Winter drive events are awesome. But when they let you play with a race-bred rally-ready car and Baja 1000-ready truck…
Well, that’s a whole different level of awesome.
Article by Tom Sedens
All pictures taken during this event.
I spent three days in Quebec, courtesy of Ford, and got to try my hand at driving the Focus RS on a famous ice racing track, as well as bombing the Raptor down a wintry forestry road. I’ll tell you more about those adventures – but first, let me introduce the stars of the show. The whole point of this winter drive event was to introduce us to two of Ford’s incredibly capable offerings.
Actually, before that, I want to give a little shout-out to two of the places we visited. First of all, we made a lunch stop at La P’tite Cabane D’la Cote – an incredible little road-side cabane a sucre, which produces maple syrup, and a delightful eatery. They served us family-style Quebec cuisine – everything from tourtière to “Christ’s Ears” (deep-fried pork rinds). We topped everything off with a visit outside for traditional tire d’érable – molten maple syrup poured on clean white snow to create soft maple candy that you twist around a stick and eat. It is simply divine and a wonderful Quebec tradition!
Our accommodations were at the Estérel Resort, which is only an hour’s drive from Montreal. There are two hotels at the resort, and my stunning suite with a living area and fireplace, as well as a bar area and huge bathroom, overlooked a serene frozen lake. Every room has a hot tub (on the main floor where I was), and there are a series of hot pools right on the lake, including a polar dip hole in the lake for the brave people. The food at the various restaurants we visited was extraordinary, and a visit to the wine cellar is a must.
OK, now for the introductions I promised. First came the Focus RS. At one point, this was a Ford Focus, a decent compact hatchback in its own right. But this is no pedestrian Focus. This isn’t even Ford’s amped-up Focus ST. No, this is the RS. What makes it so special? Well, the 2.3L EcoBoost engine putting out 350 horsepower and 350 lb.ft of torque, for starters. Or how about the fact that it’s only available with a 6-speed manual, and has an all-wheel drive system capable of sending up to 70% of the torque to the rear wheels? And that all-wheel drive system actively switches the torque from side to side and has legitimate track and drift modes? Hello?! Oh yes, and it looks the part too. Although there are significant aesthetic changes that make it look much more aggressive than the standard Focus, Ford claims all these changes came in the name of reducing lift and cooling.
First we got to drive the Focus RS on a road course, snaking our way through rural Quebec. Narrow country lanes that wound their way through frozen lakes, tiny villages, forests and endless fields of snow let us experience the RS’ ability to be a truly comfortable commuter car. Sure, the suspension is firm, but not crashy and never uncomfortable. The handling is sublime, and the transmission is very easy to live with. The interior won’t blow you away (there are plenty of familiar bits from the regular Focus) but the incredible Recaro seats certainly will. But it was a whole different animal once we got it to the famous Mecaglisse Motorsport Complex. A fine track in the summer, it really comes into its own in the winter when the team that runs it prides itself on maintaining a flawless ice racing facility.
We got to try the Focus’ different drive modes and it is truly a delight to drive with the electronic grannies turned off. In the right hands, the Focus RS is a purpose-bred tool, sharp and exact. A scalpel that can be pointed in any direction. It has incredible power, handling that is stunningly competent with instant turn-in and near-perfect control provided by the all-wheel drive system. Drift mode let me hang that rear end out any time I wanted, for as long as I wanted to. The powertrain has more than enough jam to let you have fun on the pavement, so you can imagine how easy it was to kick the rear end out on an ice track. Yet, thanks to the studded tires, every corner, every bend and every turn was a piece of cake for the Focus RS.
It’s a blast to drive on the road and on the track, and having driven it last fall on non-winter roads, I can attest that it is just as much fun there too. I am always impressed how easily it seems to balance being driven from point A to point B and being driven with a trophy on the line. It handles both with aplomb. It starts at $48,418 and comes with precious few options. Actually I’m kidding – the only option available is Nitrous Blue paint, and it adds $995. It isn’t cheap, but I can’t think of another car that comes in at $50,000 that’s as much fun and as capable.
After the RS, I got to explore the new Raptor. A legend already, the Raptor is based on the F-150 but has been developed as a Baja desert race truck from its inception. Over a couple of generations, we have grown to love this truck. And with one key exception that I’ll get to, I found this all-new Raptor to be better than the previous one in every way! There is something about a truck that is fully 6″ wider than the standard F-150. There’s something about the huge aggressive BF Goodrich K02 tires (specifically designed for the Raptor) mounted on stunning cast aluminum wheels with machined and painted surfaces. There’s something about a factory truck that has 3″ Fox Racing Shox with 44% larger fluid volume than before. There’s something about a frame that has even more high-strength steel than before, and significantly increased suspension travel (even though it was already jaw-dropping before).
But it’s not all about increased numbers. The new Raptor is actually 227 kg lighter, and more fuel efficient. Why? Because instead of a 6.2L V8, the new Raptor gets a specially-tuned 3.5L EcoBoost V6. The twin-turbo engine puts out a ridiculous 450 horsepower and 510 lb.ft of torque. This is mated to Ford’s all-new, designed in-house 10-speed automatic transmission – which you’ll find in all F-150s going forward. And it’s a terrific transmission. It’s smooth, it’s quick, and surprisingly, it is only an inch longer and a few kilograms heavier than the previous 6-speed it replaces.
There are plenty of shared parts with the standard F-150 – the interior is the same (although the Raptor gets awesome unique seats and some trim bits), but Ford made changes where needed. The Raptor has a true dual exhaust (mounted nice and high, and out of the way) and it gets unique transfer cases for its 4×4 system. It’s already a wildly capable off-road monster, and Ford gives it 6 terrain modes – normal, sport, weather, mud/sand, Baja and rock crawl – to help you sort out whatever surface you’re traversing.
As with the Focus RS, Ford sent us out on the road with the Raptor and proved that, although this insane-looking beast is perfectly at home off the beaten path, in the desert or scrambling over rocks, it’s equally as happy driving down country roads or the highway. The ride is fantastic, and the interior is world-class, offering up every measure of comfort, convenience and technology. Although a truck this size wouldn’t be a lot of fun to park downtown, or even in most garages, it is supremely comfortable and spacious, making it a family-friendly ride. Except it’s a family-friendly ride that can take down the field at the Baja 1000. And it was on a forestry road track that Ford had prepared for us that we got to experience the truly terrifying abilities the Raptor can conjure when called upon. Much of it was solid ice, often barely a foot wider than the truck itself. It included a deep water crossing – that we were encouraged to plow through at full speed – and plenty of harrowing corners – all of which we drove at sphincter-clenching velocity. I’ve never been so scared, and I’ve never been so thrilled. The Raptor starts at $68,399. Oh yes, and the one way the new Raptor isn’t better? The sound. The previous V8 sounded like it was gargling shards of metal and demons and just begged to be stepped on to hear it. The new EcoBoost engine doesn’t sound nearly as aggressive or good. But it’s a small price to pay.
All in all, this was an amazing experience. The road courses and the track portions served to show off each of the vehicles’ strengths and abilities, and I left Quebec with a new-found fondness in my heart for both the Focus RS and the Raptor. If I had to pick one, I’d be buying the Raptor – because it fits my family. Hey, I’m not really a truck guy – and I want a Raptor. That says a lot!
Disclosure: Ford Canada paid for my airfare, accommodations, meals and fuel and provided the vehicles for this test drive event.
If you enjoyed this review, feel free to check out my other vehicle reviews under the car reviews tab at the top of my blog.