Nobody would accuse the Focus ST of being an also-ran among hot-hatches. But it’s fair to say Ford has never pitched any of the previous generations as a direct rival to Golf GTIs, Megane Renaultsports or Civic Type Rs. The Mexico or XR3i to the flagship RS Escorts of an earlier Ford age if you will. No longer. The new Focus ST is the real deal, with the power to compete with the best of the hot hatch field and the chassis tech and gizmos to put it to the road with near-RS levels of sophistication and performance. This is a serious step up in ambition and brings with it a massive burden of responsibility. And a bit of a price hike…
A quick re-cap for those who weren’t listening at the back when news of the new ST broke. The engine is an evolution of the 2.3-litre EcoBoost, sharing fundamental architecture and breeding with that in the previous RS and the Mustang. It’s got a twin-scroll turbo, anti-lag technology inspired by the GT and F-150 Raptor and delivers 280ps/276bhp and a thumping 310lb.ft of torque out of the box. That noise you can hear? People who realise there’s headroom for a lot more with a few mods rubbing their hands in anticipation, given the motor is both proven and considerably burlier than others it’ll be competing with. Which will be music to the ears of those with ambitions to make an already fast Ford faster still and go baiting GTI drivers. Basic stats include 0-62 in 5.8 seconds, top speed of 155mph and a claim by Ford it can go ‘toe to toe’ with an RS over the quarter-mile, despite only being front-wheel drive.
It drives through a Borg Warner supplied FXD ‘front cross differential’ you’ll hear described by many – Ford included – as an electronic limited-slip differential or eLSD. It’s not really, given its clutch pack is distinct from the actual differential and offers proactive torque vectoring to improve traction without the need for ESC-driven intervention from the brakes. Put simply, rather than cut power in response to loss of traction it sends it to where it can best be used and means front-driven cars can use more of their available power, more of the time. A version of the technology is used by fancier versions of the Golf GTI and SEAT Leon Cupra, variations on the theme also found in cars like the well-regarded Hyundai i30 N.
The main benefit over a passive diff like the Quaifes Ford has used previously (and other types of mechanical limited-slip differential) is that it can act before an unloaded wheel starts spinning, using information like steering angle, throttle input and other data to pre-empt traction needs. It also removes or mitigates typical downsides of mechanical LSDs, such as corner-entry understeer or power-on torque steer and can be configured to work differently according to pre-selected driver modes to suit different conditions or needs.
Also standard for the petrol ST is Continuously Controlled Damping (CCD) which, again, is fully tuneable via the black boxes according to driver preference, mood and the surfaces on which you’re driving on. This is the cherry on top of the quality suspension hardware you’d expect of a Focus, conventional McPherson struts up front paired with ‘Short Long Arm’ multi-link rear. Unless you really think you can do better than Ford’s suspension engineers save the money you were going to lavish on blingy coilovers and spend it on extra power instead…
Then there’s the super-fast steering, geared to 11.6:1 and just two turns lock to lock, which are the kind of numbers you’d usually associate with a Ferrari or similar. This would be wasted if you didn’t have the suspension geometry or tyre grip to make good use of it – as above though the ‘diff’, dampers and associated control systems have you covered while the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S rubber has already demonstrated its worth on the Fiesta and updated Mustang.
All of the above is controlled by driving modes familiar from various other Ford Performance products, ranging from Slippery/Wet to Normal and then Sport, the engineers responding to customer feedback and making the step from Normal to Sport more decisive than ever before. There’s even a Sport hot-key on the steering wheel to get straight to the good stuff.
Still not enough? Chip in for the Performance Pack and you get an even sharper Track mode with another level of damping stiffness, looser leash for the ESC, super aggressive map for the ‘diff’ and sharper bite still for the steering and throttle. In addition to the standard flatshift function you also get rev-matching for downshifts, launch control and – wooh – ambient lighting. Given it costs just £250 extra anyone who orders a new ST and doesn’t tick that box needs their head examining. The only things missing are a configurable mode and ability for heel’n’toe masters to switch the rev-matching off in Sport or Track modes – no apologies from the Ford guys for either, given they think they’ve settled on the best combination of settings for getting the most out of the car.
Appetite suitably whetted you’re probably screaming “shut up and tell me how it drives!” by now. OK then…
Gripped in part-leather Recaros the interior is perhaps a little sober but feels well-built, the fat steering wheel and stubby little gear lever letting you know you’re in something a little more special than a regular Focus. There’s certainly plenty of standard kit (and buttons) with SYNC3 and, in the case of the launch cars, optional Head Up Display. The only bits you’ll really want to know about are that Sport button and mode switch, both now on the wheel and no more than a thumb stretch away.
Left alone and the ST feels, well, as Normal as the mode setting suggests. Sure, the ride feels a little choppy at town speeds but is way better than a Fiesta and the throttle and steering have enough ‘slack’ in their response to mooch about on the commute, school run or motorway without feeling you’ve compromised too far in usability. Dare we say ‘mature’ in the context of a Ford Performance product? Possibly so.
