The 2020 Ford Focus ST carries a burden that wasn’t anticipated for its place in the hot-hatch world.
Ford’s decision earlier this year to axe development of a next-generation RS model means the ST must now serve as the fastest Focus to challenge a gamut of rivals.
It’s not bringing a knife to a gunfight, though. Ford has installed the last RS’s 2.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine under the ST’s bonnet. And while it has been detuned, the ST still breaks 200kW for the first time in its 17-year history while also cranking up torque beyond 400Nm.
However, there’s another, less desirable first: the Focus ST smashes past $40,000 with a price tag of $44,690 before on-road costs.
For now, we’ve chosen a comparison that focuses on price, so crossed off are the more expensive Honda Civic Type R (from $51,990) and Volkswagen Golf R Final Edition (from $54,490 but also all-wheel drive to the front-drive Ford).
The still-fresh Renault Megane RS would have been an obvious inclusion, but the company didn’t have a $44,990 base model available (we’ll revisit in late 2020, though, when an upgraded RS is due). The Golf GTI, an icon of the hot-hatch class, is now auto-only, and against this pair of manual competitors doesn't align on spec or price (from $47,190).
But we do have one of our favourite hot hatches – the Hyundai i30 N that heralded Hyundai’s first performance car with quite a bang in 2017. It’s no longer the $39,990 bargain it was initially, having increased to $41,400. And with our test car featuring a $3000 Luxury Pack, it makes the pricing difference here a matter of just a few hundred dollars.
This is the fourth-generation Focus ST dating back to the ST170 sold here briefly (2003/2004) and in limited numbers, though the second iteration was dubbed XR5 Turbo by Ford Australia to neatly fit into a showroom featuring the Falcon XR6 and XR8 (and later the Fiesta XR4).
But this comparison is not about the past, it’s about the present…
Pricing and features
The price of a Focus ST has increased by 15 per cent, which is a similar rise to the also-new Fiesta ST – though the smaller hot hatch can at least claim to have added rear doors.
It seems the days of regular hatchback performance models starting below $40,000 are now gone, unfortunately.
Ford Australia has at least stacked the ST with features that are optional in other markets such as the UK. This includes wireless phone charging and a Performance Pack that adds a Track driving mode, ambient interior lighting, and – for manual variants – launch control and rev-matching technology.
There’s also an array of driver-assistance systems, including a bunch that were part of a $2000 Tech Pack on the last ST.
Recaro sports seats have previously been standard on STs, and return again in a leather/suede combination with a heating function.
Other cabin highlights include leather-wrapped steering wheel, sporty pedals, rain sensor, keyless entry/start, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and dual-zone climate control.
LEDs are used for all major exterior lighting and there’s rear privacy glass.
With the Luxury Pack added, the i30 N is able to go toe to toe with its new rival on virtually all convenience features. It also gains a notable advantage with electric adjustment for the front seats whereas the ST’s are manual only. The upholstery is leather and pseudo-suede, and there’s a heating function for the steering wheel.
Both cars have the option of a panoramic sunroof – costing $2000 on the Hyundai or $2500 on the Ford. And certain paints cost extra.
Hyundai also offers the i30 N in a Fastback body style, priced slightly higher from $42,910.
Ford Australia has chosen not to import a wagon version of the ST (which is hugely disappointing) or the ST with diesel power (which is understandable).
A first-time-ever seven-speed torque converter auto option for the ST carries no extra charge over the standard six-speed manual. An eight-speed dual-clutch auto will feature on the facelifted i30 N due in early 2021, as an alternative to the current six-speed manual that will continue.
At the time of writing, drive-away pricing was virtually inseparable: $48,561 for the i30 N and $48,921 for the ST (in NSW, on-road prices may vary by state).
Tech and infotainment
The facelifted i30 range will gain exterior and interior tweaks, though more importantly it will get upgraded driver assistance and infotainment systems. We would expect the i30 N to feature a new 7.0-inch digital driver display as standard, where it is likely to be an option elsewhere in the range.
Until then, the Hyundai is behind the Ford in both departments.
While both models feature 8.0-inch touchscreens, Ford’s SYNC 3 infotainment system is more sophisticated in both presentation and functionality. It also comes with an excellent B&O Play audio system.
It’s unclear whether the i30 N will gain a branded audio over the lacklustre incumbent system, though the display will switch to a 10.25-inch screen with upgraded interface.
