Back in the 1970s, a tobacco giant put together a "best-of" montage featuring footage of the Ford Escort RS1800s it sponsored in the World Rally Championship. The European Escort was a simple rear-wheel-drive machine back then and the fastest way to hustle one along a rally special stage was to keep it permanently off-balance.
Watching those WRC Escorts spew comet-tails of snow from their rear wheels in long, sweeping, perfectly controlled drifts, each graceful arc setting the car up just-so for the next curve … well, that's my kinda ballet.
Soon after that movie was screened, the production Escort switched to front-wheel-drive and would eventually evolve into the Focus. Both nameplates spawned RS derivatives of their own, including the second-generation Focus RS that won the WRC manufacturer's title in 2006 and 2007. More recently, Ford anointed the smaller, lighter Fiesta as the basis of its WRC campaign, but the Focus RS remains Ford's Euro-market hero car for the street.
The latest and greatest evolution of the line launched in 2016. And for the first time ever, the ne plus ultra of Focus performance is sold in Canada.
In a karmic way, the 2017 Focus RS arcs back to those balletic rear-drive Escorts of the seventies. Like most overachiever versions of front-wheel drive cars, the RS adopts all-wheel drive to effectively put its 350 horsepower to pavement. But in a sop to committed gearheads who worship at the church of power oversteer, the RS's all-wheel drive system has a Drift mode. When selected, up to 70 per cent of power is routed rearward and the stability-control system backs off enough to allow intentional sideways-ness.
At least that's the theory and we're here at the Mecaglisse motorsport complex in Quebec to experience the practice. Despite record-warm February weather, there remains sufficient ice to allow the use of studded Nokia tires on the Focus RS test samples.
Going in at the deep end doesn't get much deeper than this: climb into unfamiliar car, immediately enter slalom, exit slalom and enter white-coated racetrack.
No problem. In Drift mode, the Focus is absurdly easy to pilot provocatively. It's predictable, controllable, wonderfully communicative. No wonder the pro race drivers riding shotgun with us seem so calm: In Drift mode, the stability control is more lenient but it is still on; it'll let you get sideways … but not a lot sideways. It's fun, but not hugely challenging. But that is probably exactly the way Claude Bourbonnais likes it from the passenger seat. And also why he doesn't mention that, actually, you can turn the ESC completely off. After four laps of the track – about 40 too few – we're sent out on a street drive. It's short but intense. Route 347 running north-east from Notre-Dame-de-la-Merci doesn't just swoop and swerve through the Lanaudière hills, it's also bumpy as all heck – and much of it dusted with salt and gravel.
On this road the RS's chassis/drivetrain partnership puts on a master-class display of agility, stability, body control – and even, believe it or not, comfort (at least on the test car's Michelin winter tires). Quibbles? "Earsthetically" the turbo motor's sound is gruff and a car this price really ought to have a better range of power seat adjustment. But wow, what an athlete. Back at Mecaglisse, it's the passengers' turn to become drivers and treat the journos to hot laps. I get a NASCAR driver who is literally whooping at the fun of it. But wait – did I just see him use the handbrake to help the RS go sideways? Hmmm.
When my ride is over, I get shot after shot of the pro-driven cars splayed at 45 degrees to the intended direction of travel. But something's missing. Where's the spray of snow from the back wheels? Why aren't the front wheels cranked hard over in countersteer?
Then I remember: the RS's Performance AWD System with Dynamic Torque Vectoring "continuously varies the front/rear and side-to-side torque distribution to suit current driving conditions," Ford says. With the stability control fully off, we're told, the AWD is supposed to promote drifting but only up to a point, it seems. In this dance, the car is still the lead.