Fear not though. Because there’s a whole different Focus a button push away. You feel it first in the steering, which snaps to attention and immediately makes the ST feel alert and ready for action. From the numbers you’d fear it might feel a bit nervy and twitchy but not a bit of it – it’s fast, smooth and responsive but there’s no danger of the rest of the car being left behind. Chatting with senior engineer Stefan Muenzinger he highlights the steering as his favourite bit of the car and what elevates it over the SEAT Leon Cupra, Golf GTI, Hyundai i30 N and Civic Type R they benchmarked during development. What does he know? Well, he’s got a Mustang GT350 and a mint Mk2 RS he bought from new and upgraded to RS500 tune in the garage at home. Good to know the guys building fast Fords are, as ever, the kind of guys who might read Fast Ford.
The piped-in engine sound in Sport isn’t entirely authentic but gets you in the mood and the previous mushiness in the accelerator is replaced by real urgency. And the exhaust note gets more meaningful, thanks to a little extra fuel through the injectors and occasional pops and bangs that sound more natural than the artificially orchestrated parp you get in VW products.
It still feels – and sounds – turbocharged but the extra swept capacity of the engine over the 1.6s, 1.8s and 2.0s in rivals means it has reserves to lean on before the boost comes in. In on-off throttle situations the anti-lag holds the throttle open for up to three seconds, keeping the turbo spinning and response there when you get back on the accelerator – ideal for those moments where you might want a quick ‘confidence lift’ without killing boost. Which is good, because the combination of turbo and bigger bottom end means a burly mid-range to exploit. And something to really test the tyres, suspension and front axle.
At over 1,500kg the ST isn’t the lightest in its class and, accordingly, it doesn’t erupt out of the blocks like some. Where it does score is in the speed it carries, and the confidence you have in maintaining your pace whatever the road is doing. Faith in the front end and a near total lack of understeer means you can go barrelling in all guns blazing, confident it’s not going to push on. And if you’re confident on the throttle the front axle is ready to pull you into the turn on the power. It’s not quite the helping hand from the rear as you get in an RS. But given how much torque there is going through the front tyres the ST has huge traction, proactively hauling itself out of the turns without even a flicker of ESC light.
And it’s the same no matter what surface you’re on. One corner on our French test route throws a big dip at the already unloaded inside front wheel but, foot to the floor, there’s not even the slightest deflection, or hesitation as the power seamlessly goes to the outside tyre. You can’t pin this ability on one single component or feature either – it’s a factor of the whole package being so brilliantly calibrated and those long hours engineers like Stefan spend pounding round the Lommel test track. Sure, there’s plenty of gadgetry helping you along. But feel like this can only come from people who really understand how to make it work properly.
Track mode isn’t intended for the road. But, having done the sensible thing and opted for it, you’d be daft not to explore how takes the ST to an even higher level. “Vertical load resistance” is doubled over Sport, the CCD dampers able to keep the car flat for an even sharper feel. Now there’s that sense of Fiesta ST rawness Muenzinger said he wanted in the Focus too, the steering sniffing out cambers and surface changes and wheel wriggling in your hands under power like an old RS thanks to a looser leash on the ESC. It’s not intrusive. You just need to be ready for it and hold your nerve, safe in the knowledge the car will pull itself straight.
The best setting for really appreciating the car? That will depend on the road, your tastes and even your mood. There’s a whiff of artificially enhanced sportiness in Sport and Track that risks over-egging the experience at times, to the extent Normal can actually feel more natural, flowy and fun, especially on a bumpy B-road or similar. Saying that there are times when you want to go full pants-on-fire and, if that’s your fancy, the sharper modes deliver something closer to RS than ST. It’s all there, meaning you’re in effect getting two Fords for the price of one and a wider range of ability than anything that’s gone before. In Performance Blue the ST looks subtle and classy enough to tempt those who might not have considered a fast Ford before; Orange Fury meanwhile delivers on the attitude the more traditional fanbase will crave. Again, it’s like two cars in one.
Eyebrows may lift at the £32,000 starting price for the EcoBoost petrol, the mechanically simpler diesel lacking the ‘diff’ and dampers and costing a chunk less money. Pricing a Focus ST at Golf GTI money is punchy though, as much as a list price matters to the way most people buy their cars these days. The most important thing to note is this – the return on that investment for the driver is considerable and this new ST is effectively a class up from those that went before. And with it the Ford Performance family just gained another hard-hitting addition. Good times.
2.3-litre four-cyl, 280ps [276bhp], 310lb.ft., six-speed manual gearbox* with active front axle torque distribution (eLSD), three driver modes including flatshift (four with optional Performance Pack plus launch control and rev-matching), 19in alloys with 235/35R19 Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres, 0-62 in 5.7 seconds, top speed 155mph, price from £31,995 (2.3 EcoBoost petrol hatchback)
*Seven-speed automatic available autumn 2019