Extra driver aids are coming, too, so for now the Focus ST leads with auto high beam, blind spot and rear cross-traffic monitoring, speed-limit notification, and an autonomous emergency braking (AEB) system that can detect pedestrians and cyclists as well as vehicles ahead. Hyundai’s low-speed AEB system system will add cyclist detection with the facelift.
Ford equips the auto version of the ST with adaptive cruise control. CarAdvice believes it will feature on manual versions in the not too distant future, but for now regular cruise control features, matching the i30 N.
As with other Focus models, the ST can call emergency services if it detects the lack of driver response after an incident.
The Hyundai has monitoring for driver fatigue and low tyre pressures.
Focus interiors continue to improve since the lacklustre-quality days of the Mk1 and MkII models, and the ST has a good starting point with the improvements brought by the fourth-generation regular model introduced in late 2018.
It then builds on that with requisite hot-hatch items such as its stylish and well-bolstered (Recaro) sports seats, metallic pedals, chrome-topped gear lever, a thick-rimmed steering wheel (with ‘ST’ badge), and some fake carbon-fibre trim parts.
However, some of the hard plastics carried over from regular models look even less desirable in a car approaching $50,000 on-road.
The same can be said about the i30 N, though, and neither cabin looks quite as expensively constructed and presented as the interior of the outgoing Golf GTI 7.5.
It’s all a bit austere and gloomy in the Hyundai – black plastics galore that aren’t helped by uninspiring surface textures. It was easier to reconcile when the i30 N was a sharp, sub-$40,000 proposition.
More liberal use of the WRC-inspired Performance Blue would be welcomed as it looks good where it is used – for stitching on the seats, shifter and steering wheel, as well as the drive-mode buttons on the latter.
The heavily bolstered seats are exclusive to the N in the i30 range, along with an N-mode section for the infotainment system. This allows the driver to select different settings for various vehicle areas, including steering, engine, electronic LSD, suspension and exhaust. It also provides a performance timer and can show power/torque/boost gauges.
The Focus ST puts its 5cm-longer wheelbase to good use by offering a good few centimetres of extra rear-seat leg room over the i30 N. Taller passengers will particularly notice the difference; knee room is fine in the Hyundai if average-height occupants are front and rear.
Rear head room is plentiful in both, and each car provides a centre armrest with cupholders, plus ISOFIX points on the outboard seats. Neither provides ventilation or USB ports, though. The ST includes a 12-volt socket.
Lifting the respective tailgates reveals two practical boots close in quoted capacity, with the i30’s 381L playing the ST’s 371L (up 10L on the previous ST).
Rear seats fold in a 60-40 split, though the Hyundai’s expanded cargo space is partly hindered by a rear strut brace that helps stiffen the body. You can remove it, but you'll need tools to do so.
A subwoofer and space-saver spare wheel sit under the ST’s boot floor. The i30 N just has a space-saver.
The Focus ST’s 206kW 2.3-litre engine certainly stands out in a segment where 2.0-litres are the norm (or even smaller in the case of the Renault Megane RS’s 1.8-litre).
Bigger capacity certainly helps equate to some big torque: 420Nm. That’s more than you’ll find in the more expensive Honda Civic Type R or much more expensive Mercedes-AMG A35 (both 400Nm). A Megane RS can match it, though only if you opt for the $55,990 Trophy EDC (auto).
It makes for a fantastically flexible and muscular engine that is great for both the daily commute and the weekend blast. It’s comfortable pulling from just above idle in a high gear, while on the open road its in-gear performance is nothing less than rapid.
Ford claims the ST can accelerate from 50–100km/h in just four seconds. In fourth gear.
Throttle response is impressive even in the ST’s Normal drive mode, while switching to Sport or Track engages an anti-lag system that keeps the turbine spinning when the driver has come off the throttle for a few seconds. A twin-scroll set-up for the turbo also helps to keep exhaust gases flowing nicely.
For the 0–100km/h sprint, Ford quotes 5.7 seconds for both the manual and auto variants. Colleague Josh Dowling matched that time in the auto when testing the ST for its single review, though recorded 6.1 seconds for the manual that lost most of its ground from standstill to 60km/h.
The 202kW of the i30 N’s 2.0-litre isn’t far off the ST’s peak power, though its 353Nm looks less mighty in comparison. However, an overboost function lifts maximum torque to 378Nm for up to 18 seconds when the driver is getting serious with the accelerator pedal.
