Australia punches above its weight when it comes to performance cars.
We have among the highest per-capita sales of AMG Mercedes, M Power BMWs, and RS and GT Porsches in the world.
It’s the same with hot hatches. While small cars have been overtaken by SUVs, pint-size vehicles with plenty of performance have increased in popularity. The figures sound small – growing from 1.6 per cent to two per cent of the market over the past five years – but it’s all relative.
While Ford may not immediately come to mind in the hot hatch class, it was one of the pioneers of the segment back in the day – and this could be its most compelling proposition yet.
The Ford Focus ST has returned to Australian showrooms after an 18-month absence. The new-generation model is powered by a detuned version of the 2.3-litre turbo from all-wheel-drive Ford Focus RS, but sends power only to the front wheels.In addition to the six-speed manual, it has the option of a seven-speed automatic for the first time.
The RRP is identical for both models: $44,690 plus on-road costs. The only options are a sunroof ($2500) and metallic paint ($650).
A quick search of the Ford website shows drive-away prices range from $48,790 to $49,950 drive-away, depending on the different stamp duties in each state. If you average these prices, the Ford Focus ST works out to be about $48,900 drive-away in round numbers.
This equates to a price rise of about $8000 compared to the previous model – and parks the new Ford Focus ST near the top end of its likely rivals.
The Volkswagen Golf GTI is currently $48,990 drive-away, while the Renault Megane RS and Hyundai i30N were priced from about $45,990 drive-away as this article was published.
Among its direct rivals, only the Honda Civic Type R, at about $57,500 drive-away, is dearer.
The big news is under the bonnet. The 2.3-litre turbo four-cylinder in the Focus ST has an output of 206kW and 420Nm. That’s a big step up from the previous Focus ST 2.0-litre turbo’s peak of 184kW and 360Nm, although less than the Focus RS 2.3-litre turbo’s output of 257kW and 470Nm (on overboost).
Ford publishes a 0–100km/h claim for the new Focus ST of 5.7 seconds, but which of the two transmissions is quicker? We’ll come to that shortly.
The new Focus ST is heavier than before – even though the body itself is said to be lighter – because it comes with more equipment, from high-performance hardware (such as 19-inch wheels, a limited-slip differential and extra chassis strengthening) to extra technology inside the cabin.
For those interested in numbers, the manual version weighs 1536kg and the auto weighs 1562kg. It’s not far off the last Ford Focus RS (1575kg), and that had all-wheel-drive hardware. The kerb weight of the previous Ford Focus ST was 1437kg. All figures include a nominal 75kg for vehicle fluids and driver.
The new Focus ST’s power bump offsets its weight gain. The new model has a 134kW/tonne ratio for the manual and a 132kW/tonne ratio for the auto, versus a 128kW/tonne ratio for the previous Ford Focus ST.
By comparison, current rivals range from the VW Golf GTI (124kW/tonne), Hyundai i30N (134kW/tonne to 141kW/tonne depending on the model), and Renault Megane RS (144kW/tonne to 155kW/tonne depending on the model), to the Honda Civic Type R (163kW/tonne).
The new Ford Focus ST is slightly larger than before: length (4378mm), width (1825mm), height (1458mm) and wheelbase (2700mm). The boot has 373L of space (up from 363L previously) compared to the VW Golf GTI (380L), Hyundai i30N (381L), Renault Megane RS (384L) and Honda Civic Type R (414L).
There are two ISOFIX child restraint mounts and three top tether points on the back seats. Under the boot floor is a space-saver spare, and a subwoofer.
Standard fare includes Recaro sports seats, sensor key with push-button start, dual-zone air-conditioning, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, embedded navigation, and a 10-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system.
There are two USB charge ports and two 12V power sockets inside the cabin. The switches for all four power windows have a one-touch ‘express-up’ mode.
On the safety front, the new Focus ST comes with six airbags, a five-star safety rating, a high-resolution rear-view camera with guiding lines that turn with the steering, plus front and rear parking sensors.
Advanced safety aids include autonomous emergency braking, 000 emergency assist, speed sign recognition and, on automatic models, intelligent radar cruise control that slows the car as you enter lower speed zones.
Service intervals are 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first, and capped-price servicing costs – for routine maintenance – range from $299 to $414 for each visit over the warranty period.
Ford also has a free loan car program, complimentary navigation updates, and a low-price guarantee for replacement Michelin tyres. Warranty is five years/unlimited kilometres.
On the road
Hot hatches are more about how they handle the daily grind and carve through corners than they are about 0–100km/h times. But it’s still the standard measure of performance. And we were curious to find out the difference between the manual and the auto.
The manual comes with launch control and rev-matching technology. Ford says in launch control mode it is possible to flat-shift from first to second without lifting off the throttle. We figured most owners wouldn’t do that to their own car, so we exercised mechanical sympathy instead.
After a few runs with too much power going through the front wheels, we found it was generally quicker to get off the line a little more gingerly than at the 3000rpm limit imposed by launch control.
