The Ford Focus ST has fairly expertly walked the line between practical family five-door and capable hot-hatch since replacing the XR5 Turbo in 2012. With a newly updated version soon to make its way into local showrooms, we took the outgoing model to Sandown Raceway to test its weekend warrior credentials.
Spitting out 184kW at 5000rpm and 340Nm between 2000-4500rpm, the front-wheel-drive Ford Focus ST isn’t shy of low-end pickup. It is, however, sans the mechanical limited-slip front differential employed by both the 195kW/360Nm Renault Megane RS265 ($43,990) and the 169kW/350Nm Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance ($48,490).
Throttle on quickly off the line or on corner exit and, even on the road, the flagship Focus will easily spin up a wheel or two. So questions about how it will go around Sandown Raceway’s 3.1-kilometre circuit are already in our head as we remove the car’s space-saver spare tyre and any loose items floating around the cabin.
Sitting down the far end of pit lane outside garage three, the Focus ST ensures it looks the toughest of its range with a large honeycomb grille, bright red ‘ST’ badging, a funky Lamborghini Aventador-esque central exhaust outlet for its twin pipes, and 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped in Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres.
Inside it’s kitted out with a leather ‘ST’-stamped multi-function steering wheel, alloy pedal covers and chunky Recaro bucket seats. The cabin is also home to the only transmission offered on the ST, a six-speed manual – an expression of its target audience, but perhaps a turn-off for some potential buyers.
We slide on CarAdvice‘s open-face helmet and try to make ourselves comfortable, but there’s a problem. Despite the Focus ST’s steering wheel being rake and reach adjustable, finding an ideal driving position proves a little difficult.
Once we finally do get pretty close, we slam the back of our head into problem two. While the headrest is fine minus a lid, put a helmet on and the headrest is constantly pushing your head forward, making things uncomfortable and annoying — a real shame.
With our assigned group ready to drive, we line up at the pit lane exit, clutch in, grab first gear and wait…
Go! Punching out of the pits towards Turn One for the first time, the Focus ST’s peak torque is felt almost instantly. Solid throttle applications are also joined by engine intake manifold noise being forced into the cabin by Ford’s ‘Sound Symposer’.
An entertaining inclusion – and similar to the intake resonance pipe found in the 86/BRZ – at a track day, it’s beneficial in picking up exactly what the engine is doing and further, if wheels are starting to overrotate.
As we complete our opening laps, the Focus ST’s standard dash-top-mounted trio of oil temperature, boost pressure and oil pressure gauges become equally helpful.
Easy to spot at a quick glance while blasting down either one of Sandown’s two near-900m-long straights, the gauges might not be as accurate as some aftermarket items, but they clearly indicate when temps and pressures are up – important things to be aware of, particularly for beginners.
And as the laps go on, we notice that the Focus’ little oil needle takes far longer to come up in the heat of battle than it does to come back down once in cool-down mode.
Rolling back into the pits, we reverse park outside our garage – leaving it in first gear with the handbrake off – and pop the bonnet to check the basics. Up goes the hood and… not a single issue. No leaks, no smoke, no terrible noises, and no bubbled-over coolant. Excellent.
After a brief wait – track days are all about waiting – we’re queued up again ready to have another crack. We head out and pick a gap in traffic before settling in for a few more fast ones.
As we continue to notch up track kilometres, two things become apparent. First, the Focus ST’s horrendous 12-metre turning circle never presents a problem on the circuit (as downright frustrating as it is on the road) and second, torque steer is far less noticeable and far more manageable when on track.
With up to 16psi (1.1bar) of turbo boost pressure thrown solely at the front wheels, it’s no surprise that in the Focus ST you do occasionally have to wrestle some torque steer. Majority of the time though, the steering remains responsive, if somewhat heavily weighted.
Punt hard out of a tighter corner like Turn Four or Turn Nine and the stability control light will flash, but the system’s ‘adjustments’ are almost imperceptible and excessive wheel spin can be largely avoided with improved lines and a touch of patience.
Helping in no small part too, is the ST’s standard Goodyear rubber. Measuring 235mm wide and 40-aspect on all four corners, the Eagle F1s get warm and tacky but do a more than reasonable job of keeping the Focus’ nose where you point it.
Holding up well throughout the day, any hints of pushing a road car beyond its comfort zone are reserved for an ever-deepening brake pedal and smoking street-spec brake pads.
Stiffer than its non-ST kin, the top-spec Focus’ ‘tuned’ sports suspension is still softer than the likes of the ultra firm and purposeful Megane RS’, and is more prone to pitching and rolling than the French hatchback’s setup. This isn’t necessarily a negative though, with its lively tendencies adding to its charm and, when the rear end starts to shift under brakes, can aid in getting the front end turned in.
As the day goes on, the number of fellow participants dwindles but the turbocharged 2.0-litre continues to consistently churn out stout performance.
Teaming a low-rpm peak torque figure with a higher-rpm peak power number, the direct injection engine delivers solid grunt at low revs without sacrificing top-end poke.
Revving out to just over 7000rpm before needing to swap cogs, the ST happily winds out past 200km/h down Sandown’s back straight. Slick and accurate, the six-speed gearbox is a dream to use. The clutch, however, does feel a little spongey beyond an initial light zone.
Upping average fuel consumption from around 10 litres per 100km to over 17L/100km, the Focus ST does a good enough job around the track to ‘encourage’ more than a few participants – one in a WRX, one in a modified Honda Civic and one in an engine-swapped E30 BMW – to wave us past.
We head back into the pits at the end of our final session with every panel just as straight as when we started. And we’re not the only ones, with no major offs or incidents occurring during the day. Like us, everyone, for the most part, has had a smile on their face for most of the day.
Spare tyre back in its boot-floor cut-out, we pack our gear into the Focus’ 316-litre rear end and we’re genuinely impressed with the out-and-out flexibility of the ST. It’s brought us and all of our gear to the track in comfort, entertained us throughout the day without much complaint and is now about to take us back home again hassle free.
On track the Focus ST isn’t flawless. At 1464kg it’s no lightweight and the standard brakes – comprising 320mm ventilated discs and two-piston calipers up front and 271mm solid discs with single-piston rears – will tolerate around three to four enthusiastic laps before you’ll need heavier and longer stabs of the pedal to pull the thing up.
The Recaro seats do a great job of holding you in place on the road, but cornering hard at the circuit, we found we moved around in them more than we would have liked – you feel like you’re sitting a touch too ‘on’ them rather than ‘in’ them.
And while pedal placement is also not brilliant – the throttle is too far away from the brake for ideal heel-and-toe shifts – with plenty of glass down its flanks and good mirrors, vision out of the ST is excellent. Even with a helmet on, spotting upcoming and surrounding traffic is a breeze.
The Ford Focus ST may soon be refreshed, but the outgoing car pairs performance and practicality far better than the harder-edged three-door-only Renault Megane RS and does so with more character than a Volkswagen Golf GTI. The kicker? It’s already cheaper than its two direct rivals – along with the entry-level Subaru WRX – and undercuts its 2015 replacement by $700 (and that’s before you try and squeeze a dealer for a run-out bargain).
A top daily driver, the Ford Focus ST is a proper hoot around a track and more than capable for the occasional circuit blast. Now, to tee up another track day…
Note: CarAdvice attended the day at Sandown Raceway as part of a Driver Dynamics Level 3 High Performance driver training day.
Click on the Photos tab for more 2014 Ford Focus ST images by Tom Fraser.
Videography by David Zalstein and Tom Fraser.