Our friends at Team O’Neil Rally School in New Hampshire just dropped a video on us that we spent all day watching. It compares the all-new Ford Focus RS to a purpose-built Subaru WRX STi rally car to find out if Ford’s rally replica has the goods to keep up.
We reviewed the Ford Focus RS a while back, and we unreservedly loved it. But to really get a sense of how the car performs, you would have to have logged hours, weeks, months, years behind the wheel of rally cars. That’s what Team O’Neil brings to the table. Their stable of instructors are rally drivers who train people to race. Their facility in Dalton, New Hampshire is rally driving heaven, with miles of dirt roads loaded with whoops, switchbacks and wide open spaces to make all the mistakes necessary to become proficient at rally driving.
Tim O’Neil is the rally school’s namesake. He’s the winner of five production-based North American rally championships, both as a privateer and as a team driver for Volkswagen and for Mitsubishi.
Travis Hanson is the school’s Director of Training. These people know what they’re talking about, and they put the two cars to the test during this winter’s first real dose of white weather.
When the Focus RS arrived at their facility, it came amid some armchair quarterbacking about whether or not the Focus RS was actually suited for rally driving, or it was just a paint and sticker package on a nicely equipped, all-wheel drive street car. As soon as Car and Driver announced the first bit of information on the car, the internet responded with skepticism on its comment section:
It’s true that the Focus RS’s all-wheel drive system is 100 percent front-wheel drive biased until the center differential detects slippage. It allows the RS to provide decent fuel economy when all four wheels don’t necessarily have to be powered. Does it make it a poseur as a rally car, though?
Team O’Neil was bound to find out. Their Focus RS is essentially stock, with a few minor, reversible modifications. First off, the wheels — as cool as they are — had to go. The standard rollers on a Focus RS are 19-inch premium painted aluminum, shod with Michelin Super Sport summer tires. Obviously a no-go in the wilds of New Hampshire.
Ford has some of us covered with a package consisting of 18-inch aluminum wheels with Michelin Alpin PA4 tires, but again, you’re going to smash your teeth together and break parts if you attack the dirt roads at Team O’Neil with those. What Team O’Neil is after is a winter tire with a lot of sidewall, and that means 15-inch wheels.
That wouldn’t be such a big deal if it wasn’t for the Focus RS’s serving platter-sized 350mm (13.7-inch) brake rotors. The first thing Team O’Neil did was put those in storage for a set of rotors that could accommodate a much smaller wheel diameter.
“The Focus RS has downsized brakes so that it can fit 15-inch wheels and therefore better sized snow tires,” Team O’Neil’s Wyatt Knox told BestRide. “Low profile snow tires don’t have much flex and aren’t very compliant, so fitting 15s is a big advantage.” While they worked on the brakes, they also disabled the anti-lock braking system in order to allow the back end of the car to slide around while applying the brakes.
The wheel downsize allowed Yokohama Ice Guard IG52C tires, which are an exact match with the tires on the Subaru.
The second significant modification was to swap to Bilstein shocks. “The Bilsteins just give us a higher ride height and allow us to soak up the lumps and bumps we see driving like this,” Wyatt told us. “The standard RS suspension is pretty low and stiff where it is a little taller and softer now.”
Read all this again: for a car that’s meant to perform, the people who teach rally driving prefer smaller brakes, smaller wheels and tires, a taller ride height and a softer ride. They essentially removed everything that seems to be engineered into what amounts to a “performance” car today.
The car they pitted the Focus RS against is the picture everyone has in their mind about what a rally car looks like: A full Prodrive built, 2.0-liter STi-powerd Subaru WRX. Unlike the silky-smooth shifts the Focus RS provides, the Subaru has a dog box transmission without a mechanism to synchronize engine and transmission speed. Get the RPMs wrong, or try to shift this trans delicately and you’re grinding a pound of metal shavings. The car also features a full ProFlex suspension. ProFlex is the standard bearer for WRC suspension technology.
The Subaru is obviously all-wheel drive, but the Subaru rally car features an active center differential. It can distribute the optimum amount of torque to each wheel to maximize overall acceleration, and constantly revise the distribution as the traction conditions of each wheel changes. It also maintains sharp response to braking and steering, whether the driver is on the throttle or off it.
The result is what the folks from Team O’Neil call a “period correct” rally car. It’s not what WRC drivers are competing with today, but it’s exactly what they were competing with when Americans started to recognize that rallying was a thing. It’s still the benchmark for what a rally car is all about.
Watch the video to understand what the differences and similarities are in these cars. They’re surprising to say the least:
The biggest question we had for Travis Hanson — Director of Training at Team O’Neil — was about the Focus RS’s “Drift Mode.” In our evaluation, we loved it. “Drift Mode is for idiots. It’s also the greatest invention since the radial tire,” we wrote. “If you’re on top of things on your own, the system will let you drift your pants right off. If it senses that you’re heading for the bushes, it’ll reel you in. It’s hilarious fun on the asphalt. On the dirt, it’ll convince your friends you’re the next Ken Block.”
Travis agreed with us — at least on the part where we said it was for idiots. “Contrary to fan-boy forum chatter, drift mode does not provide the driver the skills to drift. Bummer, I know,” he told us. “Drift Mode does however provide a car that is more likely to oversteer or drift. The car’s advanced driveline system sends more power to the rear wheels and works with the car’s stability control to create oversteer and also save you if you get a little too wild with the go pedal.”
So it’s like training wheels.
Yeah, we can live with that.
Watch the video and get back to us: Given the choice, would you opt for the Focus RS — with its nice radio and cozy heat — or the full-on rally car?