Does the new Ford Focus ST take us back to the days of hot hatch hooliganism?
The new Focus ST has a big job on its hands. Ford’s jacked the price up to £32,000, which means it’s competing directly with the likes of the more powerful Civic Type R and high-spec Golf GTIs. The Ford also sits some £5k above the similarly powerful Hyundai i30N.
Thankfully, all is not lost. The big news is that it’s a world away from the torque steering mess of the previous model, which never quite hit the mark.
But can this all-new stab at the Focus ST do enough to tempt you away from any of the other excellent hot hatch options we're currently being spoiled by? We headed to the hills above Nice in the South of France to find out.
Faster than an RS?
Ford’s chucked out the old car’s 2.0-litre turbocharged engine and replaced it with a 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbo engine that’s similar to the one you’ll find in the Ecoboost Mustang. Before you roll your eyes having just remembered such a Mustang exists, check out the stats. In Focus ST form the 2.3 puts out 280hp and 420Nm of torque – so it has more shove than the 190bhp, 400Nm diesel engine that’s also available in the new ST.
We only drove the petrol version, and Ford expects 80 per cent of ST buyers to go for gas-powered versions.
So what’s the petrol engine like? Prod the ST's starter button and it fires up into a muscular burble, although a slightly synthetic drone gets piped into the cabin in sport mode as you get through the revs. It’s fine for most driving. but when you get high up in the rev range and sit there you’re left focusing on just how artificial the noise is.
Chances are, however, you’ll be distracted by how hard the ST punches.
It’ll get from 0-62mph in 5.7 seconds, but it feels strong anywhere above the magic 3,000rpm. It shunts you along to the soft rev-limiter at 6,500rpm, and if you slam home another gear as you get towards that point you’ll occasionally be treated to a satisfying crackle from the twin (real) exhaust tips. It’s not as yobbish sounding as the Hyundai i30N and its firecracker exhaust, but it’s still more vocal and more likely to make you grin than the Type R’s anodyne groaning.
Ford's keen to point out that it's included a form of anti-lag in the new ST, which keeps exhaust gases spinning the turbo even when you come off the throttle, which means you get immediate shove when you go back onto the accelerator. Just don't go expecting rally-style explosions coming from the exhaust.
In terms of raw straight-line pace, Ford reckons that the ST is now quicker in-gear than the Mk3 Focus RS, and it certainly feels that way. Surf the torque in third and fourth gear and you’ll quickly have some slightly worrying numbers on the speedo.
It flows with the road like a bright orange wave of fun
No, I've not gone completely soft in the head. We live in an age of hot hatches that are as fast through a corner as any modern sports car, and Ford’s offering can finally join the big boys.
Thanks to an electronically controlled differential and continuously variable dampers, the Focus ST feels impressively agile down a twisty road. Ford says it has the fastest steering of any of their models at two turns lock to lock, and despite the slightly over-heavy feel from the wheel in Sport and Track modes, it’s a peach to chuck around.
While the i30N and Type R feel pretty locked down and planted in a corner, the ST feels like a cheeky scamp, with the back wheels dancing around in a little bit of controllable lift-off oversteer as you brake into a turn.
That said, it doesn’t quite reach the laugh-out-loud levels of fun that you experience in its younger brother, the Fiesta ST, and in the Focus you have to be driving a fair bit quicker to get into the zone where you can really have fun with it.
It’s not going to set lap times anywhere near those of the Honda, but you can tell Ford’s approaching their hot hatch from a more fun, less serious angle – despite sticking pretty sticky Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres on it.
Oh, and speaking of grip – if we’re being really picky then the electronic differential will still easily be overwhelmed by all that torque and we had more than one occasion where the car just understeered out of corners on full power. Yes, it's an oafish way to drive, but the similarly priced Type R has lots more power and will still just grip in situations like this.
Engineered for your childish amusement
Ford’s done a pretty comprehensive job of making the ST feel more special than the regular Focus. The gear shift is noticeably shorter in its throw, and although it’s not quite as snickety as the Type R’s gear change, Ford has at least given it a satisfyingly chunky feel and a metal gear knob that feels nice in the hand. Compared to the i30N’s vague shift and plasticky knob, it’s heaven.
Likewise, the Recaro bucket seats that come as standard in all ST models hug you like an overly protective bear, leaving you free to focus on adhering to your local traffic laws rather than avoiding unfortunate touching of your passenger's body parts.
The steering wheel’s your usual flat-bottomed affair and you’ll either love or loathe its slight squishy feeling. New for the ST is an S button which will take you straight into sport mode regardless of your current driving mode, and there’s a mode switch for cycling between the slippery, normal, sport and track settings.
It's a pity you can't have the sport-mode engine response with the friendlier weight of 'normal' steering
The Track setting is unlocked as part of the £250 performance pack – which also adds rev matching – and it does the usual job of sharpening the throttle, steering and even brake response, while slackening off the stability control to give the Focus ST an ever lairier ability to dance through corners a bit sideways.
If you have a serious dislike for your front tyres then you’ll be delighted to know that the performance pack also unlocks launch control. To activate you just stick the car in track mode, then every time you come to a stop the dash will ask if you want to activate launch control. Click OK using the steering wheel controls, depress the clutch pedal, floor the throttle and then sidestep the clutch.
When we tried it the car didn’t exactly do the most, erm, efficient, of starts, but it did spin the front tyres to the top of first gear leaving about 30 metres of molten rubber smeared onto the Tarmac. Think of it more as a smoke and laughter generator rather than a serious performance enhancement – like those male enhancement products you find sold in the loos in a pub.
Should I buy one?
The new Ford Focus ST brings a welcome new take on the hot hatch. It slots comfortably in among the current crop of favourites, and gives you a looser, less serious approach to going quickly, with more emphasis on driving fun than lap times. It still has all the usual Focus niceties, such as good rear legroom, pretty decent infotainment and so on – and it’s also available in eye-meltingly bright Orange Fury. And it deserves points for that alone.
Don’t come to it expecting the last word in grip or traction, and be prepared to enjoy it for the agile, slidey little thing it is – and you’ll bloody love it.
The only significant downside is that price – for the same money you could have the much faster Type R or the badge value of the VW Golf GTI TCR. But to be honest, there’s not been this much choice of great hot hatches in a very long time.