No car is launched in 2019 entirely without significant expectation behind it, though the pressure for the new Focus ST to deliver must rank as higher than most. Not only are there illustrious forebears to consider - a legacy that new extends back to the middle of the last decade - there's the precedent established by the Fiesta ST to maintain and the calibre of the hot hatch class to contend with. It's expected to be good, because Ford has been making great hot hatches for a while now, but it also needs to be very good, such is the quality of rival it faces. Pretty decent just won't cut it.
Sadly an exact appraisal of its talents will have to wait a few more weeks; until then we have the full lowdown of the ST from Leo Roeks, Director of Ford Performance in Europe, plus a passenger ride in the car at Ford's notoriously demanding Lommel test track. Full disclosure: assessing a car from the passenger seat feels like reviewing a restaurant with someone else eating the food. You'll get a good impression, but there's a rather critical bit missing from the experience. Still, something has to be better than nothing, and in the case of the new ST there are certainly a number of encouraging things that can be appreciated even from the wrong seat.
The engine for a start. A reworked version of the entry-level Mustang unit, with the anti-lag turbo technology first seen in the GT, the 2.3-litre Ecoboost makes 280hp and 310lb ft. That latter figure is notable for being the highest in the class (a Civic Type R makes 295lb ft), surely a benefit of the extra capacity over predominantly 2.0-litre rivals, and is likely to dominate the driving experience. Or passengering experience, at any rate. The ST punches through its mid-range gear after gear, promising much for the accessibility of its performance on actual roads. It feels strong and willing, and is said to match an old Focus RS for both in gear performance and quarter-mile time. Still, it probably is a fair bit lighter...
It sounds great, too; naturally an element of it is manufactured, both through exhaust tuning and the Engine Sound Enhancement - though where isn't sound manipulated to some extent nowadays? It only becomes a problem when it's badly done. Here there's a rorty, purposeful induction note with a very silly overrun gurgle as well, adjustable through the drive modes - more on which in a sec - yet never overdone. Where a Golf GTI tends to emit a rather artificial drone and an i30 N is almost gratuitous in its tailpipe trumping, this seems a nice compromise.
Probably the most significant chassis introductions for this ST, beyond moving to the new Focus chassis architecture, are the limited-slip diff and the Continuously Controlled Damping (CCD) system. The former is a BorgWarner mechanical unit, with the software then set up by Ford to be adjustable by the driver through those drive settings. Given the old ST could get a little wayward at the limit, it sounds like an eminently sensible move given the 12 per cent increase in power and 17 per cent jump in torque. On fleeting experience here it seems to be doing the job, generating those numbers into forward motion rather than squandering it through wheel spin.
Continuously Controlled Damping is available only on hatchback STs, and in two forms: the standard form, as the name suggests, is always reading the road surface and adjusting the damping force as it deems appropriate. With the optional Performance Pack - which also includes rev matching, a shift light, red brake calipers and flat shift capability - the CCD can be set to different parameters in the drive modes. The graphs to explain it are all a bit baffling, but the idea is to give the damping greater bandwidth; the standard CCD will operate in its window, the optional system then available to tailor its attitude to the situation - meaning that the normal made is more comfy than the standard setting and the sportier ones tangibly firmer.
All test cars were fitted with the Performance Pack. It'll come as little surprise to discover that its showing at a Ford test centre was impressive, though the poise and fluidity on some really iffy surfaces does bode well for driving in the UK. Typically it's a knack that Ford does rather well - thanks, you'd have to assume, to extensive testing in Wales and similar locations - and, even if the RS was a bit too tough, there's reason to be encouraged by the ST.
As for the rest of the dynamics, it's challenging and probably unwise to say too much definitively from the wrong seat. What can be concluded from observation is the newly reworked steering - just two turns lock to lock - doesn't ever require much more than a wrist twirl to negotiate a turn. Traction appears to be good, too, Roeks asserting that the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyre is as good as road tyres get. Though there's plenty more to be discovered about just how the ST drives - which we'll come back to soon.
Ford, for its part, was keen to discuss the DNA now running through all its Performance cars. While it's hard to see how much is really shared between a hot hatch and a supercar, the stated aim of delivering a linearity in the driving experience does have relevance. Roeks uses the phrase "friction fetishist" in his presentation, which sounds a lot weirder than it is. Basically he wants no slack in the controls; meaning the stiction and resistance which can blight steering systems, pedal feel, gearshift - almost anything, really - to prevent a consistent, linear feel from being delivered. If the response is linear then it's predictable, and predictable is enjoyable.
That's not just by Ford standards, either. The Focus was extensively tested against what will most likely be its three main rivals: the Civic Type R, i30 N and Golf GTI. Certainly if this ST can combine the best elements of those cars - the circuit finesse of the Civic, the fizzy excitability of the i30 N and the sophistication of the Golf - while improving on what was good about the ST before, then it could be something very special indeed.
So that it might achieve that lofty aim, modifications include a 10mm drop in ride height (with springs stiffer by 20 per cent at the front, and 13 per cent at the rear), new suspension knuckles and some significant brake upgrades - 330/302mm discs with uprated pads and an Electronic Brake Booster now feature as standard. The seven-speed automatic option is a conventional torque converter, issues around reliability - plus the fact that good autos have improved their shift speeds - meaning that a dual-clutch wasn't deemed prudent. The six-speed manual is borrowed from other Fords in the range, but with a shorter shift and bespoke ratios here. As for the drive modes, the all Focus STs get Slippery, Normal, Sport and Track, adjusting pretty much everything: sound, damping, steering, throttle response, limited-slip diff and the brake booster. There's so much adjusted, in fact, that Ford opted against an individual mode, claiming that most customisable modes are set once then left and that this much choice could be bewildering. Let's see how that bears out on the road; for the Fiesta ST the settings felt a little superfluous, though that could change here. For the first time, too, the mode selector is on the steering wheel, and there's a Sport mode hot key, like an M button in a BMW.
It's a lot to take in, and signifies just how thorough the ST overhaul has been despite a slightly demure styling makeover. With good foundations in the Mk4 Focus architecture, plus the formidable reputation established by Ford Performance since its formation in 2009, there's certainly cause to believe to that this ST could well be another corker. We'll know for certain come the summer.