected to pull up to £16,000 when it hits the block. Biggish money? It’s the sort of prices 1980s fast Ford buyers could only dream of, but not so out of the ordinary today, particularly for an example this immaculate.
1985 Ford Escort RS1600i
The Escort RS1600i is a proper homologation special, a German-developed alternative to the British-honed XR3i. The example up for sale has enjoyed a recent refresh following a long stint in storage, complete with quintessential ‘80s flourishes. Upper estimates of around £25,000 still leave you at least £5,000 change versus if you plumped for the 2011 Focus.
1989 Ford Escort XR3i Cabriolet
OK, bargain-hunters… you only have four figures in your fast Ford fund, and the sun is shining, and maybe it’s gone to your head… will it result in your bidding for this sweet-looking XR3i Cab? It’s not perfect, but the price reflects that, says CCA, and with just 58,000 miles on the clock, there should be plenty of life left in it yet. Four-seat fast Ford fun that, judging by some of the other prices here, can only go up in value?
We drive the new 2018 Ford Focus. Should you buy one?
- All-new Ford Focus revealed in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to a global audience
- On sale August 2018, deliveries begin from September
- Prices start from £17,930
- Aiming to regain the title of best family hatchback from the Volkswagen Golf
The new Ford Focus aims to build upon two decades of driver-pleasing appeal with more space, technology, luxury and comfort than ever before. Rather than rolling out a heavily-overhauled version of its predecessor, Ford’s invested in an all-new platform for the new Focus – and because the chance to design an all-new car from a clean sheet of paper doesn’t come around very often, Ford product development vice president Joe Bakaj says “we grabbed it with both hands”.
The original 1998 Focus changed the game by being brilliant to drive, in a sector full of dullards. The reason why so many high-volume hatchbacks today feel like premium cars behind the wheel is because of the Focus. These days, rivals such as the Volkswagen Golf have overtaken the Focus. With this new one, Ford’s looking to reassert its authority.
Ford is clear. The new Focus will be the most rewarding family hatchback on the market, both for drivers and passengers. It will also be the most confidence-inspiring and intuitive, the latter presumably in reference to the current car’s somewhat overburdened infotainment system and steering wheel controls. Ford says it’s never worked with customers more closely in developing this car: the new Focus is its most human-centric car ever.
The new Ford Focus will go on sale from August 2018, for deliveries in time for the September registration plate change. Prices will start from £17,930, which Ford says is £2,300 cheaper than the current Focus Style entry-level car. Zetec and ST-Line variants are, respectively, £850 and £250 cheaper. Other variants include ST-Line X, Titanium, Titanium X and the first ultra-posh Ford Focus Vignale: it costs from £25,450. There’s also a crossover-style Focus Active, another Focus first, whose prices are still to be confirmed.
‘Fall in love with a Focus’
Ford’s European designers say they want customers to “fall in love with, and stay in love with,” the new Focus. Apparently, it’s all about “creating memorable moments of interaction”, which Ford’s done on the outside by lengthening the wheelbase and bonnet, shortening the overhangs and smoothing the wedge shape on the sides – making it look sportier and posher.
Bigger wheels that fill the wheelarches more fully give it a better stance, the body panels are sculptural and appear more tensioned than before, while longer wings and squat rear haunches give it an athletic appearance. Ford’s also made the grille even larger and fitted both front and rear lights as outboard as possible, to emphasise the car’s width.
Details you may spot at the rear: tail lamps are now two-piece, so the boot opening can be bigger, and there are distinctive LED lighting patters both day and night (same goes for the headlights). Also at the rear is a new individually-lettered ‘Focus’ script in the centre of the bootlid, whose satin-finished script further shouts ‘premium’.
Four Focus finishes
There are four different types of Ford Focus at launch – regular series models (including Style, Zetec and Titanium), the ST-Line, plus new Vignale and Focus Active variants. What marks out the latter three from regular models? The following features:
- Focus Vignale – chrome-laden ‘coast-to-coast’ front bumper, Vignale grille mesh, satin aluminium roof rails and lower body trim, bespoke four-coat Dark Mulberry paint option
- Focus ST-Line – 10mm lower ride height, rear diffuser and roof spoiler, sportier front bumper, ST-Line lower wing air curtains
- Focus Active – 30mm taller ride height, black wheelarch mouldings, front and rear skid plates in contrast silver, crossover-style front end design
To measure up to cars such as the Volkswagen Golf, Ford has upped interior quality, and greatly simplified the layout. There’s a Fiesta-style floating central touchscreen, and optional new materials such as polished glass and brushed metal finishes. High-end and automatic models get an electronic parking brake to complete the clutter-free look.
