Updated: Feb 17
Craig thinks Ford killing off the iconic Rally Sport badge is a huge missed opportunity
When Ford announced that after three generations, the show will not go on with its performance flagship - the Focus RS - I didn't don a metaphorical black armband for the Focus, but for Ford's lack of ambition. The manufacturer has blamed the decision on ever more stringent emissions laws, claiming a new RS would put them over the EU threshold, thus incurring huge fines. This feels like a cop-out. BMW hasn’t killed off the M division - we are only talking about a 2.3-litre turbocharged hot hatchback. Every M car sups significantly more fuel and spews bigger quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the Mustang will live on, even in V8 format. BMW doesn’t sell a majority of frugal 1.0 capacity superminis either to balance the pollution books. So, what gives?
The real motivator, in my opinion, is a simple matter of financing. It’s no secret the RS has been a loss leader all its life for Ford. The results have been mixed, but there is no doubt each generation pushed the engineering boundaries in the sector. The press reacted to the mk1 like it was a marmite sandwich, but there was no doubting its single-mindedness. The parts list read like the who’s who of a muddy WRC paddock – Sachs dampers, Quaife torque biassing differential, AP racing clutch, Garett turbocharger, Brembo brakes, OZ racing alloys, Sparco bucket seats. Custom body panels and wheel arch extensions that mimicked Colin McRae’s company car meant each of the 4,501 MK1’s sold had to be removed from the production line for hand finishing. All in all, Ford's engineers changed over seventy percent of the donor car. Rumour has it, the £19,995 list price was some £4,000 less than the genuine cost of production.
When the Mk2 came along, the purse strings had been tightened – the parts bin was now in-house - but Ford's boffins still found ways to break new ground. Here was the first performance hatch to transfer 300bhp to the road via the front wheels alone, clever suspension and geometry witchcraft making it possible. By the end of its life, the power of the run-out RS500 had climbed to 350bhp. The difficult third album started with as much but utilised a unique and thus hugely expensive twin clutch four-wheel drive system. It over sped the rear axle adding agility and rear-wheel drive handling characteristics whilst all its rivals stuck by the predictable Haldex arrangement. Add the embarrassing and costly head gasket warranty issue into the mix and you can see why the Ford top brass have lost their bottle.
So what’s with the obituary? It’s simple. For all its detractors at the time citing Ford didn’t have the stomach to take on Subaru or Mitsubishi, the Mk1 RS has blossomed into arguably the most desirable iteration with the passage of time. Criticised at birth for teasing an even more coveted badge – Cosworth – complete with four-wheel drive and 300bhp, the RS eventually morphed into the car many wanted it to be. But for all the Mk3’s ‘baby Nissan GTR’ rhetoric, it doesn’t quite command the cult following of its predecessors. Ford needs to remember that an RS doesn’t need to be the most technologically advanced tool in the box. It just needs to be loud, a little rough around the edges with enough power to allow the blue-collar guy to stick it to the city boy in his Porsche. Tune-ability is as important to the fan club as road holding.
Ford needs to take a leaf out of its back catalogue. A simpler model, cheaper to produce but no less thrilling. And one that can still satisfy any legislation. They have the perfect solution right under their noses - a Fiesta RS. It has to be three doors only, for no other reason other than it's cooler. Crank the feisty three-pot motor up to 250bhp. Add some vents to the bonnet. Lower the chassis, widen the track, stiffen up the dampers. Hell, they could even give it three-spoke alloys if they like absinthe in their tea at the Ford Performance HQ.
You only need to look at the fever the 265bhp Yaris GR has created. Imagine the group test. The Yaris and 305bhp Mini GP forming the cornerstones. The VW group could join the party with its love of platform sharing – an Audi RS1 is a very appealing prospect, a Polo R perhaps less so but the return of a proper Ibiza Cupra would have me positively Balearic. Renaultsport could find its mojo again and resurrect the Clio RS16 project. Aside from the Fiesta ST and Hyundai i20N, the small hot hatch division lacks fire in its belly compared to the class above that’s positively bursting at the seams with talented cars. A new subcategory could be just the spark needed to inspire a new generation of pocket rocket hero cars, the supercar ankle biters. It’s a mouth-watering prospect.
Having already owned a Yaris GR, I’d probably be putting my name down for the stillborn RS16 should my attempts at playing fortune teller come true, but I predict plenty of Blue Oval fans elbowing each other out of the way into the showroom to place a deposit on a Fiesta Rallye Sport. They wouldn’t be able to build enough of them.
Originally published in issue 001