Just 10 years ago, no one would have imagined that a company like Ford would introduce a car like the Focus RS to the masses in the US.
From a performance standpoint, Mustangs and Camaros have always been expected, but now we’re starting to see the cars that Europe has had for many years. It’s not just that though; these models are so good out of the box, it makes you wonder whether there’s still even a need to modify a car for performance in the modern era.
I was given the chance to take a drive around LA in the 2017 Ford Focus RS recently and came away very impressed. The car handles, has more than enough power at 350hp, and is more than capable of being driven fast thanks to the great feedback through the steering wheel. Being able to change how the car behaves on the fly to suit the driving you are doing is certainly a feature all new performance cars should come with, though we didn’t play with the “drift” mode. The car even comes with a cold air intake from the factory and Ford Performance all over it. Then you get to the creature comforts it includes and you start to realize many of the parts that normally are replaced are already there in the RS.
So what more does this car need?
Think about that for a second. It wasn’t that long ago that the Ford Mustang GT didn’t even come with a V8 with more than 280hp. Now we have a 2.3-liter turbocharged inline-four that puts out 70 horsepower more than that, even more torque, and all-wheel drive. The RS, and many modern performance cars as well, are coming out of the factory faster, better equipped, and posting Nürburgring lap times well under the nine-minute mark.
With the RS, it’s nearly a performance bargain at under US$40,000. The only way to make it handle any better or go any faster would be to put a set of semi-slicks that are designed for the track. Sure, Hennessey Performance is offering a 400hp package stateside, but that’s just an ECU calibration change; they don’t touch the engine or the turbo.
Make Way For The EPA
It’s almost getting to the point in the US that it must be this way. With the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) going after shops that create and sell products that “could” be used to defeat emissions equipment – even on race cars – and fining them millions of dollars, it’s getting to the point that it’s almost no longer worth it to open a shop even outside of California and its pertinacious CARB (California Air Resources Board). It certainly looking like the end days of tuner shops if something isn’t done to protect them or even those of us who turn our cars into race cars that never touch a public road. Even if the EPA is stopped, customers are demanding vehicles with greater performance and better economy from factory. That’s why we’re starting to see more and more cars like the RS here in the US.
For modification in terms of performance, we’ll probably end up seeing less and less for more modern cars. Body modifications to improve aerodynamics and make the car slicker through the air, produce more downforce, or just make it look different, will more likely become the focus. We’re sure we’ll still see the overly wide cars with bolt-on fender flares at every SEMA Show.
However, as far as putting more power down, improving suspension, or just getting more feel out of your steering with a modern performance car, we’re probably approaching the limit. Hennessey proved there is still more power to be found in the stock RS with just some engine tuning, as we pointed out earlier, but even at 350hp and torque out of a 3434lb (1557kg) car, they’re some good numbers from the factory in the power-to-weight stakes. Most of the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) regional and national classes have a weight to power ratio rule of 10:1 to 12:1; this RS with its factory power, torque, and full interior is right at 10:1. Start stripping that interior out as the rules allow, you start dipping into the 9.5:1 and lower ratios without ever touching the engine.
End Of Days Or Beginning Of A New Era?
So, are we at the end of days for the modern tuning shop in the US? Will it be the EPA or the customer demand for better performance out of the box that kills it first? Or should we start turning our attention to the inevitable future of the electrification of our vehicles?
It would be great if we had the absolute answer, but to be honest, we don’t think tuning shops are going to die off any time soon. Will they have to adjust? Most certainly, but the good ones that are still around from the 1990s will continue just like they did into 2000s and the recession by evolving their performance options for customers. ECU tuning will start to take more of a lead role for these shops, if the EPA or CARB doesn’t ruin everything the meantime.
However, the day of adding a big turbo to make that magical 300 to 400 horsepower number in a compact is probably gone for now in the modern car. The car already makes that number and has a turbo installed.
Photos by Larry Chen
Cutting Room Floor