It can’t match the punchiness or responsiveness of the ST, though the Hyundai’s engine counters in a couple of important areas. It makes it feel more enjoyable gunning for the redline (if not to the same extent as in a Civic Type R), whereas the ST feels more effective when shifting earlier to capitalise on that mighty mid-range grunt.
Then, with the max-attack N driving mode selected for full noise from the Electronic Sound Generator (placed at the base of the windscreen) and now fully opened ‘active’ exhaust, there are more pops and crackles than you get in the ST.
The i30 N’s engine still sounds the more natural. The ST follows previous models with a Sound Symposer and seems to be trying to imitate (unsuccessfully) the best-sounding engine to ever grace a Focus – the 2.5-litre five-cylinder of the XR5 Turbo and MkII RS.
In the battle of the gearboxes, it’s a win for the Ford. The ST’s six-speeder provides a reasonably short throw and slides smoothly and accurately from gate to gate.
The i30 N’s manual isn’t as satisfying to use – notchy and slightly stiff when engaging each gear. The weighting of the lever and clutch pedal are spot-on, though.
Both transmissions incorporate electronically controlled limited-slip differentials to help transfer all that turbo grunt through the same wheels responsible for steering.
On the road
Both hot hatches deliver excellent traction out of corners, even in the slightly damp conditions we experienced during testing. There’s minimal torque steer in the i30 N even when it’s in its most aggressive N mode, and it’s only minor in the ST when in Sport mode.
Switch the Focus to Track mode – which dials down the electronic aids and instructs the eLSD to be more aggressive – and there’s a more pronounced, temporary freezing of the steering wheel as the ST tries to shovel all its torque to the same wheels steering the car.
It doesn’t threaten to spear you off the road like a first-generation Mazda 3 MPS, and it could be argued it adds an element of enjoyable drama. As does the slight wheel spin you get as you accelerate through the lower gears once straightened up after corner exits.
It seems to cost the ST barely any momentum, and it more than compensates with its even stronger in-gear surges between corners and superior front-end grip aided by terrifically grippy Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S tyres.
The directness of the ST’s steering – currently the fastest in the Ford world, at exactly two turns lock to lock – is impressive, too. A more relaxed zone around the straight-ahead also ensures the steering doesn’t feel nervous in regular driving.
The i30 N’s rack is hardly a slouch at 2.1 turns lock to lock, and there’s a likeable meatiness to its weighting, plus ample precision.
And it remains a fabulously fun car to drive, matching the newer ST for entertaining agility with equally excellent composure on a demanding driver’s road.
While the Hyundai wears same-size (235/35R19) tyres, the Pirelli P Zeros can’t quite match the stickiness of the Ford’s Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S rubber. On a couple of steep descents, the i30 N’s brakes didn’t have the same bite as the ST’s – requiring more pedal effort and smelling a bit stinky at the bottom of the run.
The bumpier the road, however, the more suited the Hyundai is. Where the ST’s suspension is still too stiff in its Normal setting, the hottest i30 has an N Custom mode that allows the driver to have the dampers in a softer setting while other elements remain in more aggressive modes.
Hyundai has softened the suspension’s Normal mode since we last drove the i30 N, and it has made a big difference. Its extra compliance is an advantage in everyday driving, making the Hyundai not just easier to live with than before, but also compared with its new rival.
When it comes to hot-hatches that deliver a truly impressive balance of ride comfort and handling sharpness, the ST falls behind not just the i30 N but also the Megane RS Sport and Civic Type R.
And where the ST continues to rumble away with no option to dial things down if you’re looking to be more discreet, the i30 N's engine can be more muted when you want it to be.
The Focus otherwise offers a quiet cabin on the move, and its Michelins are a bit quieter over coarser surfaces than the Hyundai’s Pirellis.
The Focus ST’s Recaros also offer a better balance between comfort and support than the Recaros in the smaller Fiesta ST, providing a bit of extra room rather than giving you the feeling you’re being constantly hugged.
Neither car offers a tight turning circle at 11.3m (ST) and 11.6m (i30 N).
Ford asks between $310 and $545 for each annual ST service (or every 15,000km) adding up to $2040 over five services. It also offers a loan car for the duration you’re without your car.
Pricing is a little lower for the i30 N, which varies between $299 and $399, though Hyundai’s mileage intervals are much shorter at 10,000km. Five services tally to $1595, but depending on the distance travelled, you may need to factor in an extra service.
