Driving with The Stig in the Ford Focus RS

Former Top Gear star in Ford's reasonably priced car.

The Stig, aka Ben Collins, is sliding the Ford Focus RS through turns at Monticello Motor Club, showing the expertise that made him Top Gear’s favorite masked man.

I’m riding shotgun, unmasked, about to spend a full day lapping, drifting and chuckle-heading my way around this favorite New York track. But I’m not letting the humble, affable Collins get away without a few free racing tips—including a signed copy of his latest book, “How to Drive,” an incisive and approachable guide to technique from the basics to high-level race strategy.

The Focus RS also makes for great homework. It’s a stimulating lesson in Newton’s laws of motion, and the hottest AWD hatchback you can buy right now: Less luxurious than a Volkswagen Golf R, but a touch faster, and much more playful and adaptable at the limit. The Ford’s ability to wag its winged tail like an honest rear-drive car is its trump card versus the VW or Subaru WRX—even if the Focus’ 350 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque is the billboard material. Here I’ll recall my first remotely high-performance car, an ‘85 Volkswagen GTI with 110 horsepower and a roughly 8.5-second saunter to 60 mph. If you had told me that Ford, maker of the crapulent Escort GT, would field a 350-horse hatchback that could broach 60 mph in the high four seconds, I would have demanded some of what you were smoking. Jeff Grauer, the Focus’s vehicle integration engineer, offers his own march-of-history via the 1998 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra. That car squeezed 305 horsepower and 300 pound-feet from a 4.6-liter V-8—far less power than the turbo-boosted Focus RS, despite twice the displacement. The RS, of course, gets an upgraded version of the 2.3-liter Ecoboost offered in today’s Mustang, with a larger, more-efficient twin-scroll turbocharger. Whether you're talking acceleration, handling, or track times, this muscled-up econobox will stomp the Ecoboost ‘Stang, (or the six-cylinder version, for that matter).

Not so long ago, “it would have been impossible or incredibly expensive to build a car like this,” Collins says of a hatchback that delivers AWD stability with a good measure of rear-drive attitude-adjustment. “I have a four-wheel-drive Volkswagen van at home, because I don’t want my family to get stuck anywhere. This is four-wheel-drive, too, but it’s clever four-wheel drive.”

Yes, the sandy-haired Collins has donned a blue Ford racing suit, and he’s being paid to talk up the Focus and impress us journos with hot laps. But he’s not blowing smoke over the Ford’s capabilities. Instead, he’s got smoke pouring from the Focus’s optional Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, as an overhead drone captures his stylish moves. Those grippier tires pair with black forged wheels that trim 1.5 pounds of unsprung weight at each corner. Ford figures the uprated wheels and fast-wearing tires are for the owner who spends roughly 80 percent of his time on track and 20 percent on public roads; flip those percentages and you’re better off with the standard Michelin Super Sports.

Versus the Focus ST, the RS adds 98 horsepower, along with a trick, torque-vectoring AWD system and snappy fixed-ratio steering versus the ST’s variable-ratio rack.

Within minutes on Monticello’s rolling circuit, I’m wringing the Focus’ little neck. Brake deeply into turns, trail off while turning in, then get back on throttle earlier than you’d expect: The Focus overdrives its outside rear wheel to slingshot around corners with uncanny pace and control. Chuck it in harder, and you’ll sacrifice lap times while making a smoky offering to the drifting gods.

Collins also appreciates the Ford’s genuine mechanical handbrake, and not for rally-style e-brake turns. He recalls driving his own VW Transporter van, and paying too little attention as he approached an icy intersection. By gently leaning on the handbrake, he managed to slow the van and avoid a potential accident. (It also shows that even The Stig can find himself in a dicey driving situation.)

One Focus gripe is the awful pedal placement. There’s so much space between the accelerator and brake that, unless you’re a Shaq-sized 22 shoe, using a right foot for heel-and-toe shifting is nearly impossible. And if interior design is a priority, the Ford’s dated, gummy-plastic interior—basically, a $15,000 Focus with Recaro seats and nicer gauges—may send you straight into VW’s arms.

We move to a skidpad, where Monticello’s rally-racing Chris Duplessis walks us through the Focus’s ballyhooed drift mode. I dial up the pushbutton mode, circle left on the skidpad in first gear, mat the gas and look out the driver’s side window to follow my intended path. With a little practice in counter-steering to catch the slide, then getting back on throttle to keep the fun going, I manage to complete four full 360’s around the pad in one go. It’s like learning to scrawl circles in art class, only in stripes of burnt rubber. Naturally, going all Jackson Pollack in your own RS will require a hot line to Tire Rack: Our group manages to waste a set of expensive Michelins in roughly 30 minutes.

If this German-built RS can seem too good to be true, the $36,775 base price is a dose of reality. But for serious hatchback hoons, the Ford is still a star among (somewhat) reasonably priced cars.

“It’s very brave of Ford to allow a car to move around like this,” Collins says of the industry’s tendency to dumb down handling and avoid fishtailing at all costs. “I like the freedom. I don't like when you're fighting the car for control."

A Brit, teaching us Yanks about freedom, in a village named for Thomas Jefferson’s crib. It’s a novel concept. But The Stig, having defied mad King Clarkson, is right: The Focus RS frees drivers from the tyranny of traditional hatchbacks.