Not that long ago, the performance hatchback segment was a sleepy backwater in the global car market. Now, however, there's a battle raging as rival manufacturers engage in an arms race of power and technology.
The new 2020 Ford Focus ST, which we've driven in Europe and will get here next year, is the best example yet of this escalation.
The old car was a good steer, but it spent its last few years at the blunt end of its segment in terms of performance, outgunned by rivals like the Hyundai i30N, let along the mighty Civic Type-R and Renault Megane RS.
Unsurprisingly, the new car is more powerful and quicker – we'd be amazed if it wasn't – but it is also packed with kit to sharpen the driving experience further. The list on the petrol-powered hatch – the only variant likely to reach Australia – includes active shock absorbers and a very clever electronically controlled limited-slip differential to help it channel 206kW of power and 420Nm of torque to its front wheels.
As we've previously reported, the new car will also become the first ST model to be offered with an automatic transmission in Australia, but we will have to wait a while longer to tell you about it; all the cars on the launch, even in France, had the standard six-speed manual.
Ford is bucking the trend for downsized powerplants. The last ST had a 2.0-litre engine, but this one gets what is effectively a turned-sideways version of the 2.3-litre turbo four from the Mustang. This uses a low-inertia turbocharger and what's described as an anti-lag system, although one that doesn't have the fusillade of pops and crackles of a Group A rally car – rather it keeps the throttle open slightly during hard upchanges to keep boost pressures high.
A Sport package – optional in Europe and possibly standard in Australia – adds rev-matching for downshifts with the manual ’box, launch control, three switchable modes for the dampers (beyond the standard adaptive set-up), and an additional Track mode for the dynamic controller.
On the road, the first surprise is that this ST feels a deal less aggressive than the last one did. Steering is still fast – there are just two turns between the ends of the rack – but front-end responses don't have the abruptness delivered by the old car's darty steering.
The ride also feels more pliant with the dampers in the regular dynamic mode, and the engine doesn't need to be worked hard to deliver, producing big torque at low revs.
It dealt with the traffic-clogged streets around Nice airport as well as one of its lesser siblings would. After the first few kays, the pressing question was whether it was special enough.
Spoiler alert: it is. The answer arrives pretty much as soon as the ST and I reach the twisty roads that start the long climb towards the famous Route Napoléon. The ST is one of those cars that gets better the harder you press on, and which is soon encouraging you to press it very hard indeed.
Some of the athleticism is indeed being delivered electronically. Selecting Sport mode through the control on the steering wheel immediately puts some gravel into the ST's exhaust note – a fair percentage of which is digitally symposed – and adds an edge to the ride quality as the dampers pop spinach.
Throttle response grows keener and the steering gains some weight, although not too much. All the things that Sport modes normally do. Click again for Track and it gets even more aggressive, the stability control also switching to a slip-friendly mode with limited intervention.
But although the active systems add to the theatre, none alter the fundamental rightness of the ST that lurks beneath. Regardless of which mode it’s in, responses are direct and unambiguous, body control is outstanding, and the grip generated by the Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres is huge.
It's friendly, but more than willing to play. Chassis balance is as good as it tends to be on Ford's faster front-drivers, with a near-perfect split between adhesion front and rear that makes it easy to adjust a cornering line with the accelerator pedal.
Ease off and it tightens its line progressively and without snappiness, even edging into oversteer if the loadings are high enough. Yet, the ST puts up a dogged resistance to understeer in tighter corners.
This is where the clever front differential starts to earn its considerable development spend. This is a Borg-Warner system that uses two electronically controlled clutch packs, allowing torque to be transferred before the onset of wheelspin to help the front bite, and it can respond quickly enough to counteract torque steer.
When not needed, the system steps back completely, effectively returning the ST to a conventional open differential and minimising steering corruption.
While not quite magic, the e-diff gets close. You can feel the system working in tighter turns and at higher commitment levels, and it definitely keeps the Focus on line beyond the point where physics should be throwing it wide.
Under hard acceleration over the few bad surfaces that France's well-maintained mountain roads offered, there was a very slight sense of the steering shimmer of torque steer, but much less than there probably should be in a front-driver this potent.
There's definitely no shortage of power. The ST's 2.3-litre engine feels like a substantial upgrade from the last ST's donk. This is brawny and well behaved low down; it actually makes more torque than the not-for-Aus’ 2.0-litre diesel ST.
But the EcoBoost also loves to rev, and is soon pulling with the sort of vigour that makes the claimed power output seem pessimistic. Although peak power arrives at 5500rpm, the engine continues to spin freely to the limiter at 6700rpm.
Like many recent Ford engines, it feels like it is spinning a big flywheel, and revs take a while to die with downchanges, but there's so much mid-range muscle that the rate of acceleration barely diminishes if you short-shift. With so much grip and so much go, Ford reckons this ST is actually quicker around most tracks than the last-gen all-paw Focus RS.
While Ford acknowledges many buyers will opt for the forthcoming auto, a torque converter ’box with seven speeds, the manual still makes a compelling case for itself. The shift action is beautifully weighted and superbly accurate. I doubt you could find a better change in a current production car for any amount of money.
The rev-matching function works cleanly, although it is disappointing that the throttle pedal is a little too far from the brake for comfortable heel-and-toe blipping. Sometimes it's nice to see if you can beat the system.
My only other minor gripe is with the new electrically boosted brake system. Under the sort of hard use encouraged by the hairpin-heavy diet of our test route, the pedal started to feel a little odd.
There was nothing wrong with the level of retardation, but weighting and feel stayed the same even as the brakes grew hot enough to start filling the cabin with the aroma of chargrilled friction materials.
Other stuff? Well, the ST certainly looks much meaner than the fishy standard Focus, the Recaro sport seats are both supportive under cornering loads and comfortable for longer stints, and standard kit is generous, with the latest version of Ford's Sync 3 infotainment a huge improvement on the clumsy previous-generation system.
There is still some evidence of Ford's dedication to cost-trimming. I noticed a soft panel inset into the front door mouldings underneath nice-looking carbon trim. The ones in the back are just hard plastic. You could just as fairly call it clever engineering.
There's no doubting where the money has been spent on the Focus ST: making it go faster and drive better. We will have to wait for Australian specs and prices ahead of an on-sale early next year, but in Europe it is priced hard against the Golf GTI Performance. Let's hope this arms race between rival manufacturers continues.
SPECIFICATION: Ford Focus ST
- Engine: 2261cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged
- Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
- Power: 206kW @ 5500rpm
- Torque: 420Nm @ 3000–4000rpm
- 0–100km/h: 5.7sec (claimed)
- Top speed: 250km/h (limited)
- Weight: 1508kg
- Economy: 7.9L/100km (NEDC)
- CO2: 179g/km (NEDC)
- Price: TBC