Both manufacturers provide five-year warranties as standard. Neither is voided by non-competitive track use.
Official fuel consumption figures are almost the same: 8.1 litres per 100km for the Focus ST (not great considering its efficiency is no better than the last RS); 8.0L/100km for the i30 N. Premium 95RON unleaded is the minimum fuel requirement in both cases.
Our testing not only confirmed the closeness of likely fuel costs, but also that both hot hatches can be relatively economical.
The main test day that included freeway driving, but also some extensive dynamic testing, brought identical average consumption figures of 9.4 litres per 100km.
When tested again for a 60km suburb-to-suburb commute including some freeway driving, the Focus ST returned a slightly lower average: 6.6L/100km v 6.8L/100km for the Hyundai.
Hot-hatch makers are making it incredibly difficult to pick the best options for buyers, because these days there simply isn’t a bad choice out there.
You wouldn’t raise our eyebrows, for example, if you ignored this duo to instead pick a Megane RS Sport.
Keeping matters strictly to the cars compared here, Ford has consistent hot-hatch form and once again delivers another highly tempting compact performance model.
While it doesn’t quite hit the highs of the Fiesta ST, the Focus ST brings superbly flexible and rapid in-gear performance, terrific front-end grip, and arguably the sweetest manual shifter in the segment after the Civic Type R. And on the practical side, there’s generous cabin space and the better infotainment system here.
An auto gearbox is also available now, and for no extra cost.
It’s a shame the engine doesn’t sound as good as it did in the last RS, though. And as a model that has matured over its predecessors – not least with the first-time option of an auto – the package would be more complete with electric front seats, customisable vehicle settings, and a smoother ride in the standard suspension mode.
The i30 N’s customisable vehicle settings are certainly a brilliant feature – as is the way you can simply press a single (steering wheel) button to put the Hyundai into full attack mode. (You have to cycle through settings for Track mode in the ST.)
A running change to the i30 N’s underpinnings has also made the Hyundai a stronger all-rounder. The ride now has noticeably more compliance in Normal mode without the hatch losing its appetite for shenanigans on a winding road.
We would just wait for the i30 N’s MY21 update – which will bring a welcome improvement in cabin technology, at least – or haggle strongly for a deal on the outgoing version.
Right now, the Focus ST and i30 N are almost inseparable – a view borne out by a split in the CarAdvice camp. Joshua Dowling would pick the ST; Justin Narayan says he’d buy the Hyundai (as you can read in his co-tester note).
As these are the most enthusiast-focused variants – with manual gearboxes – determining some form of winner comes down to a simple question: which hot hatch would we choose for our favourite piece of challenging road?
The answer from both of our testers was the i30 N.
+ Co-tester thoughts: Justin Narayan
The Hyundai i30 N goes to show that if you get the balance of the important things right, that a car will remain relevant long into time.
Out of the two, I felt the most confident behind the wheel of the Hyundai. Its approachable nature makes it the better experience on a tatty, twisty b-road, be it because of a stellar chassis tune with adaptive dampers that have such a breadth of ability, or its slightly elastic powerband that requires you to work for it.
Sprinkle on top the absolute hooligan of an exhaust that the i30 N packs, makes it quite the fun little package to beat.
It's not all praise, however – the Ford does offer quicker, arguably better steering, and more front-end grip, for that matter. The brake pedal is also more immediate in the Ford, so it does claw back points in other areas of importance.
The final area the ford strides ahead in, is its power – and more so, how it delivers it. In a straight line, on the roll, it’ll absolutely decimate the i30 N. The larger-displacement 2.3-litre engine does wonders for its huge torque figure.
It can be slightly savage, too, with the steering wheel often informing you the front tyres are having a hard time. But in some ways, it's fun, as its various traction management systems allow enough time for the wheels to spin back to having grip, without the vehicle deciding to put a lid on your good time.
However, its overly stiff nature can cause interference when trying to string it through a section of nice bends, and the steering can become corrupted when you’re trying to manage the copious amount of torque out of a bend.
It just isn’t as composed or sure-footed as the mighty Hyundai, especially on the wonderful piece of road we’d picked to play on.
Hot hatches are all for driver engagement and feel. The Hyundai nosed ahead for me in those two critical areas, which is why I believe it’s the pick of the pair.
Hyundai has set a high benchmark for the next, upcoming facelift. Hopefully they don’t change too much.