We wouldn’t ever judge a car solely on its 0-62mph time, but it was hard not to get distracted by the raw numbers when Ford released the automatic version of its Focus ST. These days, it’s an accepted thing for the manual to be the slower one, but in the case of the fast Focus, the seven-speed automatic is the more sluggish version.
By quite a margin, too - the auto Focus ST takes six seconds dead to cover the benchmark sprint, three tenths slower than the manual. But thankfully, this isn’t because Ford has shoved in an old-school slushbox from 1994.
It’s all down to the ratios. While the six-speed will just reach 62mph in second, the closer seven-speed ‘box requires a shift to third to hit the magic figure. Now that’s explained, we can move on.
The torque converter auto shifts reasonably quickly while lacking the immediacy of a dual-clutch unit, and any kind of aggression. It’s disappointing when it comes to the downshifts, where there’s a noticeable pause between pulling the left-hand paddle and something actually happening.
Speaking of which, the auto ST has some of the worst excuses for shifter paddles that I’ve ever come across. The apologetic little plastic tabs are no different to the ones found in any other non-ST auto Focus, and are even smaller than the stingily-proportioned parts VW Group insists on putting in its DSG-equipped cars like the Golf GTI. Kind of ironic when Ford has gone to the effort of sticking some fabulous (and very large) magnesium paddles into the slow, heavy Ranger Raptor.
There are some positives, though. The ‘box has a reasonably good grasp of the ratios it ought to be in when left to its devices, whether you’re pootling around or giving it what-for on the favoured back road. And unlike DSG and a lot of other modern transmissions, the ‘manual’ mode (selected via a button in the middle of the rotary gear selector) is true to its name. As well as stopping it downshifting under heavy throttle loads, it won’t shift for you if you hit the redline. Should you venture that far, there’s even a hard limiter to enjoy.
Even with the distraction of the new ‘box, the Focus ST’s good and bad points are still plain to see. In terms of the former, the chassis is impressive, with good lateral grip, unflappable stability and adaptive dampers that have a lot more bandwidth than many rival setups. There’s a noticeable difference between the damping setups in the driving modes here, giving a nice increase in comfort when you’re not pressing on.
Rather than use a mechanical limited-slip differential like its Fiesta ST little brother and the Honda Civic Type R, the hot Focus opts for a torque-distributing clutch pack. GKN developed it with knowhow gleaned from the trick all-wheel drive system used in the Focus RS.
It does a decent job of taming the 310lb ft the front wheels are expected to put up with, but it struggles in damp conditions more than some rivals. You also still get a sizeable helping of torque steer, although not the savage helping served up by the boisterous old Focus ST. Which is handy if you don’t want to feel like your arms are being wrenched out of their sockets.
This is perfectly liveable, but a bigger blot on the Focus ST’s report card is the steering. In Sport mode, it becomes far too heavy and springy, with a strong desire to self-centre. Switching to Normal doesn’t fix these issues entirely, although it does feel slightly better in this setting.
Factor in the nasty fake noise that gets pumped into the cabin, plus the frustrating realisation that Ford can’t make the fast Focus feel like a bigger version of the God-like Fiesta ST, and you have a hot hatch that’s a fair way down in our rankings.
Adding an automatic gearbox that’s reluctant to downshift and lacking when it comes to aggression doesn’t exactly help matters, particularly when the £1450 premium bumps the price to £34,710. If you’re after something with this kind of power and an auto ‘box for around that sum, make it a Golf GTI, or save some money and go for Hyundai’s new a dual-clutch i30 N.
Ford Focus ST automatic specs
Engine: ‘Ecoboost’ 2.3-litre inline-four turbo
Torque: 310lb ft
0-62mph: six seconds
Top speed: 155mph (limited)