There’s a new Fast Ford on the block, and that means it’s time to get excited. The Focus ST is a very important car for the Blue Oval, as 50 per cent of UK hot hatch sales go on a relatively even split between the ST and the Golf GTI.
It’s also a huge time for Ford Performance, the new singular name for SVT, Ford Racing and Team RS; FP is behind the recently revealed GT, Mustang GT350R and Raptor, and promises 12 performance models before 2020. This updated Focus ST is the first of the new era. No pressure, then.
Last year when we ran the fourth-generation Sports Technology Focus, I absolutely loved it. The interior left a lot to be desired and it took a while to get used to the bundles of torque steer that front-wheel drive and an unsophisticated front differential bring, but once you got tuned into the car’s attitude the speed you carry is highly impressive.
Since the fast, fourth-gen Focus, I’ve driven a range of new, and highly impressive FWD performance cars, including the Seat Leon Cupra 280, the Renaultsport Megane 275 Trophy, and the Peugeot RCZ R. All these cars have me curious about whether Ford’s ‘global car’ strategy will dilute the performance Focus, and thus leave the ST lagging behind some incredibly accomplished rivals. I still want it to be rough and ready and waiting to bite… just with updated technology in the background reigning everything in - a more practical RCZ R, if you will.
Lined up outside Barcelona-El Prat Airport are a colourful mix of hatchbacks and wagons, petrols and diesels. Considering you’d dub the Focus ST a hot hatch, the fast wagon might be seen as the quirky choice here (despite being available on previous STs), but it’s actually the appearance of a diesel that’s most intriguing. It’s a 2.0-litre TDCI, and is a more rapid version of the latest generation Duratorq lumps.
“Will the Focus ST be left behind by its rivals as Ford forges ahead with its global car strategy?”
Ford’s engineers have got to work reducing friction in the engine, revising the air intake system, and recalibrating the electronic engine controls for the performance-oriented variant. The result is 183bhp (up from the standard diesel’s 148bhp) and 295lb ft of torque, while 0-62mph takes a fairly impressive 8.1 seconds.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that means it’s punchier low down in the rev range than the petrol car; or at least it should be. Unfortunately the real world experience doesn’t quite match up, as the torque comes over a narrow band and once you get past 3500rpm, it feels like there’s not much left to give. I found this out during one particularly optimistic overtaking manoeuvre on two dawdling locals.
It’s highly impressive for a diesel, though - rattly on startup but when you’re really pressing on the synthesised noise in the cabin makes for a thrummy soundtrack. That said, I’m not a huge fan of this Duratorq motor, and would be reluctant to call it hot; it’s warm at a push.
It’s still a great steer though, and would be ideal as a fleet car as it brings the basic ST experience without the high running costs of the petrol. Couple it with a wagon and you’ve got the ideal mix of practicality and affordability. Our car was painted in Stealth Grey with black alloy wheels and looked absolutely fantastic.
Back at the hotel it’s time to swap cars and give the petrol hatchback a go. Naturally I make a bee-line for a Tangerine Scream hatchback, the proper ST colour in my eyes. The interior surroundings might be familiar to the diesel wagon, but as soon as you thumb the starter button and pull away it’s clear this is going to be a different beast.
Under that bright yellow bonnet sits a 2.0-litre turbocharged inline-four making 247bhp and 266lb ft of torque. 0-62mph takes 6.5 seconds in this car, which sounds to me much more like hot hatch territory. It’s actually a surprisingly malleable engine; first and second gear are largely redundant during hard driving as the wheels spin up and scrabble for grip, taking the steering wheel with them. In third and above, however, the power is beautifully contained, allowing you to plant your foot with only the slightest tug.
On the gorgeous twisting roads surrounding Montserrat, high above Barcelona, I rarely take the car out of third gear. There’s enough grunt low down to pull you out of slower corners, and the unique-to-ST ratios are long enough to mean you’re not immediately slamming into the rev limiter once the variable cam timing kicks into power mode. For eight-tenths of road driving it’s ideal, and interestingly the same can be said of the diesel; leave it in third and enjoy the ride.
As with any performance car trying to put power through the front wheels, the differential is highly important, and the Focus’ system excels. There are a few strings to the stability system’s bow, which ensure you keep it on the black stuff. Most impressive is the new Enhanced Transitional Stability (ETS) system, which senses when the vehicle is losing grip and brakes wheels individually to maintain traction.
There’s also an update to the Electronic Torque Vectoring Control settings, and you can feel the loaded wheel suddenly bite as the torque is shifted to the most valuable wheel. Don’t like electronic interference? There are three modes that allow you to dictate just how much nannying the car applies.
“The hardest question is whether you should get petrol or diesel, hatchback or wagon.”
The fact you can feel the grip shifting about underneath you is most impressive, due to the fact that the Focus ST uses electric steering. It’s one of the better systems I’ve used. The weighting is beautifully-judged without any bizarre changes in resistance. While you don’t feel the road through your fingertips, the car’s behaviour is transmitted through the chassis, so you never feel at a loss for feedback.
The suspension has also been updated, with the springs and shock absorbers stiffened. It’s just on the right side of harsh; it’s clear the car is stiffly sprung but casual driving isn’t full of constant frustrating jiggles and crashes to the cabin.
If you’ve spent any time in a pre-facelift Focus, you’ll instantly feel at home. It’s largely the same as before but with one key difference - most of the buttons are mercifully gone. When we ran our long-term ST last year, we counted 40+ buttons in the cabin, which was, to be polite, an unintuitive mess.
Fortunately this time around there are just a few essential knobs and twisty bits, with most of the car’s functions moved to an eight-inch touch screen, running the Sync 2 connectivity system. It all works rather swimmingly, though the sat nav did struggle with Spanish road name pronunciation.
The Recaro seats are wonderful, the ST wheel is comfortable and a perfect size - even though it is one of those stupid because race car flat-bottomed jobbies - and those famous Focus ST oil temperature, oil pressure and turbo pressure gauges remain.
So which combination should you get? The first question is: petrol or diesel? If you want this car purely for its driving dynamics and for tearing up B-roads without a care for what that does to your wallet, get the petrol. It tones down the previous generation’s bitey behaviour just enough to feel grown up and refined, while ensuring you have to keep your wits about you. The diesel is the perfect option for someone who does a lot of miles each year, but never thought they could take the plunge into ST ownership. Just don’t expect it to tear your face off.
Wagon or hatchback? Well here’s where it’s purely down to personal preference. Ford reckons 85 per cent of customers will go for the hatchback, and I’d agree with those buyers purely because I prefer the styling, but there is honestly no difference between the two when driving hard on the road. Yes, you might notice that extra weight on the rear axle during a particularly flamboyant track day, but as hard as you’ll drive it on the road you’d never know the difference.
There are three trim levels available, with a £1100 premium for the wagon over the hatchback, but there are no differences in price between each petrol and diesel. (This will no doubt contribute to Ford’s projection that sales between the two will be largely 50/50.)
Prices start at £22,195 for the ST-1 hatchback (though only two per cent of buyers go for this trim), topping out at £25,995 for the ST-3 hatch, or £27,095 for its wagon sibling.
As Ford makes its way into an exciting new era of performance motoring, this Focus ST is a bloody good place to start. More revolution than evolution, it’s moved its own game on considerably and should continue to dominate hot hatch sales. Funnily enough, Ford might have just given you another option. A Ford Mustang EcoBoost for just £2000 more than the most expensive ST? Now that is mighty tempting…