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Car reviews - Ford - Focus - ST

Our Opinion

We like
Smooth ride, predictable handling, quiet cruising, comfortable and grippy Recaro seats
Room for improvement
Heavy electric steering, no auto option

11 Oct 2012

BUYING a hot hatch was once the province of young people, as much because you had to have a young and pliable body to withstand the inevitable pounding from the kart-like suspension that went hand in hand with high performance.

If the new Ford Focus ST is anything to go by, those days are well and truly over.

Driving the newest kid on the hot hatch block revealed a car that barely compromises ride quality while still delivering tremendous performance and a high level of handling prowess.

Exactly how this is achieved boggles the mind and we’re happy to put it down to modern automotive engineering wizardry, in which case we kneel at the altar in admiration and awe.

All we care about is that the ST delivers on the performance promised by the raw numbers for the 2.0-litre EcoBoost engine without giving a jab to the nether regions in the process, so you can enjoy the thrill of mashing the throttle and exploring the car’s limits on even a bumpy road.

There were enough potholes and rough surfaces to put the suspension to the test on this week’s national media launch in north-east Victoria, and the Focus ST – even on 18-inch alloys fitted with 40-series Goodyear Eagle F1 rubber – gathered them up in its stride as if it was tuned to be a family runabout.

Head for the hills, though, and the Focus ST is anything but a pussy. The accent on ride may have reduced its ultimate roadholding ability slightly, but the ST still grips the road with tenacity before eventually breaking traction at the limit with admirable progression, accompanied only by a slight squeal of tortured rubber.

With this level of adhesion and forgiveness, accompanied by some of the most sophisticated electronic control systems at this price level, you would have to be seriously deluded or hamfisted to get into trouble with this car, which has to be a consideration when channelling so much power through just the two steered wheels.

The ESC system has three settings, including off, but we found the default Normal setting to be suitable for even spirited driving, allowing a fair amount of slip, including wheelspin under strong acceleration from rest.

Much of the electronic nannying has been directed at the steering, of course, aimed at countering torque steer – the tendency for acceleration forces to rip the steering wheel from your hands in a bid to go straight ahead when accelerating while cornering, an affect that rises exponentially as you apply more power to the front wheels.

With 184kW of power and 360Nm of turbocharged grunt driving fiercely through the ST’s steered wheels, the electronics have a serious job on their hands and they do it well, although the forces and counterforces under hard acceleration can be felt through the your hands, leaving you less in direct control, yet at the same time confident that the ECU has everything in hand.

Less enjoyable was the feel of the steering in normal driving, a common complaint of ours with electric power steering systems where engineers are desperately trying to replicate the more natural feel of previous (but heavier) hydraulic systems.

In the ST, the goal was clearly a heavier or sporty feel at speed, but the result is a lifeless, dead and overly heavy feel with little self-centring, requiring constant attention and a bit of muscle that gets tiring after a while.

Ford promises a lighter feel around town and a fast ratio for easy parking, but there was little opportunity to experience this on the launch drive. The company also says the fast low-speed ratio means you can complete a U-turn without taking your hands off the wheel, which is commendable, but the 12-metre turning circle is a bit on the wide side.

At least the steering was direct, with little discernible slack, and there was no sign of rack rattle when the road surface turned rough mid-corner.

As for straight-line performance, the ST might fall half a second short of the hardcore limited-edition and big dollar RS, but you can hardly quibble over acceleration from 0 to 100km/h in 6.5 seconds from a $38,290 five-door hatch.

The new EcoBoost engine delivers its turbocharged performance smoothly with the torque pulling the car strongly from low revs in any gear and the power providing the top-end zing that makes for an exhilarating drive when the opportunity allows.

While the gearshift is hardly sportscar sharp, the flexibility of the engine means you don’t need to snap through the gears too much. The next corner might look like it needs second gear, but you can comfortably leave it in third and power through without fuss.

Some buyers might prefer an auto-shifting option, but none exists and Ford believes the market for such a car prefers a manual and has no intention of offering one in the future. That’s a pity because a car like this lends itself to paddle-shifting.

While the ST delivers 10 per cent more power than the XR5 Turbo, its fuel economy delivers on the eco promise by being officially 20 per cent lower with an impressive combined figure of just 7.4 litres per 100km. Of course, we didn’t get close to that on a lively launch drive.

Ford made much of its work on making the engine sound more grunty than other four-cylinder turbos and it certainly has a nice note, though not overly loud. And at cruising speeds it is commendably quite.

Ford has previously identified its performance models (including the XR5 Turbo) with its familiar GT stripes that date back to the 1960s and, while they are notably absent from the ST, a Ford executive indicated they might return in the future.

Another aspect of the ST that really impressed us was its comfort, thanks to body-hugging Recaro seats that provided tremendous support against the considerable cornering forces and proved to be extremely comfortable after long stints at the wheel.

Rear seat room seems to be tighter than we recall with the standard Focus, though, so it seems the Recaros are a bit deeper than the regular seats, making the back seat compromised for adults.

The Recaros also look good in their two-tone leather, matching the exterior colour, which is our case was the wild new hero colour called Tangerine Scream, which is really yellow rather than tangerine but still looks great.

But forget the passengers. Long stints at the wheel – especially when the road gets twisty and challenging – is just where you want to be with the Ford Focus ST, another engineering victory for the Blue Oval.

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