Ford Focus ST Review: A Solid Hot Hatch With One Button You Should Avoid

The new Focus ST is a big step up from the last one, but weirdly, it's best enjoyed in 'Normal' mode...

The last Ford Focus ST had three main things going for it: it was quick, it was cheap, and you could have it in ‘Tangerine Scream’ orange.

The trouble was, you got what you paid for. More expensive rivals had far more polish than the ST with its over-firm damping and savage torque-steering tendencies, the latter issue made worse with a weird system which tried (and failed) to compensate by fiddling with the power steering assistance on the fly.

The biggest problem with the Focus ST is it didn’t - as you might have hoped - feel like a bigger version of the brilliant Fiesta ST. Now there’s a new version of both, with the latest hot Fiesta somehow managing to top the God-like genius old one. But the newest ST’d Focus? That’s not quite so easy to judge.

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Ford has certainly thrown plenty of tech at it. It’s been given the 2.3-litre Ecoboost inline-four engine from the Mustang, with a kinda/sorta anti-lag system inspired by the Ford GT’s. It has a newly developed electronically-controlled limited-slip differential, and adaptive dampers that monitor various parameters every two milliseconds.

Getting out of the old one and into this would be like switching from an abacus to an iPhone X. The fifth and sixth-generations of the Fiesta ST are very much kindred spirits, but that simply isn’t the case with the third and fourth-gen ST Foci - Ford is trying something different here, and it’s trying rather hard.

Ford - Ford Focus ST Review: A Solid Hot Hatch With One Button You Should Avoid - Features

Complication is not necessarily what you want in a hot hatch, though, and a simple press of the Sport button (there was no such thing in the previous-gen car) suggests that we might have been right to worry about the ST turning into a tech-fest. The throttle pedal becomes more responsive (good), the exhaust gets louder (also good), the dampers firm up (fine), and the very fast steering decides it wants to be absurdly heavy (oh dear).

I’m not sure where this ‘heavy steering= sporty’ thing - of which BMW are particular fans - came from, but it really has to stop. Set the Focus in Sport, and every flick of the wheel is not especially pleasant - it’s a stodgy, artificial kind of weight, accompanied by a weirdly springy self-centring feeling.

At least it doesn’t get any stickier in Track mode. The ST’s angriest drive mode switches the ESP to a less intrusive ‘Sport’ setting and makes everything little more aggressive, but what you’re better off doing is ignoring both modes and sticking to ’Normal’.

Ford - Ford Focus ST Review: A Solid Hot Hatch With One Button You Should Avoid - Features

This is more like it. I don’t have an issue with the damping in the other two modes, but in Normal, there’s a little more give in the shocks, meaning the car flows slightly better over undulations and tricky camber changes. Most importantly, the steering isn’t so damn odd. The weight is about right, and although the wheel is still too keen to snap back to the middle, it isn’t as fanatical about doing so. Going for ‘Normal’ also means the rev-matching system is turned off, although I’d be happier with it on - the Focus ST’s pedal layout doesn’t make for easy heel-and-toe shenanigans.

Without the steering being such a distraction, it’s possible to finally Focus (sorry) on the stuff the ST does well. For instance, its balance in the faster, more flowing stuff - here, it’s secure, confident, and up for being manhandled. However ham-fisted the pilot, he or she will be flattered.

Ford - Ford Focus ST Review: A Solid Hot Hatch With One Button You Should Avoid - Features

The clever e-diff is an interesting one. Technically, it’s not an LSD at all - it’s a clutch-based system that sits outside of the differential casing. It’s been developed using lessons learned from the GKN-supplied rear axle of the four-wheel drive RS, and is able to send up to 100 per cent of torque to either front wheel. In other words, it’s more like a VW Golf GTI Performance or Hyundai i30 N, rather than a Honda Civic Type R with its comparatively old-fashioned mechanical Torsen diff.

It’s set apart from the Fiesta ST too, which in Performance Pack trim gets a geared torque-biasing differential from UK-based firm Quaife. Why isn’t it the same in the Focus? It’s so the steering feedback isn’t corrupted, Ford says.