Vignale models feature fine-grain wood and leather, ST-Line gets carbon fibre-effect and red stitching, while Active have rugged, textured surface and finishes.
Sync 3 infotainment offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility via the 8-inch touchscreen: it’s standard on all but base Style models. For those who want to exploit its Spotify functionality, a new 675-watt B&O Play premium sound system plays through 10 speakers, including central mid-range speaker and a subwoofer in the boot.
The new Ford Focus is bigger inside. Knee room is up 50mm, there’s 60mm more shoulder room and details such as a flat floor and rear windows that stretch into the rear pillar enhance the spacious feel. An optional, openable, panoramic glass roof is available.
Focus on engines
Engine choice in the 2018 Focus is either Ecoboost petrol (1.0 or 1.5) or Ecoblue diesel (1.5 or 2.0). Both petrol engines are three-cylinder units, and you can get both with cylinder deactivation that cuts a cylinder when demand is light. Ford says the cylinder cuts and reengages in 14 milliseconds, and there’s “no compromise in performance or refinement”. The 1.0-litre comes in 85hp, 100hp or 125hp guise; the 1.5-litre comes in 150hp or 182hp form.
Ecoblue diesels deliver CO2 from 91g/km for the 95hp 1.5-litre engine; it’s also offered in 120hp form. The 2.0-litre produces 150hp, and is expected to boast CO2 emissions from 110g/km. A six-speed manual is standard on all Focus; an eight-speed automatic is offered for the first time, complete with Jaguar Land Rover-style rotary gearshifter.
Focus on chassis
The big deal with the Ford Focus ever since it was launched back in 1998 is how it drives. This one is no exception. But there is a cutback for lower-power variants: for the first time since the Escort, a Ford Focus comes with ‘lightweight’ (read: cheaper) twist-beam rear suspension, instead of the better, pricier independent short long arm (SLA) system on other models.
It’s a system derived from the setup in the Fiesta, so it should be one of the better torsion beam setups (and its more compact design yields a bigger, wider boot), but those seeking the best new Focus experience may prefer to avoid the 1.0-litre Ecoboost and 1.5-litre Ecoblue engines it’s paired with.
Because the independent SLA setup is more sophisticate than ever. Ford’s fitted variable bushes, which have different stiffnesses in different directions – so they can be firm where they need to be and soft where they don’t. They separate the subframe from the body, for a smoother ride and less noise, vibration and harshness; Ford also fits clever springs that pre-load the rear suspension with vectoring forces – making the rear suspension crisper and more responsive.
For the first time, adaptive dampers are offered on a Focus. Continuously Controlled Damping, or CCD, can adjust every 2 milliseconds. It adds intelligence to the Focus’ well-developed core chassis: for example, it can detect the very edge of a pothole and firm up the damper, so the wheel doesn’t fall as far down into it, for less of a crash-bang. While simultaneously sending a signal to the rear wheel, so it can be primed for the pothole too. Ingenious.
Different driving models are offered on a Focus for the first time – Normal, Sport or Eco; CCD adds two more modes, Comfort and Eco-Comfort, which softens the suspension accordingly. Other details Ford’s proud of include a bodyshell that’s 20 percent stiffer, and individual suspension mounting points that are 50 percent stiffer.
Focus on the future
Finally, with one eye on the future, Ford’s prepared the new Focus with a wealth of advanced driver assist tech. available tech includes Adaptive Cruise Control that includes stop and go, lane centreing and speed limit sign recognition. Evasive Steering Assist helps drivers steer around obstructions, and the Adaptive Front Lighting System has a camera-based predictive curve light and industry-first road sign detection.
The new Focus brings head-up displays to the Ford range in Europe for the first time, while the latest generation of Active Park Assist 2 will now park it at the push of a button – handling all accelerator, brake and gear selection. Ford says the combination of autonomous technologies, under the banner Ford Co-Pilot360, “brings technologies synonymous with Level 2 automation to a family car”. Presumably the official Level 2 Focus will arrive later, to take on Nissan’s Level 2-compliant ProPilot system now offered in the Qashqai and Leaf.
