The Ford brand and performance are inexorably linked. From the mighty, Le Mans-winning GT40 to the world championship-conquering RS rally machines, from muscle cars like the Mustang to hot hatchbacks like the Focus ST, the Blue Oval is no stranger to the world of speed and burning rubber. The latest-generation Focus ST appears poised to continue that tradition. By DEON SCHOEMAN.
The hot hatch segment is a bit like an automotive boxing ring. All the big names compete in this sector, and every contender wants to be the best: the fastest, most powerful, most attractive (and these days, most economical) performance hatchback in the world.
It also helps that the pocket rocket segment attracts substantial global volumes, ensuring success here translates into attractive sales volumes, with equally appealing profits.
Volkswagen’s Golf GTI is a good case in point. The first-generation GTI pioneered the hot hatch segment back in the early 1980s and, six generations later, the VW tar-burner remains one of the brand’s sales success stories – and the benchmark by which all others are judged.
Of course, there are many pretenders to that throne. Some, like the Renault Mégane RS, are dynamically superior, but don’t enjoy quite the same level of brand equity to square up to the GTI fight with any real chance of victory.
Others, like the Audi S3 and BMW’s M135i, have to throw in the towel simply because their premium positioning goes hand in hand with equally premium pricing.
Enter the Ford Focus ST. One of Ford’s performance car stalwarts, the ST even spawned a World Rally Championship contender. In standard road trim, it has also been one of the GTI’s closest, and most persuasive rivals. And the limited-edition RS version was one of the world’s best. Period.
All of which makes the debut of an all-new Focus ST a red-letter event – especially since it will have to face the even newer Golf 7 GTI from mid-2013.
While the previous ST was a worldwide success, and found many willing buyers in South Africa, it wasn’t without its flaws.
The five-cylinder turbo engine was heavier and bulkier than its four-cylinder rivals. And it didn’t like the Reef’s combination of high altitude, poor fuel and summer heat, which would lead to the engine management system retarding the timing, to the detriment of absolute power output.
Torque steer and generally less than refined road manners were further blots on the ST’s copybook. But it was rapid, robust and fun to drive nonetheless, and was never scared of picking a fight with any member of the hot hatch brigade.
After much anticipation, the new-generation Focus ST has finally made its South African debut. It’s a significant car for Ford, not only because of the halo effect this flagship model has on the rest of the Focus range, but also because this is Ford’s first global ST.
Thus, while the previous model was very much a product of Ford Europe, and therefore biased towards the Continent’s buyers, development of the new ST was a joint effort between the US, Europe and the Far East, with often divergent preferences and conditions taken into account.
In short, the Focus ST is Ford’s global express – and that’s quite a title to live up to...
Let’s start with the styling. Aesthetically, the latest Focus lacks the clean elegance of its predecessor. The lines and contours have become more complex, while the hatchback is also bulkier.
The ST perpetuates some of these styling traits, but adds some welcome presence and aggression. The bolder front end is dominated by larger, hungrier air intakes and a lower airdam, while a lower stance and bigger wheels create a poised, almost crouching look.
Ironically, the rear view is the most attractive, due mostly to the innovative dual-exhaust tailpipe, mounted centrally in the drawn-down apron. The roof-mounted spoiler confirms the ST’s dynamic aspirations. Colour-coding is meant to contribute cohesion, but the result is more homogenous than attractive.
The cabin is dominated by the welcome sight of tailored Recaro high-backed bucket seats. Not only do they look the part, but also create an up-close-and-personal relationship between car and driver.
Once snugly ensconced, that dialogue couldn’t be more direct, with a grippy, thick-rimmed steering wheel, stubby gear shift lever and well-positioned pedals provide adding further tactile appeal.
Pity then, that the fascia isn’t as intuitive. The basic instruments are well presented and neatly recessed to ensure legibility. An information display between the speedometer and rev counter shows trip data.
The centre console is much more complex, and much less intuitive. It’s dominated by the standard infotainment system, which not only offers radio and music playback, but also interacts with cellphones to provide on-the-move connectivity and communication. There’s even voice control.
Three small instrument dials on the dashboard look too much like an aftermarket afterthought, but provide at-a-glance data on turbo boost, oil pressure and oil temperature.
The ST comes in two flavours – ST1 and ST3 – with the latter adding leather, full climate control (as opposed to manual air-con), xenon headlights and daytime running lights to the ST1’s already comprehensive list. Frankly, I prefer the ST1’s cloth upholstery.
However, it’s the dynamic behaviour of the hatchback that matters most – and prepare to be impressed. One of the biggest changes from the previous model is the use of a more compact, lighter and more advanced four-cylinder 2.0-litre turbo engine.
The mill also delivers more muscle – a full 184kW to be exact, which is a fair bit more than the older model, despite the drop in engine capacity. And thanks to clever engine management, direct injection and variable valve timing, the 360Nm torque peak is already on song at just 2,000rpm, and then sustained to 4,500rpm.
The Focus feels eager from the word go, and it also sounds the part – unusual for a turbocharged car. There’s a nice, muscular burble that rises into a glorious roar as the revs pile up.
As one would expect of a modern turbo car, bottom-end grunt and in-gear tractability is impressive. The ST launches off the mark with all the shove of a steam train, and sustains that urge as long as you keep the loud pedal slammed against the firewall.
The factory figures claim a 0-100km/h sprint time of 6.5sec, and thanks to a tall sixth gear, maximum speed tops out at just under 250km/h. But that’s really of academic interest, only: it’s the overall driving experience that impresses here.
The new ST is a more sophisticated car than its predecessor, but if anything, driving it is a more visceral, more involving experience. The steering is nicely weighted, despite the electric assistance, and turn-in is precise without being exaggerated.
Turn off the stability control, and the rear will step out smoothly when coming off the gas in mid-corner, tightening the line but always heading steering input. The chassis feels taut and composed, and there’s loads of grip from the bespoke Goodyear rubber.
Add an engine that’s always got some shove to spare, and a decent set of brakes to rapidly shave off speed if you have to, and the Focus ST delivers a very rewarding, highly entertaining drive.
The gearshift feels positive and snappy, and the pleasantly light clutch action means that swapping cogs is never a chore – proof that there’s still a place for manual gearboxes at a time when paddle-shift dual-clutch transmissions seem to be taking over.
It certainly makes for a more engaging driving experience, and rekindles enthusiasm for the fine but dying art of heel-and-toeing on downshifts.
Of course, even hard-core enthusiasts can’t drive the ST as if they’ve stolen it all the time. The good news is that the hot Focus is quite happy in urban traffic, or just cruising at the legal limit. The ride is composed, but still pliant enough for decent comfort, and while you get to hear the engine, it’s never too obtrusive.
On a practical level, rear accommodation is good by hatchback standards, and at 316 litres the boot is reasonable, if not exactly capacious. Claimed combined cycle fuel consumption stands at 7.2 litres/100km, but much depends on how heavy that right foot is!
So, should the folk at VW be worried? Put it this way: the new Focus ST has plenty to offer: good packaging, an excellent drivetrain, keen road manners and plenty of brio. Besides, at R309k or so for the ST1, great value also belongs on the long list of attributes.
However, Golf 7 is just months away, and when the new GTI arrives around mid-year, the ST will have a real fight on its hands. I sense it’s a prospect Ford, and its fans, are relishing... DM
Ford Focus ST1