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Ford Focus ST review: simply astonishing – but the smaller Fiesta does it even better

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Ford Focus ST - tested September 2019

We missed the international launch of the new Focus ST (I know, what were we thinking?), but patience is its own reward and our first and much anticipated assignation with the ST’s ignition keys took place on much more representative British roads, in the Lake District – in the rain, naturally.

In the pantheon of fast Fords, the Focus ST comes pretty high, although not at the top. RS models are rare, expensive and collectible, while the Fiesta ST is the ultimate blue-collar supercar. Previous Focus ST models were somewhere between the two; practical, fast but never quite as, erm, focussed as perhaps they should have been.

Based on last year’s new C2-platform Focus and developed by the same team that worked on the exemplary current Fiesta ST, this new go-faster Focus comes seven years after the launch of its predecessor. Ford is aiming high with this car, but it’s a crowded market topped off with Honda’s sizzling Civic Type R, followed in no particular order by the Hyundai i30 N, Renault Mégane, Volkswagen Golf GTI, Seat Leon Cupra and Peugeot 308 GTi; some competition, then.

From the outside the Ford hardly sets the heart aflutter. Unlike aggressive-looking STs of yore, the bodywork is largely unchanged from the standard car, although the front gains purposeful-looking grilles and intakes. There are LED lights all round and the wheels are a standard 18 or optional 19 inches and shod with sticky Michelin Sport Pilot 4s tyres.

The latest Focus ST is relatively discreet when compared with its predecessor

The engine is the brawny 2.3-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged unit also used in the previous Focus RS and the Mustang. It punches out 276bhp, which doesn’t quite get it to the top of the hot-hatch class, but the 310lb ft of torque most certainly does. 

It also has the clever anti-turbo lag system which holds the throttle open for another three seconds after the driver has lifted off to prevent the reversal of air flow into the turbo and keep it primed and spinning for a quicker throttle response. 

There’s a choice of a six-speed manual or a seven-speed torque-converter automatic gearbox with paddle shifts and there’s an electro-hydraulic-actuated limited-slip differential before the power arrives at the front wheels. 

In addition there’s a 187bhp/295lb ft 2.0-litre turbo diesel version (which, strangely, doesn’t come with the automatic option) and an estate (which, with its different rear suspension arrangement, doesn’t have the continuously adjusting damping option). 

The suspension is based on the MacPherson-strut front, multi-link rear system of the standard car, but with new lower steering knuckles, revised geometry and springs and dampers. Unlike its 2012 predecessor, there’s a wealth of chassis control electronics including a torque vectoring system to help pull the car through corners and complicated control algorithms for the electronic differential.

The optional adaptive dampers react in milliseconds to changes in the road surface, steering, braking and yaw angle. They come in the optional Performance Pack, which includes four driving modes including Track, Slippery, Normal and Sport settings. The pack also gives you a rev-matching system to ease downshifts, launch control and ‘flat’ shifting for those too lazy to lift the throttle between upward gearchanges. Oh, and that vital extra for the fastest lap times, red brake calipers.

Note the grin. With only two turns lock to lock, the steering is ultra-fast Credit: stuart price

The power steering is also new, with electric-motor assistance on the column instead of the rack (we’ll come back to this) with a super-quick ratio resulting in just two turns from lock to lock. The gearlever’s cable shift has also been revised with shorter, softer shifts and there are larger brake discs with electronic brake-by-wire assistance, although the front calipers carry only two pistons.

So it might look quite conservative from the outside, but inside there are a pair of lovely accommodating and supportive Recaro sports seats which can be adjusted low enough for taller drivers. Equipment levels include a big, full-colour touchscreen in the middle of the facia, satnav, Apple Car Play and Android Auto, heated seats and steering wheel, adaptive cruise control, auto emergency braking, keyless operation, climate control and a rear-view camera as standard. 

It’s all as useful, practical and wipe-clean as a standard Focus, although there are alloy pedal covers, contrasting stitching and scuff plates on the sills. Those and the Recaros notwithstanding however, the interior feels slightly underwhelming; for instance, search in vain for those charming extra instruments that have graced many souped-up Fords in the past. You can add an optional panoramic sunroof but it adds 20kg just where you don’t need in a car such as this.

The new fast-ratio steering rack makes the front end feel darty, but speed up on some winding roads and the ST starts to make more sense

Start her up and you are assailed by artificially generated engine noises, with a booming, warbling woofle overlaying a dull drone which is the engine’s default state. There’s a lot of torque running through the transmission and the clutch is rather sharp so you need to have a care when pulling away or you end up bouncing up the road. 

The steering wheel rim feels thick and clumsy at first and the new fast-ratio rack means the nose feels darty and the front end over-excitable. In normal mode the ride isn’t bad, though there’s a wobbling bounce to the ride quality that’s like a fat seagull bouncing on a telephone wire. And the tyres set up a fearsome racket on pretty much every surface they roll over, sending gritty vibration into the chassis.