Ford has sold 16 million Focus since the model was launched in 1998, including 7 million in Europe. Almost 2 million have been sold in the UK, showing what a key market Britain is for the new family hatch. Perhaps this is why Ford chose to launch the fourth-generation car here, in London. Later this year, we’ll find out if UK buyers will reward this decision with sales volumes strong enough to topple the Volkswagen Golf as Britain’s favourite family hatch…
In pictures: new 2018 Ford Focus
Ever since the dawn of the hot hatch, Ford and Vauxhall have been locked in a battle for hot hatch supremacy. Today, the Fiesta ST, Focus ST and Focus RS ensure that there’s no real contest, with Ford enjoying bragging rights and ultimate supremacy.
But as our retro hot hatch showdown reveals, Ford hasn’t always had things its own way. We’ve selected a dozen twin-tests – some direct, others indirect – to create a kind of automotive Game of Thrones. You might not agree with our choices, but this is just for fun. Don’t expect dragons or swords in this battle.
More hot hatches on MR:
Mk1 Vauxhall Astra GTE
“Nought to naughty naughty in 8.5 secs,” screamed the double page press ad in big and bold type. The Vauxhall Astra GTE arrived extremely late to the hot hatch party, taking a bow just as the Mk1 Golf GTI was about to be replaced by the Mk2. But it was worth the wait, because the hot Astra was arguably the most convincing challenger to the Golf GTI.
Vauxhall had tested the water with the lukewarm Astra SR – powered by a 1.6-litre engine – but the GTE upped the ante with power sourced from the fuel-injected 1.8-litre unit found in the Cavalier SRi. Choosing between the Astra GTE and the Golf GTI was tough, which is probably the greatest compliment you can pay to Vauxhall’s upstart.
Ford Escort XR3i
In 1983, an Astra GTE would have set you back £6,412, some £400 less than the Golf GTI. The new Escort XR3i, on the other hand, was cheaper still, at a bargain £6,156. If Vauxhall was the freshman at the school of hot hatches, the hot Escort was a firmly established cool kid, with the XR3 on sale since 1980.
But the XR3i was about far more than a simple ‘i’ on the back of a delightful body. Sure, fuel-injection added more power, but the new car featured a five-speed gearbox and improved handling, edging it closer to the class leaders. But while the XR3i was the populist choice, and arguably the best looking (discuss…), it wasn’t the best hot hatch.
Vauxhall Nova Sport
We make that one-nil to Vauxhall. In the Nova Sport, Luton has a chance to go two ahead in the battle against Dagenham, as this was a firecracker of a supermini. A total of 500 were built for homologation purposes, blending a base model shell with some SR parts and a 1.3-litre engine armed with a pair of Weber twin-choke carburettors.
Fatter wheels, stiffened suspension, Recaro seats and the instruments from the Nova SR completed the package, to create a rally car for the road. Aside from the discreet red, yellow and grey decals, it looked every inch the Nova driven by your English teacher. But in truth, this was a straight Group A student.
Mk1 Ford Fiesta XR2
Pitching a rally-bred special against a mass-produced go-faster special is perhaps a little cruel, but the hot hatch battle is no place for shy and retiring types. And besides, there’s nothing lily-livered about the Ford Fiesta XR2, which arrived in 1981. This was the second car produced by Ford’s Special Vehicle Engineering Department (SVE), following the Capri 2.8i.
A top speed of 104mph and a 0-60mph time of 9.4 seconds might not seem like a big deal in the age of the Fiesta ST, but these were different times. Crowbarring a 1.6-litre engine into a humble supermini was more exciting than watching Bucks Fizz at the Eurovision Song Contest. But we’re giving this particular battle to Vauxhall. Two-nil to the Griffin, and Cheryl Baker has kept her skirt on.
Mk2 Vauxhall Astra GTE
The Mk1 Astra GTE barely had enough time to settle in before it was replaced by the pear-drop-shaped Mk2. The hot hatch genre was still in its infancy, but a changing of the guard was in progress, with the Mk1 Golf replaced by the Mk2 and a new fourth-generation Escort waiting in the wings.
Aerodynamic it might have been, but the new Astra GTE didn’t get off to the best of starts, with the 1.8-litre engine – praised in the Mk1 – criticised for its lacklustre performance. The suspension was another complaint, while contemporary reviews pointed to a lack of sparkle. The 1.8 unit was soon replaced by a 2.0, but it wasn’t enough.
