Car reviews - Ford - Focus - ST
Sublime steering and chassis responses and control, towering 2.0-litre turbo performance, outstanding drivetrain and suspension refinement, roomy cabin, lots of standard kit, comfy seats, regular Focus practicality, fixed-price servicing, outstanding value for money
Room for improvement
No auto option, some road noise intrusion, no digital speed readout, huge turning circle, thirsty when caned
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14 Dec 2012
IF HISTORY has taught us one thing, it is never to assume greatness will follow greatness.
Think any Oasis album since What’s the Story (Morning Glory?), The Matrix sequels or every Peugeot hot hatch after the seminal 205 GTi died.
Thankfully, the new Focus ST we have here – the third Sport Technologies model since the Mk1 (ST170) of a decade ago – is a brilliant follow-up to the 2006 Mk2 five-pot rocket sold in Australia as the XR5 Turbo.
But some of the key engineers behind the series, namely Richard Parry-Jones and Jost Capito of Team RS – have left Ford, meaning that there is no guarantee that the next-gen Focus hot hatch will be as good, let alone better. Look at how soft the Golf GTI became between the 1992 Mk2 and Mk5 of 2005.
That, however, is in the future.
Over the last couple of years, Ford has internationalised its operations completely, meaning Australia had to follow suit and drop the popular XR5 Turbo nameplate for ‘ST’.
No matter which market you are in, the changes over the regular models are the same … a 10mm ride height, stiffer springs, new dampers, wider anti-roll bars, a specific 18-inch wheel and tyre package and a turbo-charged EcoBoost version of the 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine powering most other Foci in Australia.
It’s related to the blown unit found in the impressive four-cylinder Falcon too.
The ‘pleasing more of the people more of the time’ ethos is also why the LW Focus is so much larger than before, and that – in turn – has led to more weight … just when the 2013 Mk7 Golf GTI is about to lose 100kg. More on the upshot of that later.
Design wise the ST is quite busy and not entirely harmonious to our eyes, looking a little like a Dust Buster with its gormless grille opening, while the carryover multi-spoke alloys are too similar to the cheaper Focus Sport. Surely Ford could have forked out for a fresh set of wheels for its small-car performance flagship?
Inside, after a slightly bewildering first meeting, the hot hatch barely puts a foot wrong.
Solid doors (complete with that hefty ‘thud’ when closed), open up to a surprisingly large cabin, a corollary of the upsizing this generation has undergone.
An at-first intimidatingly fussy dashboard meets the driver, so we do recommend taking the time to study the handbook because the sheer array of console buttons and controls can be bewildering. If more motoring journalists were less lazy and did this there would be less whinging about this interior.
Predictably, once mastered, the Focus’ fascia works with and not against you, thanks to switchgear layout that makes sense once you have learned the functions.
The tech-savvy might even grow to appreciate the SYNC voice control activation for the standard satellite navigation, audio, phone and climate functions, meaning that eyes can stay glued to the road instead of trying to decipher the busy centre console.
Indeed, in value-for-money terms, the ST is loaded. Five doors, six speeds, a full suite of airbags, sat-nav, rear camera with sensors, bi-Xenon headlights, alarm, climate control air-con and awesome two-tone Recaro seats up front. The only thing that’s missing is an auxiliary digital speedo readout – essential in speed-camera-obsessed Australia and essential in a Speedy Gonzales like this ...
In terms of driving position, the fast Ford excels, aided by a grippy little steering wheel, sensationally supportive sports buckets that adjust in myriad ways (though traversing the substantial side bolsters for some might be a challenge when getting inside), excellent ventilation and a good view out ahead.
However, thick side pillars hinder reversing vision, so it’s a good thing a camera and reverse parking sensors are included.
Speaking of looking back, the rear seat area, too, is sufficiently comfortable and quite roomy for a so-called small car, though taller folks ought to watch that they don’t snag their heads on the sweeping roofline climbing aboard. But as it is quite dark in there, a set of rear air vents wouldn’t go astray.
And as with all LW Focus hatchbacks, the luggage area is quite humungous, helped out by a wide-opening and low-silled aperture. There is no loss of practicality in this particular hot hatch.
Back at the business end of things, push the start button, and the 184kW/340Nm 2.0-litre turbo four-pot roars into life, idling impatiently for things to start moving and get going.
Despite the size and bulk of the car, it sprints off the line with steely determination, making a curious, mechanical, guttural noise (artificially enhanced via an ‘active sound symposer’ controlled exhaust flap) as it revs impatiently beyond its 5500rpm power max.
With the turbo spooling furiously, this is one rapid performer, bounding forward through each of its six gear ratios with complete disregard for speed limits or police radar. Yet even when tootling around town, off boost and in a semi comatose state, there is ample low-down oomph on command to turn the wick up fast.
Add what must be one of the world’s greatest gear shifts, weighty yet precise steering that is positively talkative in its feedback (you would not guess it’s electric) and a rock-steady four-square stance, and the supernaturally grippy ST zips through corners like they are gentle curves, ironing out the kinks, taking in the shocks, and keeping itself utterly composed and controlled. No sweat.
There is also no mechanical limited slip differential to help channel all that torque through to the front wheels cleanly, but the electronic stability control (ESC) brakes an inside wheel to keep things moving along swiftly.
Keep the electronic nannies on and there is some tail lift-off before the car (and driver) auto-corrects turn it off and a sudden off-throttle through a tight turn will have the ST’s rear snapping out without the safety net.
Part of the upgrade compared with regular Focus is an alphabet soup of chassis-control jargon: Torque Steer Compensation (TSC), Torque Vectoring Control (TVC), Cornering Under Steer Control (CUSC) and three settings for the ESC. For nearly all drivers nearly all of the time, these acronyms will see you through with a smile.
Those up for a fast cross-country blast will find the Focus pretty much unbeatable for the money.
Its gutsy turbo wallop, combined with absorbing, gripping chassis, is textbook hot hatch fun yet there’s a mechanical refinement and suspension suppleness that cosset the senses as surely as they stimulate them. Even around inner city Melbourne, even with its pock marked streets and traffic-calming bumps and ridges. Astounding.
The flipside is quite a bit of coarse surface road noise intrusion generated by the 235/40 R18 rubber a turning circle to shame the Titanic is another price to pay for such pampered yet precise poise, while the fuel consumption – by dint of the ST’s not inconsiderable 1439kg kerb weight – is too often on the wrong side of 13 litres per 100km.
But considering the invigorating performance and multi textured dynamics, that’s to be expected.
If we had to place the new ST along a hot hatch scale we’d put the Ford somewhere between the overall refinement of the (more expensive) Golf GTI and the manic sub-supercar mayhem of the incomparable (though also exxier) Renaultsport Megane 265.
Yet the Focus rides better than the Volkswagen and very nearly outshines the French car when the going gets ballistic. It is a superlative effort.
So you live to drive hard and fast but can’t (or won’t) cop a coupe like a Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ, find the Golf too obvious, and the Renault too raw. Here’s the answer.
It might sound like a Steven Bradbury default win for the Focus, but in reality the ST is one of those cars that can do it all.
Certainly Ford has enviable heritage and impressive form in the hot-hatch field. Now, our concern is whether it will be able to keep the momentum going.
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