Back in the 1980s, when Volkswagen birthed the hot hatchback with the GTI, owners like me thought 110 horsepower was a big deal. Things being what they are today, we now have the Ford Focus RS, which spins up a borderline-ridiculous 261 kilowatts (350 horsepower) and 475 newton meters (350 foot-pounds) of turbocharged torque from a dinky 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine. That’s more force than you get from many V-8s.
Ford’s little beastie is designed to handle the dirt and snow of rally racing, or your best simulation—including a 447-kW (600-hp) version that superstar racer Ken Block will drive in the FIA Rallycross series.
But my first taste of it comes at the Monticello Motor Club, the devilish 6.6-kilometer road course in New York’s Catskills region. My test pairs me with another driving star, Ben Collins, formerly The Stig from the BBC show “Top Gear.” Collins proceeds to drive the wheels off the thing while bringing me up to speed on the Ford’s technical calling card: a trick torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system by the Michigan-based company GKN.
After a few laps, Collins and I trade places, and I’m soon tearing up my home course at speeds more in line with a pure sports car than a hatchback. Before the front-driven wheels can spin, the system will preemptively send 100 percent of the torque to either or both rear wheels, delivering uncanny control and explosive acceleration out of corners.
As a driver toggles through Normal, Sport, and Track modes, the GKN unit activates subsystems, each referencing new multiaxis calibration tables, that steadily trade traditional all-wheel-drive balance for take-no-prisoners performance.
The coup de grâce is Drift mode, which enables the tire-smoking, spinning-top drifting that has spawned a million Internet videos. You’ll want to set aside money for periodic replacement of the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires. They’re going to need it.