Ford Escort XR3i
The Astra’s chief rivals were the Fiat Strada Abarth, Mk2 Golf GTI and Escort XR3i. The Vauxhall and the Ford were a little out of their depth, with the XR3i in desperate need of a more powerful engine. Such hopes were dashed when Ford introduced the new XR3i in 1986, which used the same 1.6-litre unit.
In fairness, Ford worked on the engine refinement, while a revised suspension set-up provided sharper handling. The new styling and host of updates were enough to keep the XR3i relevant in a cut-throat segment and, while lacking the precision of the Golf GTI and new 205 GTI, ahead of the Astra GTE. Two-one to Vauxhall.
Vauxhall Nova GTE
In 1988, your average 17-year-old was either dreaming of Cindy Crawford or the Vauxhall Nova GTE. Once again, Vauxhall was late to the party, with the Nova GTE arriving a year before the Mk2 Ford Fiesta XR2 was due for replacement. But in many ways, the 1.6-litre engine was the unit the Nova was always waiting for.
It was quicker than the XR2, with the Nova’s 0-60mph time of 9.1 seconds and a top speed of 117mph superior to the 9.3 seconds and 112mph of the Fiesta. Such details matter when you’re on the prowl for a Cindy Crawford of your own. And while it was more expensive than the XR2, it offered a superior overall package.
Ford Fiesta XR2
So it won’t take a genius to work out that Vauxhall has taken a 3-1 lead in our retro hot hatch showroom. Hey, you might disagree with us, but we’re sticking to our guns. Besides, there’s plenty of time for Ford to claw back some points.
The second coming of the Fiesta XR2 featured new aerodynamic styling, a 1.6-litre engine developed for the Escort and a five-speed gearbox as standard. And it looked the part, thanks to flared wheel arches, 13-inch alloy wheels and front and rear spoilers. It was, for many people, the first taste of the hot hatch recipe.
Mk2 Vauxhall Astra GTE 16v
Prepare for a battle royale. The final year of the 80s was a big one for Vauxhall, with the launch of the Lotus Carlton, a preview of the Calibra and this: the Astra GTE 16v. Finally, Vauxhall’s hot hatch pretender became the real deal, powered by a terrific 16v twin-cam engine.
In an age when turbocharging was becoming the norm, the 16v engine simply encouraged maximum attack driving, while the digital instruments were so of the period. It wasn’t perfect – the steering and brakes lacked feedback – but in just about every other way it felt like the definitive hot hatch.
Ford Escort RS Turbo
The original Ford Escort RS Turbo was a homologation special produced in limited numbers by Ford’s Special Vehicle Engineering Department, powered by Garrett T3 turbocharged 1.6-litre engine. Its replacement was a series production model and less exciting as a result.
But it’s a credit to Ford’s styling department that the ageing Escort still cut a mean figure, despite being based on a product dating back to 1980. It also offered tremendous steering and handling abilities, but we’re giving the nod to the newer and fresher Astra GTE. Sorry, Ford fans, that’s 4-1.
Mk3 Vauxhall Astra GSi
In the early 90s, the 16v badge was a mark of respect, not to mention an invitation for some lowlife to go joyriding around the Blackbird Leys estate. The Astra GSI was Vauxhall’s joyride, armed with a 2.0-litre 16v engine packed with enough firepower to deliver a top speed of 130mph and a 0-60mph time of 7.4 seconds.
So, it was quick and it certainly looked the part, but it wasn’t the follow-up to the Astra GTE 16v we had hoped. The chassis and steering were less hot hatch and more lukewarm, while the traction control was a constant menace. This round must be Ford’s for the taking, then?
Ford Escort RS2000
The fact that we’re dealing with the hugely disappointing and lacklustre fifth generation Ford Escort isn’t the greatest of starts. Which only serves to make the brilliance of the RS2000 all the more remarkable. It’s like Clark Kent emerging from a phone box as Superman, Spiderman, Iron Man and Batman, all rolled into one.
Power was sourced from the Sierra’s 2.0-litre engine, providing a top speed of 130mph and a 0-60mph time of 8.5 seconds. Slightly slower than the Astra, then. The major difference is that the RS2000 was a genuine delight to drive: you could throw one of these into a corner with confidence, grinning from ear to ear. No contest: 4-2 to Vauxhall.
Vauxhall Corsa GSi
Pretty thing, isn’t it? Something that’s easy to forget when two decades have passed, but the original Vauxhall Corsa was genuinely good looking. But what about the Corsa GSI, with its 1.6-litre engine and pert styling?
