Ford Focus ST-Line EcoBoost 150
Ford Focus ST-Line EcoBoost 150 £21,805
WE SAY: IT’S NEVER HAD TO FIGHT SO HARD. GOOD THING
IT’S THE BEST ONE SO FAR
You could be forgiven for thinking normal hatchbacks are being obliterated in the zombie apocalypse of crossovers. Not so. Gold, silver and bronze sellers in the UK last year were the Fiesta, Golf and Focus. So a new Focus matters. Matters not just as a car for everyone, but as a car for us at TopGear. Over the years we’ve loved Focuses muchly because they drove so well.
The new one is really very new. It has a longer wheelbase for more space but without having got lengthier overall, as the new structure is strong enough not to need so much beaky front overhang. The styling is Ford-like up front, but the side view is more generic if prettier.
What else is new? Cabin, chassis, many engines and all transmissions, loads of tech and assistance systems. Not just new but obviously different. For instance, the bigger petrol engine has one fewer cylinders now, the autobox swaps from twin-clutch to torque-converter, the dash has shed half its switches, even though there’s more stuff to be switched. Within a year, the range will be bolstered by an ST, plus hybrids – plug-in and normal – and a jacked-up plastic-belted quasi-crossover version called the Active (see Fiesta Active for details).
The 125bhp 1.0-litre 3cyl is a game little engine, not too laggy even below 2,500rpm, and happy-sounding as it revs to 6,500rpm. So you’ve got a lot of flexibility. It’s smooth and quiet too. The alternative is a 4cyl 120bhp diesel which is a drone in comparison with the petrol, and has an annoying mid-rev resonance. Guess that versus every other small diesel it’s OK to drive, and if you’re standing on the pavement, Ford promises it’ll meet all emission rules for the foreseeable.
The 1.5-litre petrol 3cyl is a really sweet engine. At launch it has 150bhp, less than the same engine in the Fiesta ST but with much of the engaging and sparky nature intact, and
quieter with it. To save fuel when you’re not asking for power, the 1.0 and 1.5 petrol engines can all swap from three cylinders to two, closing the valves to the other one. That could feel like cutting one leg off a three-legged stool. But not at all. This deactivation happens so smoothly, I could never feel the join.
Now, the suspension. This does not easily yield to generalisations, so I’m going to need you to concentrate. There are two main sub-groups. Most low-power Focuses get a torsion-beam back axle, but the ones with the 1.5 petrol and 2.0 diesel have a development of what every Focus hitherto has had, the independent control-blade design. But it ain’t that simple, because both those can be had in different states of tune: normal and ST-Line (lowered, stiffened). So, four variations in all.
The first one I’m driving is the boggo: torsion beam, non-ST-Line. Cornering is an entirely sanitary affair. It’s fine. Y’know, fine… OK, not fine actually. Just phoning it in. There’s a slight rubberiness to its responses, a lack of interaction, like I’m wearing thick gloves. Yes, it’s agile, the steering has well-mapped answers to your hands, and the car goes through any bend with superb reassurance. It simply follows the front wheels, all the way up to the limit. And the ride is really very agreeable, if a little noisy. No major chassis peeves, then. Better than rivals. Sigh.
And then I’m in a 1.5-litre petrol, with the independent back end and ST-Line setup. The difference shines through the first time you move the wheel a quarter-turn. The wheel’s weight and gearing and progression haven’t changed. But there’s now an immediacy and precision, a sense of connection that wasn’t there in the torsion set-up. Ah, the gloves are gone. You can sense its efforts, feel the road, play games with its angles.
Yet this extra firmness doesn’t harm the ride. It eases away any sharp edges superbly and quietly. The damping, too, is terrific, allowing the wheels to breathe over small bumps but keeping the body in check over big crests and dips.
I assumed this was all about the step from torsion to independent. But the engineers said the improvement can actually be credited to the fact it had ST-Line tuning. So, they say, if we’d tried an ST-Line with torsion beam we’d have still had the precision, just more harshness over small bumps. I guess that’s believable if the similarly engineered (and magic fun) Fiesta ST is any guide. But they didn’t have one for us to try.
So I’d conclude that if you want both ride and handling, but you’re getting 125bhp or less, then
“You can sense its efforts, feel the road, play games with its angles”
get an estate because that has the independent design in all its versions. I did drive one of those (the 1.5 diesel) and, yes, it was more refined than the torsion car and steered decently. But not as brilliantly as the 1.5 petrol I drove, because it didn’t have the ST-Line pack.
You can also spec adaptive dampers. But given how good the car can be without, I can think of better homes for your options cash. There you are, seven paragraphs on the chassis. But the history of the Focus has taught us that this stuff matters.
Sink onto a motorway and the car relaxes, the strongly self-centring steering keeping you in line. Might as well turn on the lane assist too (it’s a button on the end of a stalk, so no need to drop your eyes), and it’ll smoothly nudge you away from any white-line whoopsies. That’s standard on all cars. Plus the standard emergency auto-braking system is coupled with ‘evasive steering assist’ which nudges the wheel to help you steer towards an open gap, rather than plough catastrophically into something solid. I didn’t test it. But neither did I get any false positives.
At the top of the Focus’s optional assistance tree, radar cruise follows the car in front and the steering aims to hold the centre of your motorway lane. It’s as effective – and as suddenly ineffective, so keep watching – as the stuff on top-level Volvos and Mercedes. Active masking for the
LED headlights is also available, which doesn’t only blank the area around oncoming traffic so as not to dazzle, but also uses road-sign info to aim around upcoming bends and roundabouts. No rival car has more gizmodery.
In service of that tech, on the dashtop a tablet screen perches like a diversion sign. But good ol’ switches haven’t been consigned to history. The infotainment screen has a set of hard-key shortcuts, the climate control gets real knobs and buttons, and several of the driving assist systems also get their own quick-access kill-switches.
Ford’s Sync OS works pretty intuitively these days. It also does CarPlay and Android auto in every trim but the bog-basic Style. The top-end music system is a 675-watter from B&O Play.
For the driver, a pretty comprehensive head-up display is also on the options menu.
The dash itself, made in a broadly smiling sweep, has been moved forward, to make things feel roomier. The front seats don’t have lumbar adjust, but in other ways the driving position is fine. Stretching the wheelbase and flattening the rear floor have brought useful extra rear room – up to anyone’s standards bar Skoda’s.
ST-Line spec brings slightly better seats, red stitching and a cheery dose of cabin sportification. The other top trim, Vignale, is basically a way to bundle in lots of tasty technologies that would otherwise be options. Yes, you get increased acreage of cabin leather in a Vignale, but that doesn’t make it an A-Class.
Passengers and your neighbours might wonder why you’d get a Ford instead of a Merc. But you’re the one who’s driving it and, oh boy, you’ll know. From behind the wheel, there’s no more enjoyable mid-size hatch. And quite honestly, it blows the doors off all those crossovers. PAUL HORRELL
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