There’s a power and performance war at the sharp end of today’s hot hatchback segment, one that Ford seems to have sidestepped with the newly facelifted and updated Ford Focus ST.
Is it faster than is its forebear, launched in 2012? You bet. But rather than juicing up the Focus ST’s outputs and acceleration prowess as the big pitch, Ford has concentrated on injecting its latest turbocharged front-drive sports car with a newfound sense of maturity.
If there’s a main criticism about what Ford calls its fourth-generation ST’s predecessors (it’s more accurately a facelifted third-gen version) it's that, since the original 2006 version, the breed’s hallmark playful sportiness has tied to a brash youthfulness perhaps not to older tastes. From the broader design brief down to trim and colour choice (the new "Stealth" grey colour is exclusive to the ST and joins Impact Blue, Tangerine Scream, Frozen White, Pather Black, Moondust Silver and Race Red), the Focus ST has drawn inspiration from the gym.
Central to the update are styling changes inside and out.
The new exterior treatment is noticeably sharper at the front and rear, anchored by a bulged ‘power dome’ bonnet, higher-set grille and crisper character lines. The look is more masculine and stylish, while robbing little of its sporty intent.
Inside, the cabin redesign is markedly cleaner and less fussy, with fewer controls on the steering wheel and central control stack. It’s a simpler and more straightforward environment, and all the better for it.
German engineered and built as the Focus ST may be, the overall presentation, quality of the materials and key touch points in the cabin mightn’t cause Audi designers to lose much sleep, but the lift in presentation is impressive.
Subtly notwithstanding, the Focus ST lays on the sporty accoutrements. The signature rib-hugging Recaro bucket seats, more purposeful than properly comfortable, remain, while a new flat-base steering wheel, satin-chrome gear knob and sports pedals also feature.
A lift in conspicuous technology is Ford’s proprietary Sync 2 infotainment system, complete with an 8.0-inch high-definition touchscreen, and neat ambient cabin lighting. Adaptive bi-xenon HID headlights as standard are also key to the Focus ST’s fairly compelling pitch as a performance small car value-for-money yardstick. At $38,990, Ford’s mightiest front-driver matches key rival the Subaru WRX to the dollar and undercuts the Volkswagen Golf GTI by $1500.
A Technology Pack can also be cost optioned for $2000, adding a suite of safety conveniences such as active city braking, lane keeping and departure aids and automatic high beam functionality, to name a few.
The essentially unchanged 184kW 2.0-litre turbo four is a gutsy and hugely flexible unit, while the conventional six-speed manual – the only transmission available – is faithful if workmanlike in feel. But the sheer torque available, nominally 345Nm though by practical measure 360Nm when the engine is in ‘overboost’, is key to the Focus ST’s stunning open road pace.
On the twisty mountain road environment where the Focus ST is happily at home, the engine’s broad and robust energy that allows impressive in-gear punch. So much so that, oftentimes, little more than half-throttle exiting corners will spin the inside front tyre. The degree of compromised traction might also make replicating Ford’s 6.5-second 0-100km/h claim a mixed exercise of skill and luck, and full throttle in the lower gears reveals a large degree of torque steer.
The lift in dynamic talent is the most noticeable improvement to the Focus ST’s driving character. Wholesale suspension changes, recalibrated electric power steering and a new Enhanced Transitional Stability function – essentially selective wheel braking within the stability control system – conspire to higher levels of cornering grip and agility without robbing the playfulness the ST breed is renowned for.
Crisp steering and a razor sharp front end are hallmarks of models developed by Ford’s European Team RS skunkworks, but the new Focus ST is a high watermark. Like the old car, the new version will dance and swing its tail with little provocation and demands precision from its driver to extract maximum pace. It’s just that the new car’s pace seems, by the seat of the pants at least, to be that much higher. Unlike its predecessor, the latest version remains grippy and composed when pushed hard.
The Focus ST loves the kinds of roads in and around Victoria’s Yarra Valley, which are also many of Australia’s finest and most challenging. Roads that are less than perfectly manicured at the best of times and can punish poorly damped chassis.
Ride quality is a little fidgety at low speed, though is firm but reasonably compliant at a cruise, and something of an improvement given the newfound purpose in the dynamic package. And purpose is really the key to the Focus ST’s appeal and true to core traditions: it’s taut, sporty, punchy and lively. And at brisk, as well as blindingly quick, road speeds.
It’s a truly engaging car, and truly satisfying for a variety of driving skills.
But the maturity the new version hopes to impart doesn’t quite align with Ford’s claims of moving all-round refinement forward to match established benchmarks such as Golf GTI.
There’s quite a lot of tyre and environmental noise that penetrates into the cabin. There’s a little bit of slickness missing in the driving experience – the gear shift quality, the clutch feel – that’s otherwise brimming in some European rivals the Focus ST hopes to position itself closer to.
For all-round hot hatch goodness, the Focus ST is a finer bang-for-buck proposition than it is an outright bench-marker.
No automatic transmission option will no doubt limit the Focus ST’s broader appeal. Also, Ford won’t be offering either the diesel or wagon versions of the ST formula being offered in overseas markets.
While lovers of properly hardcore performance will have to wait for the all-wheel-drive Focus RS early next year, the ST offers a compelling sub-$40K proposition for lovers of turbocharged, front-driven driving enjoyment.