First Drive: Ford Focus ST

The 80s hot hatch era died at the hands of insurance companies and joyriders but, thanks to cars like the Ford Focus ST, the market is having something of a resurgence…

Hatchbacks way hotter than the previous generation now litter our roads (and hedges) with anything less than 200hp being something of an embarrassment, and 300hp rapidly becoming the norm.

Ford arguably started the ball rolling with the 36-year-old Escort XR3i, and then set the bar higher with the RS Cosworth. While the RS name lives on, it’s reserved for the seriously potent motors, making this new ST the equivalent of that classic XR3i.

Don’t think that being the second rung on Ford’s performance ladder means it’s not potent enough though. Ford has squeezed the engine from the Mustang into the engine bay although, disappointingly, it’s ‘just’ the 2.3-litre turbocharged unit rather than the soulful 5.0-litre V8.

Yes, you can choose the sensible 2.0-litre diesel version, but then you might as well forego the ST model and stick with the showy but ordinary ST-Line. There’s also an estate option of both, if you ever have an emergency that requires transportation of a chest of drawers around Silverstone.

Not that those not in the know would have any idea you’re driving a fast Ford. There are twin exhausts, a roof spoiler, some smart 19-inch alloy wheels, a honeycomb grille and a smattering of grey detailing around the car, but it doesn’t scream for attention like an RS might. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is down to your own taste, of course. I’m certain I don’t have any taste, so want my hot hatches with spoilers, splitters, and possibly even flames.

The same trend continues inside. It’s all perfectly grown-up, taking the best bits of the existing Focus and adding just a little bit of faux-carbon fibre around, as well as a small ST badge in the steering wheel. There are some specific Ford Performance displays you can make appear in the digital screen between the instruments, but there’s little to remind you this is anything beyond the regular, very capable Focus.

Ford has tried harder with the oily bits though. There’s an electronic differential between the front wheels, aided by torque vectoring gadgetry, that allows power to be sent to either side as required, while the suspension now gets continuously variable dampers. These come together to proactively prevent wheelspin and torque steer, allowing you to take the route you planned around a corner rather than having the computers react to issues and try to recover things. Enormous brakes are aided by an electronic brake booster, bringing the Focus to a stop alarmingly quickly. They’re also far less prone to fading when used hard for some time.

That Mustang-derived engine creates an impressive 420Nm of torque, making in-gear acceleration brutal. The 0-62mph dash takes 5.7 seconds, which is quick for a front-wheel-drive car, and it’ll continue on to 155mph.

So it’s fast, stops well, and promises to do the twisty bits well. And it does, to a point. The Focus must always pull off the trick of being a family car, while the ST badge demands it goes like the clappers, and it’s tough work finding that compromise. Ford’s method is switchable driving modes but, as with so many cars, there’s no one mode that works as you’d want it to.

If you’re tempted to switch to Sport mode, the suspension firms up to a disappointingly uncomfortable degree, so stiff that it even makes it tricky to keep the car on its line through a bumpy curve. It also adds a huge amount of resistance and self-centring on the steering wheel which is, frankly, awful. There’s so much interaction from the differential and torque vectoring, often at unexpected moments, that you’re left guessing what might happen next. Leaving it in Normal softens the suspension and leaves the steering to be predictable if not ultimately involving. The diff and vectoring are toned down, making you wonder why they’re there in the first place, but you can’t help but feel like you’re being restrained a little.

The obvious solution is a Custom mode, as virtually every other manufacturer provides. Choose between soft suspension, firm differential, lighter steering, faster engine response, etc., and have the car tuned to the perfect setup for you. Unfortunately, you can’t do that in the Focus. It’s Normal, Sport, Slippery or Track. That last mode gives a clue as to where the ST might be at its best.

It’s so compromised that I spent a long time thinking I didn’t like the Focus ST, but I’d spent two days with it in Sport mode. Switching it back to Normal was a revelation, and transformed the car to what I almost wanted.

The Ford Focus ST is a good car. Realy, it’s a seriously good car, a four-star car, and it reflects well on Ford that expectations are set so high that what could be taken as a minor flaw in any other model makes such a difference in the ST. It’ll cover ground every bit as quick as its rivals, and perform family car duties with aplomb, but it stops just short of being great. It’s not held back by anything Ford can’t fix though, and there’s a lot of years left for the Focus to be worked on.

And then there’s the forthcoming RS model…

Model Tested: Ford Focus ST 2.3 EcoBoost
Price: £31,995
Range: £18,545 – £33,095
Top speed: 155 mph
0-62 mph: 5.7 seconds
Power: 280 PS (276 bhp)
Torque: 420 Nm (310 lb ft)
Monthly PCP*: £437
Official economy: 34.4 mpg
Road test economy: N/A
CO2 Emissions: 179 g/km
Car Tax: £145
Insurance group: 34E
* Monthly PCP estimate based on 20% deposit, 36 month term, 5% APR, final payment of 40%.
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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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