Compared to the hatchback, the bar would appear to be set a fair bit lower for Ford's new 280hp Focus ST Estate. It doesn't face a 320hp Honda Civic or a Renault Megane equipped with four-wheel steering. No, the wagon's main rival is the Skoda Octavia vRS Challenge, a less powerful and unabashedly sensible offering. There is the 300hp Seat Leon Cupra ST R, but at £37,975 that limited-edition model is close to £5k pricier than the Ford. So with its new output and up to 1,576 litres of storage space (35hp better and just four litres short of the Skoda respectively), the goal would seem to be virtually open for the Blue Oval.
Aside from a £1,100 premium and that commodious body shell, you might not think a lot differs between ST hatch and estate. And on the face of it you'd be right, because from the driver's seat the surroundings are identical, with Ford's functional Sync3 infotainment system sat atop a dashboard that's far tidier and better finished than any of its predecessors. The stuff ahead of the bulkhead is the same, too, with that RS-derived 2.3 EcoBoost providing 280hp and 310lb ft of torque (on overboost) to the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox and a BorgWarner eLSD.
Elsewhere though the wagon boasts some pretty significant differences. For starters, it's obviously heavier, with more of the weight over its rump, and it doesn't get Ford's clever CCD (Continuously Controlled Damping) system as standard, which helps the hatch actively iron out bumps and potholes. It means the estate is essentially firmer riding than the normal ST, a facet which helps it offer increased carrying capacity and towing abilities - but is not necessarily of benefit to its ride comfort. We'll come onto that.
First things first, the look. As far as the design is concerned, Ford has plainly taken a conservative approach. There's no Shooting Brake-style roofline, and aside from a pair of exhaust exits and a roof spoiler, the tail-end of the ST Estate barely differs from the regular version. But this is true of the hatch too, and the rest of the car discreetly hints at the performance on offer with standard 18-inch (or our car's optional 19s) wheels and larger vents in the front bumper. The cabin's sporting alterations centre around well-bolstered Recaro seats, which look identical to the Fiesta's but slightly wider, and an ST-badged flat-bottomed steering wheel. Elsewhere it's just a slightly plusher take on the standard Focus trimmings.
The 2.3-litre unit isn't shared though, and it feels strong thanks to a very quick throttle - a trait shared with the Fiesta ST. You could easily drive the car like a diesel if you so wished (which would be silly, given that there is a diesel ST) and simply lean on the healthy reserve of torque. The steering and clutch are light to operate, the gearbox is slick through the gate and things stay relatively subdued - save for the busyness of the ride quality on those larger alloys. It's never violent or crashy, and nor is it ever uncomfortable, but the passive suspension doesn't have the bandwidth of the adjustable system in the vRS, making the CCD-equipped hatch feel more refined, particularly at low speeds.
Still, the car's character changes quite drastically when you switch to Sport mode. There's a more gravelly tone to the four-pot - one befitting the badge - and the boost comes on strong from 2,500rpm. It's not Cupra ST R rapid, obviously, but there's ample straight-line performance and the BorgWarner eLSD does a brilliant job of juggling torque and brake on corner exits, encouraging you to chase the throttle, even on a wet surface. It offers all the security of Skoda's wagon driven down a B road - and makes good on the impression that there's 15 per cent more performance to play with.
The estate's heavier rear end does appear to add stability compared to the hatch (at least on a wet B-road), but that's easily remedied by trailing the brake with some steering lock. In fact, hold onto the middle pedal and the wagon will develop Fiesta ST-sized angles, the Sport mode's ESP only grabbing the outside rear when things get really silly. The sense of control is enhanced by the steering's quick ratio and that sharp throttle, not to mention the 310lb ft of vectored torque laid on to tidy things up.
Like the hatch, however, the chassis's inherent mobility would likely be all the more enjoyable were you able to alter the steering weight. The ST's drive modes are locked so you can't select Sport without having to endure artificial resistance, nor can you stop the auto engine blips between downshifts if you prefer to do it yourself. It also doesn't help that the brake booster (rather than a hydraulic system) can feel a little over responsive at times, making smooth inputs less intuitive. Of course, this sort of stuff matters a good deal less if you've filled the bigger boot with a chest of drawers or loft insulation or Labradors, but they're worth nothing when driver engagement ought to be one of the ST's trump cards.
Even with them in the demerit column, the new wagon brings much to the table and for the vast majority of buyers seeking a quick, practical and well-equipped machine, it's undeniably a smart buy. For the enthusiast, too, there's no shortage of giggles thanks to Ford's continuing preference for tuning mobility into its front-drive chassis. Frustratingly, the odd demerit, most notably the ride and the fixed driving modes, do deny the estate the clear advantage over the Skoda it ought to have enjoyed. The prospect of slightly better fuel economy and a switchable set of more amenable dampers will give some buyers pause - especially those with chests of drawers or loft insulation or Labradors primarily in mind. But the Focus is more fun, and that's the first quality any PHer should look to pack. Whether that USP is good enough for everyone else, we'll have to wait and see.
SPECIFICATION | 2020 FORD FOCUS ST ESTATE (Mk4)
Engine: 2,261cc, turbocharged four-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 280@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 310@3,000-4,000rpm
0-62mph: 5.8 secs
Top speed: 155mph
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