The manual stopped the clocks on our precision timing equipment at 6.1 seconds, with second gear just pipping 100.2km/h on the GPS, ensuring the Focus ST didn’t need to shift into third.
You may see slightly better times elsewhere – there might be a tenth to be found in the manual in perfect conditions – but this was a repeatable time on a normal road surface, not a sticky drag strip.
The auto was a surprise. With no launch control, we used the brake pedal to hover around 2000rpm before letting rip, but this was met with mixed results and lost a lot of traction. After several attempts, we let go of the brake pedal at about 1200rpm to 1500rpm and delivered a cleaner start.
In the automatic, sport mode held onto the gears longer and gave a more decisive shove into the next ratio. The result: a 5.7-second time, bang on Ford’s claim.
Oddly, Ford told us the manual should be quicker because it is lighter than the auto. However, the better spread of ratios – and the lack of a brief delay when pressing the clutch to shift from first to second in the manual – gives the auto the edge in straight-line speed.
The auto made most of its ground from a standing start to 60km/h (2.93 seconds versus 3.29 seconds for the manual).
Rolling in-gear acceleration from both cars is comparable: 60km/h to 100km/h in 2.79 seconds for the auto and 2.82 seconds for the manual. In this speed range, the Focus ST comes alive.
Handling for both vehicles is identical. They both share the same triple-tube shock absorbers that adjust to the road conditions every two milliseconds, the same electronically controlled mechanical limited-slip differential, and the same super-grippy Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S tyres (235/35 ZR19) that were developed specifically for the Focus ST.
You can really feel the front end clawing its way out of corners, finding every available piece of grip.
The suspension – even in normal mode – is a bit fidgety, but it won’t break your back. In sport mode, it can be a bit nauseating on rough roads.
Although we are yet to test the new Ford Focus ST against its rivals, first impressions place it between the plushness of the VW Golf GTI and the rawness of the Hyundai i30N. That said, it depends what mode you’re in and what road surface you’re on.
Both the manual and automatic Ford Focus ST have four driving modes – wet weather, normal, sport and racetrack – which adjust throttle sensitivity, steering feel, stability control and suspension settings.
Unfortunately, you can’t mix and match modes like you can in the Hyundai i30N (or BMW M cars or Mercedes AMGs). In a perfect world, I would have everything on the Focus ST turned up to 11 except the suspension, which I would prefer to run in a softer setting.
Ford says it is considering tailor-made modes for a midlife update, but it was yet to make a decision either way.
For its part, Ford says each driving mode is designed to deliver a specific character, and some engineers in the performance team didn’t want to dilute the settings.That’s fine, but I just want the snap, crackle and pop from the exhaust without being forced to endure firm suspension.
On that note, for some reason, only the manual barks between gear changes in sport mode. The exhaust in the automatic just gets louder and drones more, and could become tiresome if this is your first hot hatch. It wouldn’t surprise me if some buyers would prefer a quiet mode. Sometimes, even revheads want a break from the fanfare.
The rapid shifts in the automatic are addictive, but for all its pace – and the stopwatch doesn’t lie – the manual feels like a more involving car to drive.
There are some other subtle differences. While the manual comes with launch control and rev-matching technology, the auto gains intelligent radar cruise control that will slow the car when it detects a sign for a lower speed zone.
This works great in principle (and did work several times on test), but the system also detected a 60km/h sign on an adjacent freeway off-ramp, and started to slow the car unexpectedly from 100km/h.
There was another electrical gremlin in both cars. With an iPhone connected to Apple CarPlay, the infotainment volume could not be adjusted and kept giving us “prompt volume” messages. It happened intermittently in both cars driven days apart. Turning the car on and off and resetting the infotainment system did nothing to fix the problem.
Those quirks aside, the new Focus ST is impressive in the areas it really counts. Not only in terms of acceleration and handling, but also the way it feels under brakes.Oddly, the braking performance is significantly better than its smaller and lighter Ford Fiesta ST sibling.
The Focus ST's discs (330mm x 27mm front, and 302mm x 11mm at the rear) are comparable in size to most other hot hatches in this price range.
While the Renault Megane RS and Honda Civic Type R have four-piston front calipers, the Ford Focus ST, VW Golf GTI and Hyundai i30N make do with floating calipers but with a large swept area.
Tyres are also a critical part of braking performance: the new Ford Focus ST went from 100km/h to 0km/h in just 34.5m. This is at the good end of the performance-car scale, and much better than the Fiesta ST (38.5m).
Overall, the new Focus ST is a welcome return to form for Ford, though it does have a distinctly different character to its smaller and more nimble sibling, the Fiesta ST. The Focus ST is epic in its own regard, but the Fiesta ST really makes you feel as though you are part of the car.
The Focus ST feels a bit more grown-up; the Fiesta ST wants to bring out the devil in you.
So, which transmission should you buy in the new Focus ST: the automatic or the manual? That’s a tough call. I don’t envy anyone having to make that decision.
The good news is you’ll have a blast either way. The heart says manual, but the stopwatch says automatic.