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First drive: Ford Focus ST. Image by Ford UK.

First drive: Ford Focus ST
Big power and torque for the all-new Focus ST Mk4, but has Ford got this hot hatch right?

 



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Ford Focus ST

4 4 4 4 4

Ford's back for another crack at the C-segment hot hatch title with the most powerful Focus ST yet. Can it topple some glitteringly talented, heavyweight contenders from the Far East, though, in the form of the Honda Civic Type R and the Hyundai i30 N? Time to find out.

Test Car Specifications

Model tested: Ford Focus ST EcoBoost 2.3 manual hatchback
Pricing: Focus ST from 29,495; EcoBoost hatch from 31,995
Engine: 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: front-wheel drive, six-speed manual with eLSD and Torque Vectoring
Body style: five-door hot hatch
CO2 emissions: 179g/km (VED Band 171-190: 855 first 12 months, then 145 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 35.7mpg
Top speed: 155mph
0-62mph: 5.7 seconds
Power: 280hp at 5,500rpm
Torque: 420Nm at 3,000-4,000rpm
Boot space: 375-1,354 litres

What's this?

The Ford Focus ST and in case you're wondering, orange is not the only colour. Although it has become synonymous with the 'second tier' performance Focus over the years, as the Mk2 ST was most easily spotted in Electric Orange while the 250hp Mk3's signature shade was Tangerine Scream. Although we can't remember the original ST170 of 2002-2004 coming in anything but grey or blue.

Anyway, the fourth take on the Sports Technologies Focus packs a 2.3-litre all-aluminium four-cylinder turbo petrol engine. It is, of course, derived from the one you'd find in a Mustang or, perhaps more pertinently, the Mk3 Focus RS, although Ford calls it a 'new generation' mill. Mention of the FRS is apt because Ford says, with 420Nm, the ST Mk4 is faster in-gear than the RS Mk3. Big claim.

This newcomer, which also punts out 280hp for a 5.7-second 0-62mph time and a top speed of 155mph, enjoys some serious Ford Performance know-how in the chassis department. It has Continuously Controlled Dampers (CCD), a Borg-Warner electronically controlled limited-slip differential (eLSD), Torque Vectoring, 15 per cent quicker than a standard Focus' EPA-steering, a six-speed manual gearbox with a seven per cent shorter throw action (a seven-speed auto will join the line-up later in the year), big discs all round with an Electronic Brake Booster, anti-lag technology in its sharpest modes (Sport in all cars, Sport or Track in those equipped with the optional Performance Pack), an Engine Sound Enhancement (ESE) gizmo, rev-matching on downshifts and a set of Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres.

All sounds good. But at 31,995 as tested, that's right in the 320hp Honda Civic Type R's ballpark and it puts it a good four grand up the road from the brilliant Hyundai i30 N Performance. Beyond the 280hp petrol Ford five-door, you can choose to have your Focus ST in Estate guise for an additional 1,100 (the wagon is 35kg heavier than the 1,508kg hatch so does 0-62mph a tenth slower at 5.8 seconds), or you can go for a completely different flavour and option up the 2.0-litre turbodiesel EcoBlue engine with 190hp and 400Nm; the hatch costs from 29,495, the Estate 30,595, and the 0-62mph times here are 7.6 seconds for the former and 7.7 for the latter. Both TDCi STs top out at 136mph, although they will return more like 60mpg combined, rather than the petrol cars' 35.7mpg figure.

Styling-wise, the Focus ST is underplayed, eye-searing orange paint notwithstanding. It looks very similar to a regular Focus in this-very-model-mimicking ST-Line trim, what with its roof spoiler, 19-inch smoked grey alloys, hexagon-pattern front grille, grey exterior details and twin exhausts (now either spaced apart or clustered to one side, meaning the ST can be fitted with a tow bar... if you need it to perform hauling tasks), so picking either Orange Fury or Performance Blue is the only sure-fire way to let bystanders know you haven't got a 1.0-litre EcoBoost ST-Line. Inside is much the same story: nicely done, with good infotainment, lots of space front and rear, a superb driving position and some lovely-looking ST-branded Recaros, but the plain instrument cluster dials and 'hmmmmmm' carbon-effect trim finish round the cabin's beltline hardly make this car scream 'I'M AN ST!' at its driver. Some of the Ford's rivals do sporty interior ambience better than this.

How does it drive?

Beautifully, but only if you keep it in the Normal drive mode. While it is never as bone-shakingly hard to ride in as the Renault Sport Megane RS 280 Cup, we drove the Focus ST petrol hatch for a protracted period on the roads around Nice in France. This is not a 'Wish You Were Here'-style gloat, you understand, but rather our way of saying the ride in Sport or Track was quite often too firm on smooth French roads. So we dread to think what it will feel like back on Blighty's crumbling surfaces.