It’s not hard to see why it was so popular, with an eager-to-please nature and arguably the best all-round capabilities of the group of junior hot hatches. Dynamically, it fell short of the benchmark set by the Peugeot 106 XSi, but could it beat the challenger from Ford?
Ford Fiesta RS1800
The Mk3 Fiesta, launched in 1989, was based on the Mk2, which itself was a facelift of the Mk1. Needless to say, the hot versions were overshadowed by the crop of newer, fresher rivals. The RS Turbo was quick but flawed, while the XR2i was fun and sold in big numbers.
Ford’s decision to put the RS Turbo out of its misery should be viewed as an act of kindness, not least because its replacement, the RS1800, was a little more polished. Power was sourced from a new 1.8-litre Zetec engine, while the suspension was thoroughly reworked to provide ride and handling prowess. Against the RS Turbo or XR2i, we’d have given this to Vauxhall, but based on the RS1800, we make that 4-3 to Vauxhall.
Vauxhall Astra SRi Turbo
The all-new Mk4 Vauxhall Astra was far superior to the Mk3, but was a little overshadowed by the Ford Focus, which made the Escort look like something Fred Flintstone may have taken to the drive-in.
In 2002, Vauxhall launched the flagship Astra SRi Turbo, offering around 190hp, a top speed just shy of 150mph and a 0-60mph time of 6.7 seconds. It was short-lived and only sold in limited quantities. By our reckoning, there are only 150 on the road.
Ford Focus ST170
The Astra SRi Turbo wasn’t a bad car – far from it – but competition was strong. Pick and choose from the SEAT Leon Cupra, Honda Civic Type R and this: the Ford Focus ST170. This was the first taste of a fast Focus: the hors d’oeuvre while we waited for the RS main course.
But while the Focus RS was all arches and in-yer-face styling, the ST170 was a more low key affair. It was no surprise that the handling was little short of brilliant – the base car was equally great – but the 2.0-litre engine was lacking in outright pace. Not that this seemed to trouble the 13,000 or so UK buyers so who splashed the cash on the ST170. Vauxhall 4-4 Ford.
Vauxhall Astra GSi Turbo
But if the Astra SRi was designed to steal sales from the ST170 (it didn’t, by the way), the GSi Turbo was positioned to raise the game. The styling was more aggressive, while more poke from the 2.0-litre Ecotec engine nudged the new flagship Astra to the magic 200hp mark.
Once again, the Vauxhall favoured straight-line speed over handling prowess, making this 150mph hot hatch a match for the Civic Type R and Leon Cupra R. But it fell short of greatness, especially when viewed alongside Ford’s latest weapon…
Ford Focus RS
Yes, yes, yes, we readily admit that pitching the Astra GSI Turbo against the Focus Focus RS is a little unfair. And, yes, the Focus RS was around £3,500 more expensive than the hot Astra, which remained more of a rival to the ST170. But with a touch of naughtiness, Ford positioned the Focus RS press ads alongside road tests for the GSi.
The hot hatch war is a cut-throat business. This isn’t to say that the Focus RS was perfect: contemporary reviews were mixed to say the least. But it offered tremendous performance and more than lived up to its Rallye Sport monicker. And it helps Ford nudge ahead of Vauxhall for the first time: 4-5.
Vauxhall Astra VXR
Vauxhall responded in the only way it knew how: more power. The VXR brand was launched in 2004, initially with the VXR220, followed by the Monaro VXR, and then this: the Astra VXR of 2005.
The signs were good: a chassis part-developed by Lotus, more power than a Renaultsport Megane 225 and Focus RS, and a 0-62mph time of 6.7 seconds. It also undercut the Focus RS by a grand. But once again, it felt like too little, too late.
Ford Focus ST
You see, Vauxhall was about to be ‘Tangoed’ by a bright orange Ford Focus. If the ST170 was disappointing, the ST was anything but. Forget the Astra VXR, the hot Focus was set to threaten the supremacy of the brilliant Mk5 Volkswagen Golf GTI.
It was cheaper, more powerful and blessed with the delightful symphony of a five-cylinder engine. Choosing between the Focus and the Golf was a real challenge, but the Astra VXR was left wanting. That’s a 4-6 win overall for Ford.
Want bigger biceps without paying for gym membership? Ford has the car for you. Its new ST-Line models offer pumped-up looks without high fuel and insurance bills. More mouth and less trouser, if you will.
