Fast Fords have a strong performance heritage - and the latest Focus hot-hatch doesn't disappoint.
Here's a good yardstick for measuring how good the all-new 2012 Ford Focus ST really is: It made the all-new, 487kW 2013 Ford Shelby GT500, driven on the very same day, seem bland by comparison.
By this point, you may be asking yourself if I’ve been hitting the sauce a bit too hard lately. The truth of the matter is, the Shelby has straight-line performance on a perfectly paved surface completely covered — and then some. But the Ford Focus ST offers more bang for the buck when it comes to cornering and travelling on any road that is less than billiard-table smooth.
I’ve had a sneaking suspicion for some time and I’m ready to share it right now: road cars that have been developed using data gathered on the rally circuit offer superior all-around driving dynamics to those that haven’t.
Yes, I know, every single new car in existence has been torture-tested around the Nurburgring Nordschleife for countless miles and the infamous German track is, no question, a punishing piece of tarmac. But it’s not the same as having to set up a car to blast across shattered pavement, gravel, ice, sand and snow — it just isn’t.
This is the reason why compact cars such as the Subaru WRX STI and Mitsubishi Evo X offer performance on par with cars costing five times as much. And, I believe, it’s the reason why the Ford Focus ST deserves inclusion in this select group of rally-honed objects of automotive desire.
First things first: no, track testing was not part of the equation in this particular drive event. Although a very workable circuit, Calabogie Motorsports Park in Canada, was reserved by the fine people at Ford, it was also reserved for the fleet of Ford Mustangs that were part of the same drive event.
There were two “Foci” on hand, a radiant yellow one (called “Tangerine Scream”) and a sinister black version, but both were pre-production models, so they were banned from any track activities.
No matter: the 50-odd kilometre drive route provided plenty of entertaining roads, all lightly travelled, all featuring a complete lack of police presence. It was off to the races — or, I should say, off to the rallies.
If you’re a drive-by-feel type of individual, one of the first things you’ll notice about the Focus ST — known as the Focus XR5 Turbo in Australia in its previous guise but is retaining the European 'ST' badge this time around — is the abundant excellence of the Recaro sport seats.
They’re incredibly supportive and wildly comfortable, well-suited to both high-speed cornering and endless hours in the saddle. I’ve never in my life begun a car review by mentioning the seats; that’s how good these things are.
The other aspects of the Focus ST interior are similar in their intent. The four-spoke steering wheel has suitable feel and, although it looks less than racy, it does set up a clear view of the instrument panel. The gearshift represents a more successful execution — it looks and feels the part.
The pedals continue the theme: rubber-tipped alloy numbers, they’re nicely spaced for heel-and-toe action. All in all, the driving environment is as good as it gets in this class of vehicle.
These characteristics represent the all-important connection between the driver and the car, but what makes the Focus ST such a success is the connection between the car and the road. On the undulating, winding road that bore more than a passing resemblance to a high-speed tarmac rally stage, the Ford proved its worth at every turn.
The engine, an EcoBoost 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol number, cranks out 188kW and 366Nm, more than decent figures for a front-wheel-drive sport hatch. This powerplant benefits from direct fuel injection, low-inertia turbocharging and twin independent variable camshaft timing to create a surprisingly wide torque band; peak torque rolls in at around 2000rpm and stays there until about 4500 rpm.
This flexibility is accompanied by the near-complete absence of turbo lag and very strong acceleration. The Ford Focus ST boasts an estimated 0-100km/h time of some 6.7 seconds. For the record, that's two-tenths quicker than the Volkswagen Golf GTI against which it will compete among other rivals.
The six-speed manual transmission — slick, precise and rewarding — is more than capable of keeping up with the action; so much so, it’s difficult to avoid rowing through the gears just for the fun of it.
Over and above all these superlative characteristics, though, the one aspect of the Focus ST that impresses the most is the suspension system — and this, I believe, links directly to rallying. The little hatchback is so composed, it’s scarcely believable.
In the interests of science, I cut the corners, allowing the wheels of the car to dip onto the edge of the pavement and the gravel shoulder... and the Ford handled the uneven surface without losing a beat.
Plus, despite the car’s significant power, the Ford is incredibly well-mannered while accelerating as torque steer is automatically offset by the electric power steering system. The Focus ST comes equipped with a three-stage stability control system, including a full “off” setting, a very nice touch.
The combination of the steering, handling and suspension on the Ford Focus ST makes other competitors in the front-wheel-drive hot-hatch class seem incredibly unsophisticated in comparison — it’s just that good.
Pricing has yet to be announced for Australia but is expected to be a bit higher than the $35,990 of the old Focus XR5 Turbo. Even if closer to $40,000, when it arrives in September, that will still make it good value and comparably priced to the likes of the GTI, Mazda3 MPS and RenaultSport Megane.
Finally, the 2012 Ford Focus ST also looks the business. Armed with the new gaping corporate grille, aggressive bumpers, aerodynamic side skirts and a significant rear spoiler, this Ford certainly looks like a performance car. More than that, it is a performance car — one that’s more than ready to take on the world.