Ford - Ford Focus ST Review: A Solid Hot Hatch With One Button You Should Avoid - Features

Sure enough, there isn’t that characteristic tug through the wheel when you’re pushing the envelope. But at the same time, you don’t get that sensation of the front end being nudged back into line under power as you do with a lot of the ST’s rivals. It’s not quite capable enough for that.

That said, getting the Focus ST to push on into understeer - without merely steaming into a corner at an entry speed as unrealistic as a Michael Bay film - takes some effort. And more effort, I’d have thought, than 90 per cent of ST buyers would ever want to go to when out for a spirited drive.

Ford - Ford Focus ST Review: A Solid Hot Hatch With One Button You Should Avoid - Features

Speaking of which, many who take the ST plunge will no doubt brag about having a Focus RS engine in their Ford, but that’s not strictly true. It’s closer to the Mustang 2.3 than the one in the now-departed RS.

Does that matter? Well, you won’t be wanting for straight-line performance - it develops 276bhp and 310lb ft of torque, shooting you from 0-62mph in just 5.7 seconds. There’s even a launch control system with the £800 Performance Pack if you want to engage in some particularly speedy getaways from the traffic lights.

Ford - Ford Focus ST Review: A Solid Hot Hatch With One Button You Should Avoid - Features

Keeping the displacement high and the turbo boost pressure high, and recirculating the exhaust gasses to keep the turbo-spooled (as I said, a ‘kinda/sorta’ anti-lag system) mean it’s reasonably responsive too. But its range of operation isn’t exactly wide, and the gearing doesn’t make the most of what the 2.3 does have to give.

Every tight-ish bend gives the same dilemma: do I go for second or third? Opt for the former, and you’ll be beyond the 5500rpm peak power mark and in the territory of the soft limiter. Choose the latter, and you might find yourself below 3500rpm, the mark at which the ST starts to get into its stride. For a turbo engine, it’s a late bloomer.

If you are in its sweet spot, there’s no denying that it builds speed impressively. It sounds, like a lot of inline-fours, inoffensive rather than particularly interesting. Sport and Track modes add fake noise, although I never found this objectionable.

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All of this might make it seem like the Ford Focus ST is a mixed bag, but the good stuff outweighs the bad by a big margin. It’s just a shame the ‘Normal’ steering can’t be combined with the engine in ‘Sport’ - that’s where the car would surely be at its best. Ford reckons most customers tend to play with configurable drive modes once before abandoning them for the rest of their ownership spell, so the ST hasn’t been given that kind of functionality.

This is a good time to bring up the price. Remember how the old one was cheap? This one, as a consequence of all that added stuff, isn’t. We were expecting a decent increase in price, but the £31,995 entry point is punchier than we might have imagined.

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Admittedly, £32k bags you a Focus ST with most of the stuff you’re going to want - the old ST-1, ST-2 and ST-3 specs have been ditched for one generously decked-out derivative. But that figure does put it perilously close to a Honda Civic Type R GT.

The Focus may have a better infotainment system and a marginally nice interior (weirdly naff instrument cluster aside), but the Civic is in another league dynamically. It only asks that you can live with all its wings and angles. If you can’t, the Hyundai i30 N Performance is next in the imaginary ‘let’s fight the new Focus ST’ queue, costing £4000 less and packing a lot more aural drama than the Ford. Get the two together - something we might just do at some point - and the Blue Oval is going to seem more sensible, I fear.

Ford - Ford Focus ST Review: A Solid Hot Hatch With One Button You Should Avoid - Features

It’s doubtful any of this will matter. Fast Ford buyers are a loyal bunch, and a significant chunk will almost certainly sign up regardless of whatever anyone says. They’ll be taking the keys to an ST that’s leaps and bounds better than the old one when driven fast, very practical and just about shouty enough to look at.

Will they be getting a Focus ST that finally feels like an upsized version of the much-celebrated fast Fiesta? Sadly not. But hey, at least the Focus has closed the gap.