Monday 10th April 2006


FORD FOCUS ST

Is this just a car for wannabe racers? Andrew Noakes gets behind the wheel to find out

Ford Focus ST
Ford Focus ST

Thereís always been something about fast Fords that makes people take a second look. Something about the blue oval which makes a performance car seem attainable, maybe. Or perhaps Ford just do a good job of appealing to most of the people, most of the time. Whatever the reason, Fordís latest hot-shot hatchback, the Focus ST, turns more than its share of heads Ė even when the Electric Orange of the first press cars and the TV ads is swapped for a slightly more sober metallic blue, as on our test car.

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How does it look?

Colour apart, itís the STís wheels which make the biggest visual impression. Years ago, Ford took a side-long look at Porscheís 928 before it came up with the Ďtelephone dialí XR3 wheel, but this time the inspiration is from Italy: the ST wears Gallardo-esque 8x18in five-spokes, wrapped in slivers of Continental rubber, which fill the arches to perfection.

Other external changes are limited to sill mouldings and deeper bumpers carrying lamp units edged with brushed aluminium, the rear bumper also incorporating spurious sculpting intended to mimic a diffuser.

Inside you find grippy Recaro sports seats, either in boring black or with bright contrast trim. The rest of the interior, like that on other Foci, mostly feels like a high-quality job, though if you have an eye for detail it wonít be long before you spot some rough edges. Never mind: the point of this car is how it drives.

Engine

Up front sits a turbocharged, 2.5-litre in-line five which Ford calls the Duratec ST. Itís a revamped Volvo T5 motor with new injectors, remapped ignition, and a less massive flywheel, all of which mean the ST motor responds more crisply to throttle inputs Ė a rare pleasure in a turbo engine. Mash the pedal into the carpet until the silver-rimmed rev counter hits 6,000rpm and you will have 222bhp at your disposal, enough to propel the ST from rest to 60mph in 6.5 seconds and go on to almost 150mph.

Yet, impressive as these headline figures are, the real story of the ST is not its outright performance, but the way it delivers.

Maximum torque Ė 236lbft is available at just 1,600rpm, and the curve is flat all the way to 4,000rpm. On the road the ST seems happy to pull from any speed in any gear. Overtaking is swift and easy, even if you decide against a down-change and let the torque curve do the work. All the time you are accompanied by a quattro-esque straight-five howl through the twin centre-exit exhausts. Beyond 5,000rpm the engine begins to sound strained, but thereís rarely any need to use that many revs: if you do youíll generally be travelling so fast the noise wonít be your primary concern.

Chassis

The ST sits 15mm lower than the rest of the range, on springs which are 30 per cent stiffer at each corner. Thereís also a fatter rear anti-roll bar, and a strut brace between the suspension towers to tighten up the front end. The ride is firm but rarely harsh, and body control is first class: through a chicane or cresting a rise the ST resists sway and float, almost as though it knows which way the road is about to go as well as you do.

Find some smooth, dry tarmac, and the chassis allows you to exploit that responsive engine to the utmost. You can pour on the power on the exit of a corner without triggering massive understeer or electronic intrusion from the ESP system, and even full-bore standing starts barely get the electronic nannyís light flickering as the ST rockets away. Without ESP -- a £250 option, and it comes with an Ďoffí switch --†rapid getaways need careful throttle and clutch control to avoid epic wheelspin.

But funnelling so much urge through the front wheels was never going to be easy. Throw bumps, cambers and rain into the mix Ė and they comprised the better part of our time with the car Ė and the ST needs a firm hand to keep it on course. Itíll happily follow a camber as it accelerates, or dart from side to side over rippled tarmac with the steering wheel writhing away in your hands. On a greasy road the ESP system curtails hooligan getaways entirely if it detects the onset of serious wheelspin, throttling back the turbo five so much it feels like youíve blundered into the rev-limiter.

Bags of character

As an all-road, all-weather, A-to-B tool the Focus ST canít match the surefootedness of (more expensive) four-wheel-drive rivals. But itís not that kind of car. Delivering turbocharged grunt to all four wheels might make it easier to deploy more power more of the time, but that doesnít necessarily make for more fun behind the wheel. Clinical efficiency is all very well, but the ST has something thatís far rarer among modern cars, and thatís character. Itís genuinely fun to drive, because it demands and responds to the involvement of the driver.

Itís also something of a bargain. If you can live without our test carís ST-2 pack (£1,000-worth of Xenon lamps, heated screen and MP3-playing head unit) a three-door Focus ST starts at £17,495. Its biggest rival, the unruly 240bhp Astra VXR, is better equipped as standard, but you can add quite a few items from the STís lengthy options lists before you get near the Astraís £18,995 list price.

Or you can spend the difference making the ST even better: Graham Goode Racing, legendary tweaker of Sierra and Escort Cosworths, Imprezas and the previous-generation Focus RS is already at work on the engine and brakes.

But even in standard form, itís worth a second look.

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