- New Ford ST-Line models harness RS halo effect
- Ford Focus ST diesel estate (2016) review: Two-Minute Road Test
- Read another car review on Motoring Research
ST-Line is available on the Fiesta, Focus, Mondeo and Kuga and replaces the old Zetec S trim level. As well as racier styling inside and out, you get bespoke alloy wheels and 10mm lower suspension. We tried the Focus 1.5 TDCi diesel in suitably sporty Race Red. Has any of that fast Ford magic rubbed off on this otherwise humble hatch?
Prices and deals
The current Mk3 Ford Focus has been around since 2011, albeit with a facelift in 2014. As one of Britain’s best-sellers and a perennial fleet favourite, it’s not a car you should pay anything close to full price for. Discounts of 25% or more aren’t uncommon if you shop around – and that includes ST-Line versions.
At the time of writing, ‘reverse auction’ website AutoeBid was offering the Focus 1.5 TDCi ST-Line hatchback – similar to the car in our photos – for £15,229. That’s more than 28% below the list price of £21,295.
What are its rivals?
The Focus competes in the heartland of what car-industry types call the ‘C-segment’. As such, its rivals include some very familiar names: the Volkswagen Golf, Peugeot 308, Vauxhall Astra and Mazda 3 to list but a few.
Like the Focus, and the Peugeot pictured, many competitors also come as estate cars. Most also offer a ‘semi-sporting’ trim level to rival ST-Line. Peugeot has its GT Line models, for example.
What engine does it use?
You can buy an ST-Line Focus with one of five different engines. The petrol line-up starts with the hugely popular 125hp 1.0-litre Ecoboost, then the 1.5 Ecoboost in 150hp or 182hp outputs. If you prefer diesel, there’s the 120hp 1.5 TDCi tested here, plus a 150hp 2.0 TDCi.
The most powerful petrol and diesel engines are only available with a manual gearbox – all others can be specified with an auto.
It might boast deeper bumpers and a sizeable rear spoiler, but a 120hp diesel engine doth not a hot hatch make. The 1.5 TDCi hits 62mph in 10.5 seconds and has a top speed of 120mph. Compare that to 8.1 seconds and 135mph for the ‘proper’ ST diesel – or 6.5 seconds and 154mph for the ST petrol.
Nonetheless, ‘our’ Focus doesn’t feel slow. With maximum torque from 1,750rpm, there’s enough mid-range muscle for brisk overtaking. Its smooth, but not particularly quiet.
Is it comfortable?
ST-Line cars sit 10mm closer to the ground on slightly stiffer suspension. Without driving one back-to-back with a regular Focus, we struggled to tell the difference. Suffice to say, the ST-Line still offers a good compromise between responsiveness and refinement.
Inside, sports seats look the part, but won’t hug your hips like a pair of ST-spec Recaros. Look closely and you’ll also spot an ST gearknob, aluminium-faced pedals and a smattering of red go-faster stripes. Fancy.
Will I enjoy driving it?
The Focus has always been a family car for people who actually like driving. And while the latest model isn’t a dynamic benchmark like the 1998 original, it’s still an engaging and entertaining steer. Proof you don’t need a hot hatch to have fun, in other words.
Drop the kids off, find a quiet B-road and take time to appreciate the Ford’s taut chassis, direct steering and confidence-inspiring brakes. It feels poised and precise – without sacrificing long-distance comfort.
Fuel economy and running costs
Here’s the good bit. Behind all that Race Red, ST-branded attitude is an engine that emits a tax-free 99g/km of CO2, plus official fuel economy of 74.3mpg. Interestingly, the figures for the estate version are exactly the same, although you’ll pay an £1,100 premium for the bigger boot.
It’s worth remembering that ST-Line trim costs £1,250 more than the default Focus Zetec, however. That’s the price of style.
What’s the interior like?
Those ST-Line additions give the Ford’s interior a useful lift, but there’s no escaping the slightly cheap plastics and fussy design. The general ambiance is no better than an equivalent Hyundai or Kia – and some way behind the rival Volkswagen Golf.
You won’t have any problems getting comfortable, though. The driving position offers a wide range of adjustment and all controls are within easy reach. The chunky, three-spoke steering wheel gets a thumbs-up from us, too.
Is it practical?
Unlike previous models, the Mk3 Focus hatchback only comes with five doors, so access to the rear seats isn’t an issue. There’s ample room for children (with standard Isofix mountings for child car seats), but taller adults may lament the lack of legroom.