Out of Penrith and on to wide Lakes roads and the ST starts to make more sense. The quick steering feels calmer and the engine’s humongous torque spread means you often don’t need to change gear, just floor the throttle and watch the scenery come to you. The tyres tend to follow all the road seams, but they are no worse and in cases better than the competition. 

As well as reams of extra performance, you get all the practicality of the excellent standard Focus

The brakes feel strong and progressive and there’s a fine control weighting and linearity that breeds confidence. What’s more, you can trickle along with the traffic at an indicated 40mpg, though any sort of throttle action has that plummeting; I saw a 16mpg average at one point.

Speed up still further and the body control and chassis balance are sensational; gentle steering inputs can be matched with similar throttle easement, which has the nose tearing into corners. You can even adjust it with the throttle mid-bend despite a road with a surface that looks more like a gravel rally stage. There’s genuine finesse and love in this car and that engine defines muscularity to the extent that when you lift the bonnet you’re disappointed not to find HENCH cast into the cam cover. 

Of course, a lot of this fast progress is monitored and tempered by the control software, but it’s pretty good, only occasionally intruding, although it struggles to hide some fairly energetic torque steer which tugs the steering wheel around. And of the driving modes, Sport tends to have the body heaving on undulating roads and Track is exactly and solely that.

In the pantheon of fast Fords, the ST is one step down from the fire-breathing RS - but is generally more practical as a result, without sacrificing much driving pleasure

Things which aren’t so good are the gearchange, which has inconsistent loads and feel depending on how hard the car is being driven and the rapidity of the gearchange (one car felt as though it was about to pop out of third-gear engagement), and the steering which lacks feedback in the dead-ahead position and has highly inconsistent self-centring.

I also had a brief drive in the diesel version and while it’s brisk, the chassis feels more nose-heavy than the petrol model and the gear ratios are strangely low for a car built for economy and performance. The estate is terrific, and while you slightly miss that continuous damping, the extra load volume makes it a much more practical proposition.

The ST is also available in estate form (although the rear suspension is slightly different) and even with a 187bhp diesel engine

I should declare an interest here. I love cars like this; tuned-up versions of family hatches almost indistinguishable from their standard counterparts yet capable of embarrassing supercars when the road surface is less than perfect. And I quite liked the ST, too, although the Honda Civic Type R is more single-minded, the Hyundai i30 N more raucous, the Peugeot 308 GTi more refined and the VW Golf GTI, well, that’s the car that started it all.

With slightly more attention to detail this Ford would have garnered five stars, but those niggling faults, development rabbit holes such as the steering inconsistencies and that pretty hefty price tag, I’ll leave it as a four-star fun machine; very good but not quite great. 

THE FACTS

Ford Focus ST 

TESTED 2,261cc, four-cylinder turbo petrol engine, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive via an electronically-controlled limited-slip differential

PRICE/ON SALE from £29,495 diesel, £31,995 petrol/now

POWER/TORQUE 276bhp @ 5,500rpm, 310lb ft @ 3,000rpm

TOP SPEED 155mph

ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 5.7sec

FUEL ECONOMY 35.8mpg WLTP (on test 27mpg) 

CO2 EMISSIONS 179g/km

VED £855 first year, then £145

VERDICT It’s hard to resist the Jekyll and Hyde nature of this souped-up Ford. You could use it as a daily driver then take it to a racing circuit. With performance that in some aspects surpasses the most recent Focus RS, the ST is an astonishing car with a terrific engine. It’s a pity about the gearchange and the steering though; the Fiesta ST does it better.

TELEGRAPH RATING Four stars out of five 

THE RIVALS

Honda Civic Type R, from £31,550

Could you live with the looks? Yes? If so you’ll be sitting in one of the most remarkable hot hatches ever made and certainly the only one where you can feel the downforce jiggling you along the arterial bypass. Perhaps not as progressive and tactile as others, but the most powerful and wildest. But could you live with the looks? 

Hyundai i30 N Performance, from £29,495

BMW handling knowhow made this car, and what a thing it is. Painted the colour of a medical device, but stupefyingly effective on a circuit. Clever electronics, but this is basically a simple front-wheel-drive quick hatch with a monster engine and some impressive set-up skills. Rides like a trolley jack though. 

Renault Sport Megane RS Trophy, from £31,835

This is Renault Sport back in the groove after the so-so Clio RS. They wring 300bhp out of just 1.8 litres but it doesn’t feel overstrained, there’s a choice of six-speed manual or dual clutch auto (which is much improved these days) and the chassis balance is sublime.

Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S, from £34,495

There are too many hot Golfs; RS, GT, GTD and Alltrack, and that’s before you get to the various GTIs. It might be the original, but the marketing department has been all round it and it’s hard to know what you’ve got. The 310bhp Clubsport is one of the best and the steering is fantastic, but it’s expensive.

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