A SHARPER FO­CUS

Ford’s up­dated hot hatch primed to emerge from the shad­ows of its ri­vals

NT News - Motoring - - FRONT PAGE - DAVID McCOWEN

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.

VER­DICT

Fast and re­fined, the Fo­cus ST of­fers punch to match the best in class but doesn’t land a knock­out blow against im­pres­sive com­pe­ti­tion.

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