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First drive: Ford's more focussed ST170

Focussed: Small Ford range-topper is a pin-sharp handler with Euro feel.

More power, equipment and better handling make ST170 the pick of Ford's Focus bunch

2 May 2003

IT'S not often a car-maker admits one of its models will never get the recognition it deserves, but that's exactly what Ford has done with its new Focus flagship, the three-door ST170 hatch.

Launched to the media in Melbourne this week, the hottest Focus so far is expected to attract just 120 new homes over the remainder of this year, and for sales to tick over at a relatively slow 20 units per month thereafter.

Both Holden and Toyota are expected to predict higher sales volumes for performance versions of their small cars, the Astra SRi Turbo and Corolla Sportivo respectively - which are also due on sale in May. Incidentally, the 147kW Astra is expected to be priced line-ball with ST170 at $36,990, while the 140kW Corolla is likely to undercut both Toyota and Ford's offerings.

Ford cites a lack familiarity with the Focus nameplate, which replaced Laser as Ford Australia's small car entrant in September this year, as one reason overall Focus sales have so far fallen short of projections. Ford also concedes the Focus launch was badly timed, with the facelifted BA Falcon - also released in September 2002 - stealing much of its thunder.

All of which is a shame, because Focus ST170 is the best small performance car Ford has produced in living memory.

In the absence of the stove-hot Focus RS sold in other markets, ST170 joins Ford Australia's range at the top-end from May 1, out-performing and out-pricing the three and five-door Zetec models with a single, three-door ST variant priced at $37,000.

GoAuto has listed the ST170's vital statistics previously, suffice to say the most expensive Focus is available only with Imperial Blue paint and sets itself apart with a full bodykit featuring front, rear and side skirts, hatch spoiler, unique projector-style foglights and ST170 badging.

The ST170 name refers to its engine output in the PS measure, which equates to 127kW at 7000rpm. The fettled, "Duratec ST" version of Zetec's 2.0-litre four-cylinder also produces 196Nm of torque - significantly more than the Zetec which offers 96kW and 178Nm.

The extra urge comes courtesy of larger inlet valves and higher-lift intake and exhaust camshafts, continuously variable intake valve timing, higher compression, cast-aluminium pistons, forged steel conrods, dual-mass flywheel, dual-stage intake manifold and a larger-bore stainless steel exhaust system.

All this is attached to a close-ratio Getrag six-speed manual transmission that actually comprises two lay shafts to produce two different final drive ratio - one for first, second, fifth and sixth ratios, the other for third, fourth and reverse ratios.

In a car weighing 1208kg, the result is a claimed 0-100km/h dash time of around 8.0 seconds and a top speed close to 230km/h.

Responding to suggestions this is the engine the Zetec should have had under its bonnet, Ford concedes ST170 will not offer as much performance as either of its forthcoming hot-hatch rivals, but insists ST170 is the car to have if handling is the higher priority.

Central to this is a retuned sports suspension package. The MacPherson strut front suspension comprises new front springs, dampers and lower control arms, plus 10 per cent stiffer spring rates and larger anti-roll bars all round.

The braking upgrade comprises larger diameter (300mm front, 280mm rear) brake discs, unique callipers, four-channel ABS, traction control and the VDC AdvanceTrac stability system, while the standard car's power steering gearing was also revised. Complementing all that are unique 15-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels and low profile tyres.

Inside there's a silver-faced instrument panel, including additional analogue gauges for oil temperature and oil pressure. Sports seats with leather-trimmed bolsters are standard, along with drilled metallic pedal covers with rubber grips, as well as metallic highlights on the face of the leather gear lever knob, the release button of the leather-wrapped hand brake, the door handles and door sills.

Standard equipment is comprehensive and includes air-conditioning, six-CD audio system, power windows/mirrors, remote central locking and dual front and side airbags.


REGARDLESS of the competition to come, ST170 is quite clearly a quality hot hatch with the performance, equipment and, most significantly, handling to warrant its position at the top of the Focus tree.

The now familiar "edge" exterior stying is followed through faithfully to the interior, where the ST adds to lesser Focus' angular theme in a number of convincing areas, such as the drilled alloy-look pedals, extra gauges, metallic highlights and sports instruments.

The sportier leather seat bolsters, extra equipment and more advanced safety package are also immediately obvious, as is the raspy exhaust note that produces a refreshingly seductive note on start-up.

Sure, the engine delivers on other fronts too, propelling the ST's three-door body with impressive gusto and low to middling revs - and revving crisply and cleanly all the way to a surprising 7200rpm redline.

Combined with a sweet-shifting six-speed manual transmission, it is enough to provide mild intrusion to the well sorted steering system - and there's always plenty of urge at higher revs - but the lasting impression is that this engine is perfectly suited to this sharpened Focus chassis.

Which, in fact, is the ST170's biggest surprise. Firm enough to maintain a flat stance even during ambitious cornering but compliant enough to soak up the nastiest of Victorian backroad potholes without complaint, the suspension tune is exactly what you would expect from a European hot hatch.

Attached to what is clearly a structurally solid bodyshell, the ST feels tight and responsive at all times. Throw in direct, communicative steering and an abundance of mid-corner grip and the ST170 is a car that revels in point-to-point motoring without compromising straightline stability.

On the short gravel stretch we encountered on the launch, the ST maintained its composure with or without the AdvanceTrac stability control switched on. There was more front wheelspin without its assistance, but directional stability or torque steer were never an issue.

Brakes are another strong point, the beefed-up all-disc system with four-channel ABS providing consistently strong, confidence-inspiring retardation all day.

Yes, the ST170 falls short in a couple of minor areas, such as its lack of a driver's footrest, cruise control and a lockable glovebox, but it compensates for this with a fully adjustable driving position (including a reach and height-adjustable steering wheel), practical rear-seat space and a distinctively Euro driving feel.

The hottest Focus may well be out-powered on paper by a couple of imminent new arrivals, but it would be a mistake to dismiss this pin-sharp hot hatch before you drive it.

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