The Focus hatch certainly isn’t as practical a crossover, such as the Nissan Qashqai. Boot space is 316 litres, or 1,215 litres with the rear seats folded. Compare that to 370/1,210 litres in the Astra and 380/1,270 litres in the Golf. Opt for the Focus Estate, however, and capacity swells to 476/1,502 litres.
Tell me about the tech
Before its mid-life facelift, the Focus dashboard was a veritable button-fest, not unlike an old mobile phone. Now there’s a neat colour touchscreen, which is located high on the dashboard, easily within the driver’s line of sight. It’s straightforward to use, with bold, bright graphics and intuitive sub-menus.
It’s certainly worth paying £300 for Ford’s Sync2 navigation system. We’d also fork out £225 for rear parking sensors, although the £250 rear-view camera seems like overkill. Bluetooth phone connectivity is standard across the Focus range.
What about safety?
The Focus scored a full five stars in Euro NCAP crash tests. Standard safety equipment includes six airbags and electronic stability control.
We think Active City Stop (an automatic emergency braking system) is well worth an extra £200. Alternatively, you could simply upgrade to the £550 Driver Assistance Pack, which includes Active City Stop, plus lane-assist, automatic headlights and wipers, traffic-sign recognition and a driver alertness monitor.
Which version should I go for?
What we’re really asking here is ‘Should I go for ST-Line?’. And, without wanting to sit on the proverbial fence, the answer really depends on your priorities. For the same money (starting from £20,595), you could have a Focus in Titanium-spec, which comes with front foglights, Active City Stop, rear parking sensors and automatic lights/wipers – all extra-cost options on the ST-Line. However, you’d do without the sporty bodykit and lower suspension.
Then again, the Focus Zetec offers all the features you really need for around £1,700 less. You pays your money…
What’s the used alternative?
The obvious used equivalent to a new Focus ST-Line is the outgoing Focus Zetec S. This model has been around since late 2011, so there are cars in the classifieds to suit most budgets. The Zetec S came with a bodykit, 17-inch alloy wheels and suspension that was 28% stiffer than the standard car. Some also had part-leather seats.
Us? We’d be tempted to put any money saved upfront towards the (hefty) fuel bills for a full-fat Focus ST.
Should I buy one?
Everybody loves a fast Ford. And while the Focus ST-Line isn’t technically, um, fast, it looks the part. For many, that will be reason enough to buy one.
Importantly, ST-Line trim doesn’t detract from the Focus’s traditional strengths: agile handling, decent comfort and practicality, and an attractive price-tag (especially after discount). If you’re in the market for a C-segment car, it should definitely be on your shortlist.
Ford first used its iconic RS badge in 1968, but the ST name didn’t appear until 1997. The Mondeo ST24 (pictured) had a 170hp 2.5-litre V6 and a bulbous bodykit. It lasted for just two years, before being replaced by the 200hp Mondeo ST200 in 1999.
ST versions of the Fiesta and Focus followed soon after, with the high-point of the saga being the latest Fiesta ST: one of the greatest hot hatches ever made.
he Nurburgring is the world’s most notorious racetrack. Its 13 miles of tortuously twisty tarmac serve as a proving ground for new cars – with manufacturers competing to set the lowest lap times.
As Volkswagen launches its new track-oriented new Golf Clubsport S, we’re celebrating the 10 fastest hot hatchbacks ever to lap the Nurburgring. Let the countdown commence…
10. Volkswagen Golf R32
Lap time: 8min 53.0sec
Golf GTI not fast enough? In 2003, Volkswagen launched the 240hp Golf R32, with the 250hp Mk5 version seen here following in 2005. It boasted a 3.2-litre VR6 engine and four-wheel drive.
Lapping the Nurburgring in less than nine minutes is no mean feat for a car as comfortable and family-focused as the Golf R32. Interestingly, the car was actually faster to 62mph (6.2sec) when fitted with Volkswagen’s DSG semi-automatic gearbox.
9. Vauxhall Astra VXR Nurburgring
Lap time: 8min 35.0sec
A dedicated Nurburgring special edition? Yep, and Vauxhall built 835 of them to celebrate the car’s 8min 35sec lap time. A Corsa VXR Nurburgring followed in 2011.
For £1,500 more than the standard VXR, you got an extra 15hp, a Remus exhaust, white alloy wheels and lots of stickers. Alternatively, replicate the look yourself with one of those two-quid Nurburgring stickers off eBay…
8. Ford Focus ST (2005)
Lap time: 8min 35.0sec
Fast and (usually) orange, the original Focus ST matched the 8min 35sec time of its arch-rival Astra. Its 225hp five-cylinder engine came from Volvo and is famously thirsty when driven hard.
