A SHARPER FOCUS
Ford’s updated hot hatch primed to emerge from the shadows of its rivals
Like a middle child fighting for attention, the Ford Focus ST has struggled to capture hearts, minds and wallets. Until now, the livelier Fiesta ST baby hatch and overachieving Mustang GT have hogged the spotlight while the Focus has battled in the shadow of better known rivals such as Volkswagen’s Golf GTI.
But the new Focus ST could change that. Styled for folks who feel the Honda Civic Type R is a tasteless Fast and Furious tribute, this hatch looks plain in anything less than its “orange fury” hero colour.
The previous model had intricate wheels and an oversized chrome tailpipe that could have been plucked from a Lamborghini, while the new car could be mistaken for cheaper models in the Focus range. Its beaky silhouette looks odd, grey 19-inch wheels are lost in huge arches, and red-painted budget brakes are an apologetic alternative to the proper hardware found on some rivals.
Priced from $44,690 plus on-road costs (about $49,000 drive-away), the Focus is aimed squarely at Volkswagen’s segment-defining Golf GTI.
Unlike the GTI — which is now an auto-only proposition — the Ford will be available with both self-shifting and manual transmissions.
The new model debuts a seven-speed auto (see breakout) for the same price as the manual. It’s an attractive deal. Subaru charges about $3000 for an auto WRX while Renault charges $4000 on its Megane RS. Unfortunately, the auto wasn’t available for our test drive.
There’s just one model, well-specified with toys such as LED headlights, wireless phone charging and an 8-inch touchscreen with satnav, smartphone mirroring and a 10-speaker Bang and Olufsen stereo. Safety kit includes active cruise control, auto emergency braking, blindspot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
A flat-bottomed steering wheel and heated Recaro seats are the only sporty touches in an otherwise plain cabin. The Focus is brand new, but there is little theatre in a grey space missing the tech (such as a widescreen digital dash) and charm (tartan trim and honeycomb detailing) of the ageing Golf GTI.
Ford wins points with a 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbo engine similar to that of the previousgeneration Focus RS and current Mustang High Performance model. Detuned to produce 206kW and 420Nm, the Focus still outguns rivals such as the 180kW Volkswagen, 197kW WRX and 202kW Hyundai i30 N, while producing more torque (but less power) than Honda’s Type R.
There’s no shortage of punch and it feels mighty in a straight line. Grippy Michelin tyres
and an electronically-controlled limited-slip differential similar to that in the Hyundai and VW help get power to the ground, delivering a dash to 100km/h in less than six seconds.
The regular Focus is arguably the best driver’s car of the regular hatch brigade, making it an excellent starting point for a hot hatch. Much of the Focus’ traits carry through to the ST, including precise steering, tenacious roadholding and an ability to retain its composure on bumpy ground.
But some of the changes are frustrating. As with most modern performance cars, the Focus ST features a selection of drive modes. Here, they affect elements such as steering weight, the response of its suspension, throttle sensitivity, exhaust sound, and whether the car “blips” the throttle to help change gears.
The problem is that you can’t mix and match settings.
Soft suspension can only be accompanied by doughy engine settings, which doesn’t translate well to brisk drives on broken roads. That sort of inflexibility is likely to annoy enthusiasts.
Track mode brings a distant exhaust crackle, along with loud fake engine sounds, too-heavy steering and an auto-blipping function that can’t be disabled. The lack of custom settings is a significant oversight.
But on the whole, the Focus ST has broader appeal than before. The auto option will be an important change for people who don’t want to deal with a clutch pedal.
Previous-generation examples served up unruly behaviour, twisting the steering wheel in your hands under power and skidding out of line with a heavy lift off the gas. Tight bucket seats were uncompromising, and a buttonstrewn dash harked back to the days before touchscreen smartphones.
It was an unpolished gem.
Now, multi-mode suspension and improved driver aids make the Focus ST more liveable in everyday traffic. Beefed-up power, grippy rubber and the clever diff bring improvements felt every day, especially on a weekend blast.
More refined, the Focus ST is a little less exciting than before. The middle child still can’t match the laugh-a-minute thrills of the little Fiesta or the Mustang’s muscle-car theatre.
Fast and refined, the Focus ST offers punch to match the best in class but doesn’t land a knockout blow against impressive competition.