That's not our main bugbear with Sport or Track modes, though. No, it's the steering. Ugh, Ford Performance has not got this one right. Like its almost universally brilliant stablemate, the Fiesta ST, the hot Focus has a really strong self-centring action to its steering. This is unpleasant enough in Normal mode, but it is exacerbated by more aggressive behaviour from the eLSD, Torque Vectoring and the EPAS' predictive efforts to minimise wheelspin/torque-steer in both Sport and Track, with the whole thing overlaid with spongy yet oddly heavy weighting that just makes the steering, well... wrong. After miles and miles in Sport or Track, with a look of distaste on our face, we switched back to Normal and it felt like a revelation. It's maybe slightly too light in this mode, with too much play around dead centre and still some of the over-eager self-centring bite to it, but it's a purer interface between driver and the front axle when the car is in its relaxed setting.

Fortunately, all is not lost. Because, in Normal mode, the Focus ST is a genuine delight to drive quickly. Its fluid and supple damping makes it feel lithe and limber and lissom across ground - makes it feel, in fact, like some of the best performance Fords of years gone by - and manages to bely both its large unsprung alloys at each corner and the sheer challenge of trying to channel 420Nm into the front pair of Michelins effectively. It's also indecently quick, that 280hp motor hitting hard and making the ST one of the more potent cars in the class, if not quite as ferocious as a CTR when it's on a roll. Decent enough sound from the four-pot too, accepting the synthetic nature of its engine note at higher revs will annoy some people and that the de rigueur 'pop-thud-rumble' exhaust notes of any 21st century hot hatch are a bit muted here.

Nevertheless, tie it all together and the Focus ST is properly exciting and rewarding to drive; and yet it maintains its civil, comfortable air for those times when you just need it to amble around town or cruise along an open A-road at a steady gait. Its ride and noise suppression are second-to-none in this class or any other hot hatch you care to mention, so the Ford seems to balance off day-to-day usability with a healthy dose of B-road fun better than the likes of the Skoda Octavia vRS or Peugeot 308 GTi.

Which is why it's a shame we've got to end this section on another couple of gripes. Given that Sport and Track feel like they're only going to be in their element on a velvet-smooth circuit, it would be nice if Ford had added a fifth drive mode to the roster, one which allowed you to match the Normal steering and damping with the Sport/Track-setting for the engine and eLSD. But there is no configurability here, because Leo Roeks, Ford Performance's director for Europe, said it's just not necessary - owners apparently use these Individual settings once and then never touch them again; so instead, he says Ford has decided to give you what it thinks are the best settings for each mode.

Tied to this, the rev-matching function isn't switchable. Which is no bad thing, as the way the Focus ST's pedals are set up makes heel-and-toe tricky to enact, but it feels like you can't ever quite get the Ford into its best possible setting: Normal is beautiful for handling but doesn't have the engine at its most anti-lag-enabled rabid; while Sport and Track make you deal with the gloopy steering and too-tough damping, while taking away the choice of rev-matching for yourself from you. Sigh.

Verdict

There's a great car here, certainly if you never, ever switch it out of its default Normal mode. The Ford Focus ST has a monster drivetrain, wonderfully judged balance between comfort and excitement, and a chassis that's clearly imbued with Ford's dynamic genius. But the fact that it lacks for configurability, the fact that is has such distasteful steering in its sportier modes and the fact it is 32-grand as a 280 hatch are key details which all play against it, sadly.

Would we have the Focus ST over something urbane and restrained like a Volkswagen Golf GTI? Yes, undoubtedly. Can it stand comparison to the RS Megane? Probably, because the Renault has an awful ride as a Cup/Trophy and its four-wheel steering leads to odd cornering sensations. Would we recommend you buy the Focus ST over a Civic Type R or an i30 N Performance? Or, more to the point, a fully laden Fiesta ST-3 with the Performance Pack and all the options, plus quite a few grand spare in your pocket? The answer to these two last questions is, regrettably, 'no'. Looks like we're waiting for Focus RS Mk4, then, to see what Ford Performance is truly capable of with its hot C-segment challenger.

4 4 4 4 4 Exterior Design

4 4 4 4 4 Interior Ambience

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Passenger Space

4 4 4 4 4 Luggage Space

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Safety

4 4 4 4 4 Comfort

4 4 4 4 4 Driving Dynamics

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Powertrain


Matt Robinson - 2 Jul 2019









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2020 Ford Focus ST. Image by Ford UK.2020 Ford Focus ST. Image by Ford UK.2020 Ford Focus ST. Image by Ford UK.2020 Ford Focus ST. Image by Ford UK.2020 Ford Focus ST. Image by Ford UK.

2020 Ford Focus ST. Image by Ford UK.2020 Ford Focus ST. Image by Ford UK.2020 Ford Focus ST. Image by Ford UK.2020 Ford Focus ST. Image by Ford UK.2020 Ford Focus ST. Image by Ford UK.








 

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