Today, you can buy estate and diesel versions of the ST, but the 2005 original remains our favourite. Like many fast Fords, it’s a bit rough around the edges, but it’s more characterful than a contemporary Golf GTI.
7. Ford Focus RS
Lap time: 8min 26.0sec
Brightly-coloured fast Fords, you say? Meet the daddy. The Mk2 Focus RS is a modern classic, with in-yer-face styling and a mighty 305hp turbocharged four-pot.
Ford hasn’t attempted the ’Ring in the latest (Mk3) Focus RS yet. However, with 350hp, it’s likely to be even quicker. We reckon the Ultimate Green paint seen here is worth a least 10 seconds off the lap time….
6. Renault Megane RS R26.R
Lap time: 8min 16.90sec
Meet the first in a string of ever-faster Renault Meganes competing for top honours at the Nurburgring. The R26.R was the most extreme version of the ‘shaking that ass’ Mk2 Megane. Only 450 were made.
This isn’t your typical hot hatchback. The stripped-out R26.R has no rear seats, passenger airbags or radio. Crucially, it came shod with super-sticky Michelin or Toyo tyres, which were biased for track (and dry weather) use.
5. Renault Megane RS Trophy
Lap time: 8min 7.97sec
Another Megane, this time the – even faster – third-generation car. The limited-edition RS Trophy boasted 265hp and a top speed of nearly 160mph. Heady stuff for a hot hatch.
More impressive, though, was the Trophy’s ability to go around corners. It lapped the Nurburgring in 8min 7.97sec – without resorting to the extreme weight-loss measures of its R26.R predecessor.
4. SEAT Leon Cupra
Lap time: 7min 58.4sec
Spanish carmaker SEAT is known for breaking ’Ring records – its Leon ST Cupra 280 is currently the fastest estate to lap the track. The hatchback Cupra can’t make that claim, but it still edges under eight minutes.
The record-breaking (at the time) Leon was fitted with beefed-up Brembo brakes and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres – both available as part of SEAT’s Performance Pack option. The Cupra has since gained an extra 10hp, potentially making it even quicker.
3. Renault Megane RS 275 Trophy-R
Lap time: 7min 54.36sec
Our third Megane – and the fastest to date – is the RS 275 Trophy-R. The car was developed in response to SEAT breaking the front-wheel-drive record with the Leon Cupra 280, and it succeeded in taking the title back.
The 2014 Trophy-R was a serious performance machine with race-style Ohlins dampers, bigger front brakes and polycarbonate Recaro seats. With no air conditioning or radio, it’s more suited to track days than trips to Tesco.
2. Honda Civic Type R
Lap time: 7min 50.63sec
As a statement of intent, launching a new hot hatch by setting a 7min 50.63sec Nurburgring lap time takes some beating. The bodykitted Civic really is as fast as its furious styling suggests.
Honda set its lap time with a car ‘in a standard state of tune’. However, it did admit removing ‘equipment such as air conditioning, the front passenger seat and audio equipment’ in order to ‘offset the additional weight of a full roll cage (installed specifically for safety reasons and not to add rigidity)’.
1. Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S
Lap time: 7min 49.21sec
That brings us to the current Nurburgring record-holder: the VW Golf GTI Clubsport S. Built to mark 40 years of the Golf GTI, the 310hp hatchback has been dubbed ‘the GT3 of GTIs’.
The Clubsport S is even quicker than the four-wheel-drive Golf R and only 400 will be made. Thank a strict weight-saving diet, including a smaller battery, less sound deadening and no rear seats. Hey, nobody said giant-killing hot hatches had to practical.
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.
The Mountune MP275 kit costs £1,195 plus fitting – which takes two hours – and consists of:
- High-capacity alloy intercooler
- Low-loss cast crossover duct with silicone hose
- High-flow dual-entry air filter
- Performance engine map
Not only does it deliver a 25hp power boost, but Ford also says it produces a significant uplift in pulling power – from 254lb ft to 295lb ft at 2,750rpm.
It makes the Ford Focus ST even more of a bit of a bargain, reckons Ford: prices for the ST-1 start from £22,495 so, even with fitting, the MP275 version should still come in at around £24,000.
Which, coincidentally, is exactly the same price as Renault’s recently-announced 275hp Renaultsport Megane Cup-S…
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